Producers and artists having a go at critics is nothing new. After all, critics make their livings from having a go at producers and artists. Recently, however, two stories have caught our attention. Each is from a different critical boiling point, and each is from different sides of the Atlantic. Yet, both are about what happens before the critic even appears at the performance under review.
In London, Nicholas Hytner, director of the UK’s National Theatre, wondered aloud whether all the main British critics were able to appropriately review performances directed by someone that was different than themselves — that is, someone who does not belong to the category of white, male, and dead. (One assumes, the latter characterization is of a more subjective point of view from Hytner.)
In New York, Theatre for A New Audience publicized shoddy treatment from the New York Times over whether their newest production would be reviewed, and by whom. (Disclosure: one of my first jobs in the theatre was the associate artistic director at TFANA. Even aside from this brilliant bit of hiring, TFANA is considered one of New York’s great producing organizations, especially for their Shakespeare productions. They have also created one of the most enlightened school programs in the country. Soon they move into a beautiful new space, designed by Frank Gehry and Hugh Hardy.) Obviously, the New York Times give more prominence to productions reviewed by its more prominent critics. The Times ended up sending a low level critic, and the theatre received a low level review.
TFANA’s cause was taken up by one of the great American critics (and significant artist in his own right), Robert Brustein. In a piece in The New Republic, Brustein turned his critical eye to the hubris and sanctimoniousness of the New York Times. Brustein is part of a distinguished line of theatre creators and critics, such as Lessing, Shaw, and Clurman.
Is part of the problem that non-Brustein-like critics must position their career’s based on how much attention they can get from readers, and editors? Why go out of your way to find an interesting work, or write with delicacy and integrity, when you can build-up, slam-down, and make a lot of noise about a lot of noise?
Is the other part of the problem that few critics perform the task assigned? Sly, sniveling, snarky writing might feel good, and even at times look good, but frankly has nothing to do with reviewing a performance.
How to judge the intentions of the publication and reviewer? To determine if a critic is doing his or her job, here’s a quick and easy guide:
- Does the critic provide a clear and objective summation of what takes place on stage?
- Does the critic provide a clear and objective context for the event — the artistic choices embedded in the work’s theme, and the style of presentation (directing, acting, design) of the performance?
- Does the critic provide a clear and subjective point of view of the value of these choices — in crass summation, should one go see it, and why?
If publications and their critics met these three simple responsibilities, there would be less boiling about the process and more heat where it should be — about the work itself.
- Bill Reichblum