Friday, April 20, 2007

Criticizing Criticism: A Manifesto of Sorts

Lately, I've been asking the big "why" of more than a couple of shows I've seen: that is, "Why do this production?" But there's just as easily another question beneath that, and that's applicable to me: "Why review this production?" and along with that, what is a review, what's criticism, and what's a blog. Those of you browsing the "blogosphere" have probably come across various meditations on this theme before, but I'll do my best to address them all with this mini-manifesto, engaging with some recent reads (including an old post of Garret Eisler's, something heartfelt from Martin Denton, and some wit from Howard Kissel) and building toward a more communal ideal, where the line between artist and audience and art and criticism isn't so wide.

I love Martin Denton, and what he's doing over at and his personal blog (which is attached to the intriguing, but still-in-progress
No matter how terrible or misguided or perverse a show seems to be, always remember: they didn’t do it just to annoy you. Anyone who works in Off-Off-Broadway knows how hard it is to get a show up—any show. Almost everyone involved is doing the work for no money, and finding time to do it around day jobs and other responsibilities. They’re running on passion—that’s why I love OOB so much. These artists are compelled to tell us something. Try to figure out what it is. Give them room to say it.
This is from his commentary on the NY IT Awards (and don't forget to vote): even this comment on criticism itself is filled with passion and genuine love, which is where the reviewer has to come from. However, the one caveat to Denton's post above (applicable to Broadway and more and more to Off-Broadway) is that while they may not do it to annoy you, there are quite often financial reasons creeping in that lull both the subject material that's produced and cull a certain type of performance.

That's why it's so important to see new work, the kind that is still willing to be rough and risky, and why we should make it a point to go in blind: for the experience and the love, rather than simply to make notes on a play. Denton says he doesn't write things down during a show because he doesn't want to abstract the experience: one way to know how much I'm enjoying a show is to look and see how much I'm writing down. (The true value of a press kit is not needing to take factual notes.) I disagree that what's happening in the audience has relevance to the show (especially with the rudeness of ringtones), but this here's a pretty accurate job description (can we standardize it?) of a reviewer: "(a) have the experience, and then (b) report honestly and articulately about it."

Nobody's questioning Isherwood's paper proselytizing ability; it's when they feel he's been dishonest with judging the work, or when he's veered from critiquing the experience to making moral (or otherwise) judgement calls that he gets slammed by his readers (as with the infamous assessment of Adam Rapp's Essential Self-Defense). On the other side is the danger of those with too little experience: although Cynthia Ozick writes her April 2007 Harper's essay to talk about literary bloggers, theater bloggers are only one remove away:
Less innocent is the rise of the non-professional reviewer on Amazon--though "rise" suggests an ascent, whereas this computerized exploitation, through commerce and cynicism, of typically unlettered exhibitionists signals a new low in public responsibility. Unlike the valued book club reviewer, who may be cozily challenged by companionable discourse, Amazon's "customer reviewer" goes uncontested and unedited: the customer is always right. And the customer, the star of this shoddy procedure, controls the number of stars that reward or denigrate writers....Most customer reviewers, though clearly tough customers when it comes to awarding stars, are not tough enough--or well-read enough--for tragic realism or psychological complexity. Amazon encourages naive and unqualified readers who look for easy prose and uplifting endings to expose their insipidities to a mass audience.
These are the people who have an experience, but have no experience from which to write more than the flimsiest of visceral responses. These opinions are valid, but only when weighed in aggregate: on their own, featured as they are, they are often too personal to engage the work, and as Ozick points out, too exclusive to provoke commentary (which is why I will always have comments turned on). So to add another another items to Denton's admirable start: (c) a reviewer must be looking to add to the discussion which the piece itself, in its creation, has already sparked.

This is what I think Garrett was getting at when he reviewed Linnea and wondered "if it was even worth reviewing at all."
Exposing the flaws of prominent productions that are taken seriously by others is an essential function of criticism. (See Richard Gilman's famous contrarian essay "On Destructive Criticism.") But something like "Linnea" seems the result of some part-time theatre enthusiasts (no doubt with serious ambitions) who are just not ready for prime time. I'm all for letting them hone their craft out of the public eye until they have something really ready.
There's a reason New Theater Corps refuses to publish bashes of shows: we're simply not interested in beating a dead horse, nor are we interested in promoting one. Our reviews are aimed at pointing out shows that get limited exposure and helping audiences find the shows that would catch their eye, if only their eye was focused on it. Here's the fourth function of a reviewer then: imagine the finest story ever, written on a grain of rice. It is (d) the reviewer's job to be the magnifying glass for a show, to serve as an after-the-fact amanuensis who is more interested in highlighting talent than shutting it down.

It is Howard Kissel who makes the greatest case for reviewing:
[W]hether or not their ultimate judgments are sound, they ought also make their prose lively. It doesn't help the theatre when readers are sent to shows that are boring, but it's even less help if their writing is mundane. Whether praising or panning a show, the critic's basic job description is to make the art itself sound exciting.
Yes, here's the essential final part of reviewing: to be art in of itself. Not just a magnifying glass, but (*d) a mirror too, one that encompasses not only the play, but also the critic, one that continues the experience from the page to the stage and to the people.
Many reviews are written with an eye to scoring intellectual points rather than simply informing the reader whether or not he'll have a good time. In fact, many reviewers do not like to see themselves as consumer advisers. They are writing about an art form and want their observations to be treated seriously, not simply as a matter of thumbs-up or thumbs-down.
Nothing is as easy as Caesar's ominous verdict makes it look: we should treat the plays we see with the utmost of respect, as if they were gladiators themselves, men and women who should live, regardless of whether we ourselves were merely entertained. As Kissel reiterates: "it's much easier to write a negative review than a positive one," so let's keep with Denton's first comment and remain honest, above all else, which leads us to the final ideal (e) that a reviewer exercise thought and care and -- dare I say it -- love. To go back to Ozick for a moment:
What is needed are critics who can tease out hidden imperatives and assumptions held in common, and who will create the contentious conditions that underlie and stimulate a living literary consciousness. In this there is something almost ceremonial, or ceremoniously slow: unhurried thinking, the ripened long (or sidewise) view, the gradualism of nuance.
So, a distilled manifesto of what I will do my best to become as I continue this metamorphic journey as a critic:

(a) I will look the experience first and then
(b) be honest, always, about it.
(c) My goal is to add to the community, to
(d) magnify the artistic experience, and
(*d) to mirror the work with as much craft as possible in the review.
(e) Finally, to linger in that moment, to nourish with love, not hate.

To do these things, to spring forth not just stale commentary but living, breathing text on what has blown our mind or percolated our soul or resonated in our being . . . that's exciting. That's worth reading. To do these things is to be a real writer, interpreting the world through the narrator (or critic's) lens, the author's (hopefully experienced) viewpoint, and to make our work counterpart to theirs: to use Ozick's beautiful closing phrase, to make our work a "ghostly twin" to theirs.

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