Stop Talking About Criticism and Start Doing It Already


In recent months, the avalanche of rants, screeds, postscripts, hosannas, warnings, manifestos and flatulence-inducing diatribes excoriating the so-called sorry state of theater criticism has become a joke. And not a funny one.

Everyone is in on it, including yours truly, but the joke is increasingly on us all. Drip, drip, drip, drip — the old guard, terrified down to their adult diapers that old media will die and leave them without enough reason to continue on as ego-driven twits, thinks it can reestablish a secure beachhead for print criticism by tearing down blog critics, as this recent essay by Benedict Nightingale, of the London Times, recently did.

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It’s all just lame. Lame, lame, lame. And pathetic. Instead of writing criticism, more and more critics are writing about criticism.

Mind you, among British critics of the last, say, 30 years, I very much like Nightingale’s analytical eye: Front Row Center: A Critic’s Year On and Off Broadway, which chronicles the season he spent writing about Gotham theater for the New York Times during the 1983-84 season, was one of the first book-length critical (and chatty) examinations I ever read.

Yet unlike, for example, Michael Billington at the Guardian, who struck me as waving a white flag last February when he articulated what he believes is necessary to be a critic without going out of his way to slam bloggers, Nightingale seems to feel that, in order to save himself, he must destroy others:

We catch the excitement and immediacy of the event, complete with the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd.

….So is there a case to be made for our endangered species? Surely so. The image of the theatre critic as a bug-eyed destroyer is ludicrous. Most of us became critics because we love the theatre and, while battling the meretricious or shoddy, are thrilled when we’re able to chronicle a promising career, point to achievement and, maybe, discover greatness. And, yes, we possess the knowledge to do so with some authority. Think of us as educated and experienced audience members, not some snooty elite from another planet.

…at the very least we provide a consumer service that’s less erratic and more informed than amateur bloggers can provide and, at the very most, we monitor, explain, encourage, enable…

I want to reiterate something I’ve written before and shall no doubt write again: good writing is good writing. I made the fatal mistake, some time ago, of assuming that all theater bloggers out there are serious critics in the sense that I, from time to time, style myself: students of the drama; academically educated and practically experienced in the art form. Not so. With all due respect for my theater-blogger colleagues, there is a difference between fan sites, personal musings and serious criticism presented in blog form. It took me a while to get that. So to the degree that Nightingale is familiar with any of the theater bloggers in those categories, perhaps there is something of a point to be made. At the same time, there is something pathetic about the way more and more old-media critics are clinging to yesteryear’s fine glories, like European royalty and nobility as World War I raged on and on and on. Enough already. You want serious criticism? Write it. If you have to tear down other people to build yourself up, then it’s you who has the problem. I did not always think this, but now I think I do.