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Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.

Friday, December 02, 2005

In Defense of the Critical

There's been a light but insistent noise being made about critics in the tiny world of theatrical blogging. The review of Bach at Leipzig by Charles Isherwood (here) prompted posts like this and this, which seem to accuse Isherwood of having a double standard or attempting to actively ruin the career of Itmar Moses. Isaac Butler goes so far as to propose action.

Over at nytheatre.com there is often a discussion about the nature of reviews vs. criticism and the term criticism is treated about as well as the word "liberal" is treated on Fox News. Martin Denton has a very different theory behind his reviewing than most; which is essentially that he is there to provide his response to the experience of being in the room, and respect that his audience for his reviews is often the playwright, director or actors themselves. (I would assume this is increasingly less and less true.) He feels that it's not his right to tear anyone down who is plying their trade in a difficult art form, for almost no money, on a shoestring budget. And that idea is, of course, what makes nytheatre.com a powerful force in the New York City small theater scene.

I think a great deal of these sentiments comes from a publishable voice that allows us to speak out against critics if we have an internet connection and a computer. Where once you could only write a letter to the newspaper, or defend yourself to those who would listen, now bloggers and supporters of a different kind of criticism can throw their arms in the air and shout about it.

I, personally, love a particularly nasty and brutal critique. Some of the greatest writers in history have spent hours tearing each other apart. Edmund Wilson attacked Nabokov; Shaw attacked Shakespeare; Mark Twain's "Literary Offenses of James Fenimore Cooper" will make it impossible to read The Last of the Mohicans without laughing until you roll over. This did not destroy Shakespeare, or ruin Nabokov, or stop people from reading Cooper. The finest artists are often the easiest to attack and the most fun. One could call T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland a poem for dull scholars; the cinema of David Lynch to be art-house misogynist erotica; the humor of Avenue Q to be topical and derivative; Shakespeare a barbarian (as Shaw jealously did); Shaw a dreadful didactic bore; Wordworth a long-winded preacher; and Henrik Ibsen and Ayn Rand proto-fascists. None of this will end their relevance, or ruin them, or take their artiface away. Because they are so distinctive and powerful that they are simply worlds for us to play in, and that includes some rough-housing.

It could be fairly said that my list above includes those who are so established that criticism of their work is an academic exercise anyhow; that Itmar Moses has a career to build, and that he has written a wordy Stoppardian whirlwind that should be praised and encouraged.

The truth is, there needs to be far more criticism, not less. That a free for all of violence and lovemaking in the world of criticism is exactly what is needed to spark a fire in the audience for these works. In the recent New Yorker, in discussing a new Wordsworth biography, it's noted that Wordsworth's fans were ardent precisely because they felt that he was unfairly attacked. That they understood his work and others clearly did not. There was a healthy and firm and documented world of Wordsworth haters, even before he became, after the 1830s, a national treasure and Poet Laureate. The intensely cruel reviews did just as much to help him as harm him.

Perhaps the true problem is that theater reviews are dwindling, and therefore a single review may be certain pieces only "press." Denton serves this, as he reviews hundreds of shows a year, and the New York Times is simply not economically going to support doing the same. But I'm certain that Bach at Leipzig should have been reviewed with enthusiastic bile and enthusiatic praise as often as possible. If it were to inspire a world of mixed reviews, from many sources, who are in deep argument, it may just be proof that there IS, in fact, something very worth seeing.

The complaint, therefore, should not be with Charles Isherwood for being a right bastard in his smugly backhanded reviews, or with Ben Brantley for being a big prig on a regular basis and firing broadsides at big Broadway ships. Both of them also can be incredibly kind and even corny. Isherwood gushed all over Thom Pain (based on nothing), a review he stuck by even when he was seriously questioned for it; and he used the word "heavenly" in his review of the New Group's Abigail's Party. Brantley can be persuaded as well.

The complaint (dare I say, criticism) should be of the lack of other major sources of criticism that are respected and prolific. Beyond insider trades like Backstage, we have Time Out's house style of quip, and Denton's even-handedness and that's about it. It's a small market, and very few of these sources provide space enough to do much more that give anything a thumbs up or thumbs down. Or worse, a carefully written, harmless little summation that notes a few things that were "ok" and a few things that "weren't."

I, for one, would love to see the blogsphere help explode theatre criticism and let it breathe and have a strong, immediately, artful voice. Critics should not be considered the enemy, but a part of a rich tradition of thinkers and tinkers and hyperbolists. That's the pleasure of reading things like "After I read Pride and Prejudice, I wanted to dig up Jane Austen and kill her again" or "If the publication of this volume is not an insult to the public taste, I fear that it cannot be insulted."

I would hate to see us stifle criticism that we deplore. We are intended to deplore it and revel in our own self-righteousness and defiance. The best critics make us define and defend our own impressions, give us a deeper understanding of a text or performance, and can inspire rages of the best and worst kind.

Let's have more sharp literary and theatrical criticism. It is a mistake to take the very little we have left, and try to shave its teeth and cut its claws.


Scott Walters said...

I agree completely! I wrote my dissertation about Robert Brustein's connection to Lionel Trilling and the New York Intellectuals (sounds like boy band, doesn't it?). Trilling and the gang, in the pages of Partisan Review spent pages and pages skewering each other as well as a great deal of contemporary fiction and politics. It was a dynamic, exciting, and quite bloody intellectual era. Harold Clurman once said that we didn't need more masterpieces, we needed more flops, because if you have more flops you have more plays being put on, and that's the manure from which masterpieces arise. Apply to criticism and stir.

I wonder if the blogosphere could create such a riot of discussion. Probably not about a production, since bloggers are situated all over the world. But perhaps a play. I wonder if we could designate a play a month that we all would read and write about -- or a book, or even an essay...

Freeman said...

Well I could start that right now. We should all go see Bach at Leipzig and write our own critiques and see if we can't tear each other's hair out and give each other paper cuts.

Scott Walters said...

That would be good -- for you NYC types! But what about ME???

ernest asscheek hemmings said...

The only problem is that those who are capable of writing cirticism that is actually engaging enough for people to bother with or valid enough for people to care about would be written by those working in the field. More often than not one will find the Arts and Entertainment desk of any given major daily (not to be confused with the more liberal "hippie rags" normally pubilshed on a weekly... or weakly..basis)staffed by a handful of people who either fancy themselves as Max from All About Eve or the unpublished author who barely earned a degree in playwriting and now finds it a mission to curb public oppinion for selfish desires. However, to say that such motives are inherently "wrong" would be silly since theater, by its very nature, is created for selfish desires (approbation, identity, being around large groups of women with low self-esteem issues)... all art is quite useless? Perhaps. But without cohesion there seems to be a lapse of reason or if you like there is no credibility in an open format because of its accessibility and diversity. The average readership of any given paper publication will scan through and pick up useful information in the advertisements; any "literature" therein will be used as "grunty" material in the nearest restroom (apologies to the more delicate set). A good example of this is the film "Get Shorty 2"... I believe that's the name. It's miserable. Critics panned it across the universe. Big ads... top gross in rentals and box office. In Las Vegas there is a performer here who has his own theater at the Mirage (a fairly majestic hotel on the strip with a monolith for a marquee) and everyone asks the same thing: "who is Danny Gans?" The man sells out a 500 seat theater at 110.00 per ticket every night. He hasn't been reviewed since 1999 but he's doing as well as (if not better) than Celine Dion only because his marketing team has forced his image and show into the minds of everyone getting off the plane from Newark, NJ. Avenue Q struggles with high praise from every corner of the universe.
Flooding the media septic tank with information to spark interest is a preoccupation of mine but I think traditional styles of persuasive writing are no longer valid in a media saturated age... at least in the demographic that isn't dying, or hopelessly poor.

kirabug said...

Me, I'm just amused to see the same (or in this case similar) arguments rising in two different media within a few months of each other. Feel like I've been here before.