The Playgoer: Quote of the Day

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Monday, March 19, 2007

Quote of the Day

"If you like eight out of 10 shows that you review, you should be in a different business," he said. If you like six to eight, you might be aware enough to write "puff pieces" about shows. If you like five out of 10, "then you don't exist. You're too perfect." If you like two to four of those 10 shows, you might be able to be a reviewer, and if you like zero to two, "you may be a critic, but there's no guarantee."

-John Simon at the American Theatre Critics Association.

Hey, I don't agree. But appropros of some comments to my post on "Dying City," I do want to reassert my strong belief that the critic's job is ultimately to criticize, not to be a supportive teacher or cheerleader for the theatre.

If more than 2-4 out of 10 shows rise to the high standards a critic should hold for the theatre then, yes, one should praise them. Otherwise there is great value to what the late Richard Gilman deliberately called "Destructive [ as opposed to Constructive] Criticism." No, not to "destroy" the artist or his of her feelings. But to continue pointing out whatever gap there is between our theatre as it exists before our eyes and what its ideals should be.

That doesn't mean, though, one has to be a creep to do that.

By the way, go see this exhibit at the Lincoln Center library. Among the random memorabilia is a very limited-issue roll of toilet paper with John Simon's photo on it.

13 comments:

Hilary Sanders said...

"I do want to reassert my strong belief that the critic's job is ultimately to criticize, not to be a supportive teacher or cheerleader for the theatre."

Do you think these things are mutually exclusive though? Can't theater criticism be responsible AND supportive AND teach us something? I don't care much for cheerleading, so I'll leave that out of the equation. (Though I should point out that your summoning of the word smacks of condescension.)

I have no issue with theater criticism as an institution, I think it's necessary and often useful. Artists SHOULD be challenged and provoked and engaged in a discussion. But it IS actually possible to criticize and challenge without attacking an artist. It's difficult, but it can be done. Maybe that's naive and pollyanna-ish of me, but I can still wish for it to happen.

It is SO easy to walk out of a show, and go home and write a scathing witty little dismissal of it. It's really really EASY to do that. And people enjoy reading those pithy little barbs. John Simon has made a career out of it. That doesn't make it good criticism though. Reviews like that - glib, snarky, condescending - are, to me, clear examples of self-important lazy writers pandering to their audiences. They seem to scream, "Aren't I clever?" and "Hey kids, watch me nail them with this one..." Those critics are guilty of so many of the things they tear actors, playwrights and directors apart for. When did a review stop being a review and turn into a compilation of smug sound bites? It's the Jack McFarland school of criticism - bitchy, self-satisfied and hollow.

When I read a review like that (and of course not ALL the reviews are like that, but far too many are) - when I read a review like that, it's as if the critic has elbowed everyone offstage to seize the spotlight for himself.

Here's the thing, I understand that no one wants to work TOO hard. And it is MUCH harder to write a thoughtful review that actually takes the time to examine why a piece of theater does or doesn't work. I guess what I don't understand is why so many critics, whose jobs are to be arbiters of good writing, structure and storytelling, aren't held to the same standards as the very people they're criticizing.

Slim and Slam said...

[I see that Hilary has beaten me to the comment, but I have a slightly different interpretation of the "teacher" function, so I'll persist anyway.]

I do want to reassert my strong belief that the critic's job is ultimately to criticize, not to be a supportive teacher or cheerleader for the theatre.

Regarding the "supportive teacher" function; aren't theater critics interested in supporting the theater as an art form or an institution? And if not, why do you do this?

(I recognize that this is not equivalent to "supporting" each individual production. A teacher who wants to support each individual student should-- and, for the better teachers, will-- still give bad grades when the work merits one; theater critics, ditto.)

David Cote said...

It's hard to argue with Simon's basic point about the necessity of critics maintaining extremely high standards and scorning mediocrity. But what if your idea of the theatrical sublime is, um, Alan Ayckbourn? And what if you simultaneously mock the obtuse pretensions of avant-garde theater and fail to see the quality in Stephen Sondheim's work (then recant later on)? Then you might have a case of highbrow rhetoric masking middlebrow and conservative tastes? My point is this: there are critics who use their good taste and brilliant prose to comment upon the culture and perhaps change the theater for the good. Tynan, Rich. Then there are journalistic dandies who consider themselves as good as the artists (if not better) and strive to build a reputation on criticism as performance. They have nothing to teach us about art or the institutions that produce it. They are the anti-Tynans.

Anonymous said...

Where did Dick Gilman expound on "Destructive Criticism"? (I'm not disputing that he did so, just wondering where it might have been published.)

BTW, I saw Dick Gilman at work during the later stages of his career. Believe me, at least at that point, he was not above making "criticism" personal.

Malachy Walsh said...

You'd be right - John Simon would be right - if 9 out 10 critics were any good, but, for me, they're not.

They're just a printed opinion.

Liz Hanson said...

David Cote wrote:

"But what if your idea of the theatrical sublime is, um, Alan Ayckbourn? And what if you simultaneously mock the obtuse pretensions of avant-garde theater and fail to see the quality in Stephen Sondheim's work (then recant later on)?"

Liz wrote:

Or what if your opinion of good family entertainment is the, um, dull and charmless Broadway production of Mary Poppins? Or what if you simultaneously mock the corporatization of Broadway and how it denies young and exciting theater artists a place at the table, while you turn around and author the souvenir coffee table book to Wicked, one of the most bloated, mass-marketed and downright cheezy juggernauts to hit Broadway in years?

David Cote wrote:

"Then you might have a case of highbrow rhetoric masking middlebrow and conservative tastes?"

Liz wrote:

Aesthetician, heal thyself.

David Cote said...

Hey I have a fan! Oh, wait. Hey, I have an antifan! At least someone is paying attention to me! Yes, I was pleasantly surprised by Mary Poppins (and my review gave the context of that surprise—fairly snarkily, I thought). And yes, I wrote a coffee-table book about Wicked. But I tend to save my scorn and aesthetic prescriptions for nonprofit theaters that should be taking risks, encouraging young companies and playwrights, etc. Who expects commercial producers to do that? Not me. I won't apologize for a) enjoying myself at weightless Broadway entertainments or b) making money by freelance work.

Liz Hanson said...

No one asked you to apologize, just to come down off that high-horse of yours.

It's nice to know you can enjoy a really crappy Broadway musical, and that your artistic high-mindedness goes out the window when you have to pay the rent. It's kind of endearing.

I just hope Richard Foreman doesn't find out. You might get excommunicated.

Liz

The Playgoer said...

I do kinda regret implying any affinity between Simon's slash & burn tactics to Gilman's more well-informed and idealistic motives.

(I don't have a citation handy on "The Value of Destructive Criticism" but I believe it's collected in his anthology "The Drama is Coming Now." It was originally written in the 60s for, I think, Commonweal.)

But the point remains, I guess, that critics need not be expected to offer "constructive" criticism.

Their allegiance should be to The Theatre, not to whatever theatre artists they happen to be reviewing or to even the theatre community they work in.

That said--I'm glad to finally have the chance to engage some of Hilary's valid ripostes to both this and some implications of my "Dying City" comments. I'm with you, Hillary, that there should be A PLACE for a more "constructive" criticism that takes the artist's side more openly and offers more analysis than evaluation. Sometime you see that in the better feature articles (not "puff pieces") in, say, "American Theatre."

But there also needs to be a forum for criticism that may not even be directed toward the artist at all. When I write for Time Out for instance, I'm very conscious of an obligation I feel toward a general readership whose primary interest in reading is to know what they'll get if they see something. Not how interesting their process may have been or how noble their goals were.

In that context, the responsibility of evaluating a play--making a clear verdict--is important. It should NOT be the only form of criticism, though, and hopefully the internet should increase the venues for all kinds.

Alison Croggon said...

That quote riles me. Smug, complacent and stupid.

I know some critics who think that the whole point of their profession is to is to be sneeringly above everything they see. The more one dislikes things, the more one demonstrates one's impeccably high, inviolable "standards". It's like adolescents at a party straining to demonstrate their cool. Unfortunately, the high standards of these critics don't usually stretch to their own thinking, or even their own prose. Funny that.

I think being a good critic is much harder work, and is measured by a critic's love for the art he/she is looking at, which expresses itself in insight and understanding, rather than his/her hatred of it. (Yes, Tynan is a good example - not only was he a superb prose stylist, he had the guts to say when he adored something. It's like pulling teeth for some critics, they fear that their sophisticated veneer will shatter, revealing them for the charlatans they are). That doesn't mean being an eager puppy adoring everything one sees. By no means. Often the reverse.

Btw, I'm always wittering on about art. The higher the better. But I adored Pirates of the Caribbean. I think you are allowed to have broad and even vulgar tastes. I mean, one would be a fool to think that Pirates is going to give you the same things as a Bergmar film, no? Not to say a bad critic...

Alison Croggon said...

Bergmar? Who he? Somehow Ingmar got mixed up with Bergman. It's early in the day here.

David Cote said...

To the holier-than-me Liz: I'll stay on my high horse, thank you very much, until I decide to get down and wallow in the muck, after which I may get up on the high horse again. Life and culture are fluid that way.

Alisa said...

Dick Gilman's essay, "The Necessity of Destructive Criticism" is in a collection of his theater pieces from 1961-70 (long out of print, alas) called Common and Uncommon Masks (Vintage, 1971). It has absolutely nothing in common with John Simon's mean-spirited, self-serving remarks (and reviews.) A sample passage: "Every season also has its tides of sycophancy on which float the reputations of certain star performers and against which the critic may want to throw himself [sic] as a minor counter-current, so that Jason Robards, Jr. and Maurice Evans adn Barbara bel Geddes will not thik that the seas are all that smooth. Or, turning around, he [sic] may want to say a word, if not of praise then of comfort, for the kind of inept but unpretentious Off-Broadway effort upon which the newspapers habitually unload all the scorn and vituperation which their pusillanimity or thralldom prevents them from delivering to those big houses on the Street which can seat five or six times as many of the bilked." That was written in 1962, but the anthology doesn't say where. The volume has a couple of other pieces about criticism as well as some great examples of it -- pieces on Grotowski, some RSC productions, Tennessee Williams . . .

Dick often made the distinction between reviewing and criticism -- a handy way to mark the difference Playgoer was getting at above: the consumer report versus the full consideration -- not that one can't have elements of the other.

btw, there will be a memorial for Dick on Monday, March 26 at 1pm at Symphony Space. Every serious drama critic over 40 will probably be there -- he was a teacher to all of us (even those who simply read him without ever having studied formally with him). How lovely if some of the younger generation who don't already know his work would discover it.

While I'm on my own high horse, let me suggest some other great theater writers of deep ideas and fabulous prose who aren't read as much as they should be these days (and don't get published anywhere): Gordon Rogoff (a great collection of his: Theater is not Safe) and Erika Munk (who edited TDR in the 60s and then a short-lived journal called Performance, before going to the Voice and then Theater mag at Yale, from which she retired a couple years ago). One can pick many bones with any of them, but if you want models of great writers who love the art form, take it seriously, aren't out to show off or be gratuitously snarky, and write with art and passion, these are damned good ones.

Of course, they had lots of great theater -- or theater that was not so great but in interesting ways -- to write about in the 60s and 70s.