When Should Critics Shut Up? Ask Louise Kennedy of the Boston Globe

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louisekennedyI don’t mean to start a ruckus with the title of this post, making it sound as if I’m sneaking an attack on Louise Kennedy, chief theater critic for the Boston Globe, for writing a think piece in which she admits that theater simply fails to shock her anymore. It’s rather a fine piece, actually, especially so in the sense that most critics couch their views, obviously, within the context of whatever they’re opining on, more than in a sort of crunchy-granola, here’s-what-I’m-feeling sort of way. Indeed, I think pieces in major dailies tend to skew toward the heady, more driven by the dictum that critics ought to be setting or identifying trends than using print or digital ink to experience psychological or aesthetic breakthroughs, or to offer a warm window into their percolating souls.

But Kennedy goes there. Yet if you read her article, what’s shocking, frankly, is the forcefield of anger in the form of comments left by readers that have been generated by her piece. It’s a classic case of careful-what-you-write-about, and it’s a shame. No, I don’t agree with Kennedy very often (and the disagreement, in any event, could only be about the plays themselves, not the productions, since I don’t get to Boston nearly as much as I’d like), but she’s certainly been at the Globe for some time and articulates her views with verve and honesty, which is just about all you can ask of a critic in the first place. Um, right?

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First Kennedy establishes the idea that theater cannot shock her anymore. She can be “irritated, titillated, insulted, or annoyed,” she can be bored, but she can’t be shocked. Clearly it bothers her, otherwise she wouldn’t write:

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I’ve been trying to figure out why. After all, some of the plays I’ve seen deal with unquestionably disturbing subjects, from child abuse to incest to torture to rape, while others use a whole sex shop’s worth of props to shove their daringness in the audience’s face. Many do both, and they may also throw in a few hairpin-sharp twists to keep a viewer off balance. And yet, somehow, they fail to shock.

Take David Harrower’s “Blackbird,” which recently closed at SpeakEasy Stage Company. (And, by the way, if you hate spoilers, this article isn’t for you.) It shows us two people discussing their former love affair – except that it turns out he was 40 and she was 12 when they had sex.

He has done time, moved to another town, changed his name; she grows up, sees his picture in a magazine, confronts him at work; they argue, reminisce, almost have sex on the break-room floor. Along the way, we learn that their feelings about each other and about what happened between them are more complicated than the clinical language of pedophilia and child abuse would allow them to express.

To which I can only say: Well, no kidding. Life is always more complicated than the labels we give it. Human beings – all human beings – are a mess of motives and schemes, some noble and some horrific, and they find an infinite number of ways to act out or repress their desires, very few of which can be reduced to neat categories. (Besides, didn’t Harrower ever read “Lolita”?) To pretend, by suspensefully withholding and then dramatically unveiling this information, that you are shocking me is to condescend to my intelligence, as a theatergoer and as a human being.

These four graphs, meanwhile, raise a question: Is it that Kennedy can’t be shocked or that she can’t be uncynical? Is it not the case that there seems to be, burbling just beneath these graphs, a willful resistance to subject matter (“Well, no kidding”)? It seems to me that if you’re a theater critic, your primary responsibility is to find the possibility of the story — whether old and oldly told, old and newly told, or new and being told for the first time — inherently valuable, inherently jazzing, inherently interesting. Kennedy vividly describes the onset of her longueur:

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The more I hear that a play is full of startling revelations, daring honesty, fearless confrontations with hard truths, the more I dread what I’ll be seeing onstage. I do try to lay aside my dread, not least because I believe absolutely in reviewing the play, not the hype, but also because I always hope for a real theatrical experience in the theater. Too often, however, I find that the advance word is only building on the hyped-up contents of the play itself; the playwright, not the publicist, is the one imagining that he’s shocking the bourgeoisie rather than trotting out old tropes and twists we’ve seen too many times before.

To which I want to say: Why is she worrying herself with what other people, or marketing campaigns, or background materials, hearsay, or rumor are saying about a piece? Not everyone can choose to expose themselves to such bits of information and then compartmentalize their minds in such a way as to prevent being influenced by it all. What place does “hype” or “advance word” have in their evaluation process of a critic? (Psst: not much, dears.)

Clearly frustrated with her ennui and perhaps feeling guilty about it, Kennedy pivots toward the classical world for a spot of strong emotional tea and sympathy:

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For my money, if you want real shock, it’s hard to do better than Shakespeare and the Greeks. There’s no shortage of gore – gouged eyes, murdered children, homicide, suicide, patricide – but the gore always means something. And – crucially, I think – the action unfolds in language, more than in elaborate visual effects. Heck, the Greeks don’t even let anyone get killed onstage; we just hear about it afterward, in some of the most powerful stage speech you’ll find anywhere.

Ouch. But, as I said at the top of this post, the real pain comes at the end of Kennedy’s story. The comments are just, well, shocking. Here are two of them, with the appellations used by the commenters attached:

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Backstgartist:
Seriously, Louise Kennedy? Theatre is just out there, trying to survive in a world where TV and film rule, and if you’re so bored with it, take a hike. Your reviews are rarely on par with what the general public thinks (seriously, you liked “How Shakespeare Won the West”? I’m still confused by that. And yet you panned other much worthier shows).

Boston Globe, you need someone with a fresh eye in this spot for a while. Someone who can go to the theatre with some sense of joy and anticipation, rather than a bored, cynical look at what has become no more than a dull job.

PhilReadsPaper:
Lead critic for The Boston Globe (the “paper of record” for Boston”) reviews the internationally performed play called “Blackbird” by London award-winning playwright David Harrower.

This is not a play written by a Boston playwright. This is not a play ever witnessed/performed in Boston. It’s a Boston Premiere. The Red Sox are in Florida and the Queen is in London. And in Boston we have the Boston Premiere
of a new play by a Britsh playwright. This is big news for Boston. Even Bigger than the World Series if you care about culture.

The play has been performed many times, in many cities, and reviewed by critics and journalists “of record” internationally. Ms. Kennedy has the opportunity to scribe her opinion on international newprint and online. After all, The Boston Globe (and www.boston.com) is read all over the world.

Boston should be thrilled that such an international and controversal play has been produced in Boston. These facts are available to the journalistic talents of Ms. Kennedy.

In the leading Boston critics review, Ms. Kennedy’states: “There. Is. Nothing. There.”

Ok, fair enough. Ms. Kennedy feels “nothing”.. that is a quote. Well, dear reader, I saw the Boston production twice, and BOTH times people were sobbing towards the end of the production.

They.
Felt.
Something.

The woman sitting next to me felt something. She was sobbing during the last 15 minutes of the production.

But, you, dear reader, are paying The Boston Globe for a journalist to tell you “There. Is. Nothing. There”.

You read that. You feel that at your breakfast table.
There. Is. Nothing. There. People log onto www.boston.com
and read that about the play they may have left or the play they sobbed at.

Ok, you don’t want to pay money to see that production.
Ms. Kennedy has writen in the Boston Globe that “There. Is. Nothing. There.”

Who is Ms. Kennedy? Have you had dinner with her?
Have you read a book about dramatic writing by her?
Has she writen a play you enjoyed? Have you agreed with
her journalism reporting on ART or other local reporters.
Have you enjoyed reading Ms. Kennedy’s reviews of plays
in London or Paris?

Has Ms. Kennedy directed or produced a play in Boston that you paid money to see?

You are an intelligent reader…
What does

“There. Is. Nothing. There.” mean to you?

I read the review BEFORE I saw the production, dear reader.

What do you think?

Ms. Kennedy. Has. Nothing. There. She says that herself.
She feels nothing.

Twice. I saw people crying or effected by the production.
Twice. Something. Emotional. Happened.

“Journalist” Kennedy didn’t have an Emotional. Happening.
Her review said “There. Is. Nothing. There”.

A journalist reports the news and provides analysis. I maintain that Ms. Kennedy did NOT report the news and she admits to feeling nothing. Perhaps the people crying and sobbing at the performance I attended felt “Nothing”. But I doubt they were asking for money back. Instead they are cancelling their subscription to the leading paper of Boston for the incompetance of it’s theater critic.

Ms. Louis. Kennedy. Feels. Nothing.

And even worse, dear reader, she is telling you, in her private, emotional, inexperience, that SHE FEELS NOTHING.
WHO is she to tell you that? You believe her because her
words are in the Boston Globe?

I look foward to future reviews by Ms. Kennedy when she attends premieres in Paris and London and tells us how
her vast emotional experience has warranted us paying her
respect and reading her savvy reviews in the Boston Globe.

I do expect my money to read the Globe to pay for a theater critic who can FEEL EMOTION and has the ABILITY
to distinguish between WRITING and PRODUCTION.

Ignorance is Bliss. I just don’t want to pay for someone else’s Bliss.

This level of upset — I wouldn’t call it outrage, just dissatisfaction — tells us something about what the average reader of a major daily (both of them?) wants from a critic. Kennedy, I believe, wants to give that to her readers. But she is beset with trouble, I guess, coming up with compelling reasons why.

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