I want to take a stab at the beginnings of a conversation about mainstream theater criticism—one that I expect to evolve over the course of my writing.
In the process of working on a show, the review is one of the easiest things to get riled up about. We lament (or sometimes rejoice at) the power of the New York Times, at Ben Brantley’s irresponsibility, at spectators’ inability to decide for themselves.
The commercial element complicates things further. Reviews affect ticket sales, which affect the perceived merit and life span of a show (both presently and in terms of future incarnations). I’ve read critics describe themselves as being on the “buyer’s” end of things—and though on some level they are, this isn’t totally accurate. The review itself is a commodity, one that hopefully will attract subscriptions or, more likely, clicks. So in some cases there is an impulse to entertain or sensationalize that gets added on top of the already dicey task that is the subjective arbitration of taste.
And even within this seemingly antagonistic relationship both parties have similarly vested interests. They are simultaneously at odds with each other while also fundamentally symbiotic. Without a thriving theater scene a critic is out of a job. The critic, in turn, can help the theater scene thrive.
Margo Jefferson visited a class of mine once and stated that she feels that her goal as a critic is to “promote the art I love.” Certainly this seems a worthy interpretation of criticism and a lovely sentiment. And Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal has stirring things to say about the work he has done to promote regional theater (which, god knows, needs to be promoted.):
In a nutshell, what I’m trying to do at the Journal is tell American theatergoers that you don’t have to go to Broadway, or to New York, to see a first-rate show. You can do it right where you live, wherever you live. Beyond that, I’m trying to get my readers to start thinking of Chicago and Washington and Philadelphia and San Francisco—as well as Spring Green, Wisconsin, Ashland, Oregon, and Lenox, Massachusetts—as destination cities for theater. Places to which you can go specifically to see theater, the way people go to New York to see theater.
Full text of this speech here.
That seems symbiotic.
Dave Cote of Time Out New York has a different take on a similar theme. In an interview with The Guardian he implies that by weeding out the chaff, the critic elevates and promotes the profession:
We critics, reviewers, consumer reporters—call us what you will—are the dung beetles of culture. We consume excrement, enriching the soil and protecting livestock from bacterial infection in the process. We are intrinsic to the theatre ecology. Eliminate us at your peril.
(Now a caveat: I do question the utility of comparing theater to excrement (though to be fair likening reviewers to dung beetles is only mildly more flattering). But here he seems to be guilty perhaps of prioritizing verve over linguistic responsibility. Caveat over.)
These views seem to be two sides to a similar coin. By promoting or panning, they keep the theater community responsible and allow it to thrive. But isn’t promotion the task of marketing and public relations? And I don’t believe we need to be protected from “bad” theater. It is a judgment deeply embedded in one’s personal taste. And let’s be honest, “bad” theater will proliferate no matter what we read. And don’t we want those failed experiments to push the boundaries, and help us learn what does and does not work? Both of these views seem to miss the major opportunities that criticism affords.
Theater criticism is a tangible record of an ephemeral art form, and as such should be approached with the utmost care. To my mind, responsible criticism can enhance appreciation of a piece and the discipline in general. The critic ought to have a broad base of knowledge to draw from, both of theater history and culture in general in order to interpret and respond to a piece’s relevance. The critic can help illuminate what is innovative and provide a roadmap for possible interpretation. It can situate a particular piece within a larger contextual conversation and then participate in that conversation. That dialogue then has the potential to spur other work down the line. An example that leaps to mind from the world of literary criticism involves Jonathan Yardley’s review of “Wonder Boys.” In it, he challenged Michael Chabon to write more expansively:
One cautionary aside is in order. Chabon is now in his early thirties. He has published a first-person coming-of-age novel, a book of stories many of which are narrated in the first person, and a first-person novel about writing. As has already been said, he is not a narcissistic writer, but there are signs here of a familiar pattern. Though Chabon has demonstrated a keen understanding of other people’s minds and lives, thus far his preoccupation has been with fictional explorations of his own. It is time for him to move on, to break away from the first person and explore larger worlds. His apprenticeship is done; it has been brilliant, but the books as yet unwritten are the ones in which we will learn just how far this singular writer can go.
Chabon took this seriously and on he went into the third person, Kavalier and Clay and a Pulitzer.