Do theater critics have a duty to approach new plays differently?
If you’re a playwright who ever got the shaft from a critic – and let’s face it, who hasn’t? – you probably think theater critics shouldn’t be allowed to approach new plays at all. But tempting as that might be, the truth is that the critics are your best friends. Yes yes, we all know they’re a bunch of despicable pricks, but they’re despicable pricks whose praise sells tickets and helps you get grants. And even though newspapers are dying right and left, critics retain the amazing ability to tell thousands of people who’ve never heard of you that your production is happening. You want them in the house, preferably on opening night. You want them sober, rested, and open-minded.
Above all, of course, you want them to like your play. And so it is mighty vexing, when the review finally makes it into print, to find that the critic has approached your show as though it were the umpteenth staging of I Am a Warhorse at Chanhassen. Read it and weep: The first two paragraphs dwell on a scene in which the ingénue strips down to her undies. Then come three or four paragraphs about the plot, followed by a graf about the cast, and finally a summary graf with an unsupported opinion or two. Your name is mentioned once, in passing, as though you were one of the ushers. Of your clever plot twists, your sparkling analogies, your passionate denouement, your cerebral twittering… nothing. Not a goddamn word.
Why does this happen? In part because theater criticism, like playwriting, is an unregulated industry. “You’re a drama critic if you can convince people that you are one,” says Dan Sullivan, head of the National Critics’ Institute, and it’s as true today as when Alexander Woollcott was shopping his resume. Critics get hired by editors. Some editors know what to look for; many don’t. As a result, many critics don’t know what to look for, either. Some of them figure it out. Others settle into a comfortable formula and apply it across the board to new plays and old, either because they don’t know any better or because it’s easier that way.
Before I go further, I confess to harboring somewhat mixed feelings about the intersection between critics and new work of any kind. Before I started writing plays in the early nineties, I did twenty years’ hard time as a critic for the Minneapolis Star and Saint Paul Pioneer Press. My beats were classical music and dance, mainly, with four years as the Pioneer Press theater critic at the end. I worked hard (you have no choice if you’re serious about it), learned a lot, and along the way developed strong opinions about what makes a review good or bad – not in terms of positive or negative but in the sense of how well it conveys the experience of sitting in a dark room for two or three hours.
My own take on reviewing was (and still is) that critics should be reporters first and critics second. You don’t owe the artists anything. Your assignment is to describe what you’ve seen and heard in a way that lets your readers see and hear it, too. Sights, sounds – and ideas. You’ve got to be sharp enough not to be distracted by MacGuffins or shtick or the ingénue’s cleavage. As the great umpire Bill Klem famously declared, you’ve got to “keep your eye everlastingly on the ball.” As for telling one’s readers whether the show is “worth seeing” or using a numerical rating system or whatever, I never had much interest in that sort of stuff. It’s way more interesting to describe what you witnessed and let the readers draw their own conclusions.
This is true, of course, whether you’re reviewing new work or old. But your approach is different, or should be, because when you’re writing about a familiar play, there’s no good reason to focus on the text; after all, what can you possibly say about Romeo and Juliet that hasn’t already been said hundreds of times? Instead, you focus on questions of interpretation: Why were all the Montagues dressed as Jews and all the Capulets as Muslims? Why was Friar Laurence on roller skates? Why was Mercutio played by a woman? And what, if anything, did it add to our understanding of the play – or ourselves?
Focus on the script
With new work, your focus is the script, because that’s where the flow of ideas begins. In my newspaper days, I occasionally got indignant letters from actors and designers whom I’d failed to mention in a review. Sometimes it was an oversight on my part; but more often, and especially if I was writing about a new play, it was intentional. I felt then, and still feel, that – to paraphrase Goethe – a critic’s first job is to figure out what the playwright was trying to say, how well he or she said it, and whether it was worth saying. Everything else is secondary, including whether you liked it or not. The late Virgil Thomson, a composer who also wrote highly insightful music criticism, once advised me to “put your opinions at the end of the review” because that’s where most editors start trimming if the review runs long. In retrospect, he was right.
Critics come in all flavors, to be sure. The Star Tribune generally likes its critics agreeable and bland; the Pioneer Press leans toward spicier fare, as those who remember Jayne Blanchard’s take-no-prisoners reviews can attest. The weeklies, as the anti-dailies, are where you look for the real hell-raisers, and they do not hesitate to lob grenades at new plays. My favorite review ever, published in The Village Voice, was Michael Feingold’s withering attack on Miss Saigon when it first opened on Broadway in 1991. Declaring that “we can now say definitively that our civilization is over,” Feingold used his first paragraph to call for drastic action: “all the Broadway theaters must be demolished,” all the members of the New York League of Theatres “lined up against a wall and shot,” and the New York Times “firebombed into nothingness,” while Miss Saigon producer Cameron Mackintosh and his staff “should be slowly beaten to death with blunt instruments….” He began his second paragraph by saying, “In answer to your next question, no, I didn’t like Miss Saigon.” What a guy.
When you think about it, critics need new plays almost as much as new plays need them. New plays are the lifeblood of the theater. Unlike opera and classical music, which are essentially museum art forms, theater continues to be nourished by a steady stream of new works. The ever-expanding roster of new plays and theater companies that do them may be why the Star Tribune has kept two theater writers on staff while jettisoning almost everyone else from what used to be known as the arts section. Good or bad, every new play is part of an evolving context, and it’s the critic’s privilege to be there when it happens.