Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Critical Mess

The Jan/Feb issue of The Dramatist magazine (Journal of the Dramatists Guild) focuses on critics, with an essay by Robert Brustein, an article sampling how playwrights cope with reviews, and featuring a roundtable discussion among New York critics (from the New York Times, Village Voice, Newsday) chaired by playwright Edward Albee.

So this discussion was New Yorkcentric, and also mostly about reviewing new plays (since playwrights form the Dramatist Guild membership.) But it's interesting anyway. The roundtable and other articles noted that theatre criticism is dying out, partly as a consequence of theatre continuing to drop back in the pack of entertainment media, and partly because newspapers and magazines are dying, or just getting crazy. They also noted that theatre reviews are often temporary jobs assigned willy nilly to up and coming journalists, who would actually rather be reviewing restaurants. Everyone--including these top critics--wish reviewers were better versed in theatre, and that there were more who were playwrights.

So how do I stack up, I wonder. My experience in theatre is not extensive, but I do have some, and I've seen a lot of plays in a lot of different places over the years. And I am enough of a playwright to actually qualify as a member of the Dramatist Guild (didn't keep up with the dues, though.) I do believe in theatre. And I have no interest in reviewing restaurants.

But though the panel provided a dour assessment of criticism, they were even more worried about playwriting. Michael Feingold of the Village Voice--who also was a dramaturg at the O'Neill Center in its glorious past--was particularly negative about the commercial and development pressures visited on playwrights, way before critics get involved, with compromised and homogenized results. "I have to say to my regret, that I think the playwrights who have learned how to tailor their sensibility to all the compromises are the ones that get produced," he said.

Well, the theatre can endure moronic critics, or just critics who get it wrong now and then. But it can't survive too many pre-ruined plays.

As for playwright Edward Albee, he is most vocal on the topic of critics who don't understand the theatre well enough. But he begins the discussion by quoting an editor of the New York Times in an exchange about reviewing with him and Arthur Miller. "He said the most extraordinary sentence to me. He said, 'We are much more interested in serving our readers than we are the theatre.'"

Edward Albee is a great playwright and a provocative gadfly. I met him once briefly and he was extraordinarily pleasant and generous. While the editor expressed himself a bit crassly (or Albee wrote the dialogue that way), what he says suggests a simple truth that shouldn't be surprising. Albee should no more be shocked that critics write primarily for readers than to hear that playwrights write primarily for audiences.

We all write for multiple audiences. One of my first newspaper editors (when I was a rock critic--but never a restaurant critic) told me that I should write for three audiences: my readers, my editor and myself. But he was being a little disingenuous: we are all aware of, and have some responsibility to, the people we are writing about, and the institution involved (broadly speaking; "the theatre" or "theatre community" for example.) That responsibility begins with accuracy, and includes fairness. In criticism, it also includes honesty.

A play review is taken by those who participate in the production as a critique. Their own critiques of their work--and each other's--is often far harsher than any review I've written, as I've noted. But this one is public. They also evaluate reviews for its effect on publicity and personal glory and career. There isn't a lot a reviewer can do about all of that except be honest in recording responses to the production on the date it was experienced, and to be as clear and fair as possible.

But I would be surprised to learn that most of the readers of theatre reviews have gone to see, or will go to see, the production reviewed. I'm pretty sure that a large part of the readership of a review or theatre column is comprised of readers who aren't going to see the show, no matter what the review says. For them, the review is a piece they read in the newspaper that they hope is informative and entertaining.

But even for those who will see the show--or who are deciding if they will--the review has its own integrity: it is a piece of writing in print in a newspaper, just like the other stories in that issue. The primary job of a writer for a newspaper is to try to provide the best reading experience for readers of that newspaper. Just as the playwright--or anyone involved in a show--is trying to put on the best play they can for the audience that shows up to see it.

There are ways to do that badly, of course--attempted pandering, gratuitous violence, etc. But that's beneath contempt for any kind of article or review. It's something of a balancing act, which I take seriously. But to some extent we're all in show business.

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