On Critics and Criticism

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I’ve debated for about a month now whether to blog about the February 2008 issue of American Theatre, which was fashioned loosely around the idea of theatre criticism — its antecedents, its current currency, its future. I was sort of hoping TCG would post the articles on line, but the only one I can find is this Q&A called The Critic as Thinker, with Roger Copeland moderating a trialogue between Robert Brustein, Eric Bentley, and Stanley Kauffmann, who combined have 4,500 years of experience between them. And who, while making great points and offering great advice, insight, and a sweeping sense of retrospection, managed to depress the daylights out of me in the process. That these men are the totems — that these men, I ought to say, remain the totems — makes me terribly nervous about the future of theatre criticism. Which is largely what the American Theatre issue is all about.

Sure, sure, Mark Blankenship wrote about his “controlled experiment” in another piece, the well named Should You Take a Critic to Lunch? (the answer is yes), featuring critics and artists from Denver, Nashville and San Francisco, and investigated how, and to what extent, the two interact. Nice work from Mark, although I’d have preferred to have seen, in addition to his piece, a more philosophical think piece that would investigate why such interactive dynamics between critics and artists are seen in our current theatrical marketplace as anomalous — given that, once upon a time, it was commonplace, perhaps even expected, for there to be casual and professional symbiosis between craftsfolk and those who criticize their work.

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I was reminded of this the other day when I wrote about Mike Daisey’s essay. Among other things, there’s something very wrong with an art form that leaves critics no other choice, if they should want to communicate with artists, but to do so via blog. Not to rag on blogs, mind you; I already did enough of that earlier in the week and clearly have my own talents for unvarnished bloviation.

My point is, I could have of course sent Mike an email directly, but the blogosphere seems to be the current equivalent of the town pub or the theatre lobby — and so that’s where I choose to convene. It also seems much more inevitable that critics and artists will interact in places like Denver or Nashville or even San Francisco because the size of the theatre communities there are so much smaller than places like New York, which I know is integral to the arguments of Scott Walters and Zach Mannheimer that we should take our surplus of artists and haul them, by the train to Dachau if necessary, to those parts of the nation that are theatrically underserved. To me, this argument is weak because articles such as Mark’s are proof that folks in Nashville don’t need folks in New York telling them what they need.

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The critic-artist dynamic is also inevitable in smaller market because critics are, more and more, also functioning as the feature writers and the writers of advance pieces; bloggers are helping to expand coverage of those markets, and bloggers, so far as I know, are more likely to be theatre folk themselves, or at least feel freer about commiserating with theatre folk.

I was particularly interested, too, in what TCG Executive Director Teresa Eyring wrote in her monthly column, to which she gave the title This Art Is Mine:

Theatres and critics stand at an electrifying place in time. More people want to play. And there are more tools to play with, both in terms of content and technology.

And that brings me to another piece in American Theatre: a long essay by Randy Gener that eluded me at times but intrigued me. It’s called Notes on Heart and Mind: Or, the Promise of Theatre Criticism in the Republic of Broken Dreams.

Randy’s piece partly considers the effects of media consolidation on theatre criticism specifically and arts criticism generally, and there’s an understandably sad, lamenting tone to it. Like Randy, I was a fellow at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s Critics’ Institute (him in 2003, me in 2004) and I, too, am somewhat alarmed by the various trends in the field, none of which are especially positive. I teach at the O’Neill every year now, and the prospects for the fellows after leaving the O’Neill are terrible. Yet these writers soldier on because they must.

I should add that there are great blog posts about Randy’s article: one from Stage Matters and one from Jay Rasknolnikov; the latter’s post has the provocative title “Do We Have the Theatre Our Critics Deserve?”

Jay’s includes a few quotes from Randy’s piece, and I’d like to post some thoughts about them. The first quote is:

The vast majority of critics languish somewhere in a floating middle, grateful to have managed for so long, their work perennially underpaid, their value in both the theatre an journalism professions constantly under-minded, and yet still in love with the theatre. Over time, some of these long-practicing critics ease into the mind-deadening habit of writing 250-to-500-word capsule reviews, or they con themselves into believing that the seasonal doldrums, come awards time, amount to theatrical sizzle. . . .

I suppose this is true, but let’s also be blunt: most critics aren’t all that stellar at what they do to begin with. Seriously, from a literary point of view, read some of our critics sometime and see if you can ignore the strain to be clever, to dance merrily with the well-turned jibe, dig, or pithy and cutesy ha-ha-ho-ho-hee-hee.

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Part of the problem, too, is that most critics have no practical experience on the stage. That’s why, at the end of my response to Mike Daisey, I made sure he’s knows that I’ve written plays and staged lots and lots of plays by others; that I’ve produced more than my fair share of beer-bust fundraisers; that I’ve whacked more than a few rusty nails into stolen flats and two by fours; that I’ve gone into hock on behalf of cockamamie plays I didn’t believe in and on behalf of plays I’d have given over my life for; that I’ve played to four people in the theatre, six people in the theatre, eight people in the theatre, no people in the theatre, and been ignored by the critics regardless of attendance; that I’ve starved and I’ve celebrated, done brilliant work and crappy work and I’ve done enough theatre to understand the goddamn difference.

There is a part of me that finds it incredibly ironic to be known mostly as a critic now because it was the last thing I intended to pursue professionally. Until 1999, I was working temp jobs and developing new work and struggling. I turned 30, directed my 40th play, went to the ATM machine and nothing came out. I was done. Well, sort of.

And I am grateful: having done theatre informs my criticism. That’s not a new statement I’m making, nor am I making it particularly insightfully. But my own experience is why I’m not at all convinced that all 500-word reviews are, to use Randy’s word, mind-deadening: 100 words is as deadening as 1,000 or 10,000 words if the critic’s writing is deadening in the first place. Indeed, I’m on the fence as to what degree the real issue in contemporary criticism is word count. Not all theatre is created alike: is 2,000 words really going to be necessary to review Boeing Boeing, the 1960s play that’s coming to Broadway this spring? I mean, ok, maybe it’ll be some far-out, revelatory and phatasmagorical paean to free love, gag comedy and potheads, but more likely I think 500 words will furnish readers with enough of a sense of story, plot, casting and value to go back to reading Gawker.

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Are there differences between criticism and reviewing? Of course. And there should be a place for both — and the fact there isn’t much of one, as my archenemy George Hunka suggested once, is unfortunate. But I don’t think, as George also suggested once, that’s because American critics aren’t capable of writing long-form criticism, either in book form or in periodicals. I’m not sure critics actually pitch such books in the first place.

And that brings me, more generally, to a little bit of obviousness. We critics lament the lack of space, especially for long-form writing, but we take it for granted that the average reader wants more verbiage. I’m not even sure theatre people want more verbiage. One reason why column inches are cut and cut and cut and cut and cut and cut is because survey after survey indicates that readers don’t read criticism that’s too long, however one defines that. I know this because I’ve seen such surveys.

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Randy also writes:

American critics are trained to be witty aesthetes, quip-happy gatekeepers who see every play as an invitation to outshine the murk being evaluated. Frequently they are hit-seekers rather then theatregoer; they look fully animated and alive only when discussing a show’s commercial possibilities. Will it sell? If it won’t why not? Being better read, better educated and better exposed to theatre than most Americans doesn’t always ensure that critics see the purpose of criticism, its mission or potential. Why aren’t critics arguing that a healthy arts-critics scene is vital to the establishment of a free and advanced society?

Gosh, if only American critics were trained to be aesthetes. Not true. If they were aesthetes they wouldn’t laud crap. Period. And insofar as the purpose of criticism, we shouldn’t bully ourselves into thinking there’s but one philosophy for criticism out there. Indeed, in the Brustein-Bentley-Kauffmann threeway (picture that at your own risk), a reference is made to a phrase Bentley coined: consumer guide. As Bentley is a Marxist (or was, or something), his point is reviewers ought to function as verbal Zagats for the masses. I, however, don’t see this is the purpose of criticism (or reviewing). But here’s another thing: Bentley is a Marxist (or was, or something). Kindly name a critic who is known in a large way in terms of his (or her) political beliefs and who, owing to that, demonstrates through criticism the manner by which their beliefs infiltrate and determine that criticism. What is gone is the nexus between politics and theatre in terms of criticism. Thank God it’s still on the stage.

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