Thursday, December 06, 2007

Critical Thought #2: What's a Spoiler?

Rob Kendt calls out Jacques Le Sourd for spoiling the big secret of Tracy Letts' new play, August: Osage County, which I review here. My stance on spoilers is simple: if the play does not earn its ending, then you have the right to ruin it -- think of it as an active choice to take away whatever incentive the audience might have to actually go out and see it. No spoiler alert is necessary (though it's certainly courteous): plot analysis is implicit in any critical reading or evaluation of a work. (For example, I wouldn't talk about the end of The Sixth Sense, but I would gladly tell you about The Village.) I generally extend it one step further, just because I try to be a nice guy and give the benefit of the doubt where I can, which is to say that I won't give away anything that is integral to the work itself; that is, if there's a perspective-changing revelation (Darth Vader is Luke's father), I wouldn't say a word, although if it were simply a surprising plot point (Darth Vader cuts off Luke's hand), I would.

In the case of August: Osage County, I don't think Le Sourd gives away anything that would ruin anyone's enjoyment of the play. The relationship between Ivy Weston and Little Charles isn't that big of a shocker, any more than Beverly's suicide after the first scene. The play is about larger things than that (and smaller things), and isn't impacted by this commentary. In fact, it's actually important, as it addresses one of the taboos of the play -- I mean, imagine trying to analyze The Goat (or Who Is Sylvia?) without mentioning that he's fucking a goat. How would you talk about our shallow notions of love, or the (admittedly exaggerated) very real prospect of loving two distinct people at the same time?

If this were the case, you'd only have solid reviews of revivals, for with those, there's an understanding that the plot is already understood (as with my usage of Star Wars above). Critics who analyze Romeo and Juliet, for example, seem to have no problem spoiling -- even for younger audiences -- the fact that these two star-crossed lovers both die. Yes, that's an extreme example, but I'm just saying: knowing how a play ends doesn't necessarily stop the audience from enjoying it, unless that's all there is to the show.

And seriously, if all a show has going for it is a twist -- which is certainly not the case with August: Osage County -- then there's a bigger problem with American theater than people say. Ultimately, the point I'm making is this: if you're reading a review, you're either looking for validation (or argument) regarding what you've already seen (and therefore can't have spoiled), or you're trying to be persuaded into seeing the show in question. Shouldn't the critic have the right to talk you out of seeing the show, if it so rankled their senses? Because if not, if we take away that most aggressive of critical tools, aren't we preventing the critic from justifying his or her own views, thereby belittling all negative arguments and simply promoting the positive?


Jaime said...

"if the play does not earn its ending, then you have the right to ruin it"

Problem with that - whether a play earns something or not is a subjective judgment. I say, with spoilers, err on the side of caution. Always. It's the only way that's fair.

isaac said...

yeah aaron, I've always felt the deliberate deploying of spoilers was a kind of authoritarian move on the part of the critic-- I hate this work so much I'll make sure you don't want to see it by ruining it for you! I dont' think that's where you're coming from, I'm just saying as a reader that's what it invariably feels like.

Also, the relationship between Ivy and Little Charles isn't what he gives away,it's the third-act twist about that relationship that he gives away.

Aaron Riccio said...

Isaac, I know what he was spoiling, I was just being very careful not to do so myself, as I enjoyed August ;)

And to both you and Jaime, yes, it's a dick move -- authoritarian *AND* subjective -- although to be fair, and this is why everybody HATES a critic, too -- that's exactly what a critic *DOES*. If they can't stand totally behind their opinion, they've got no point in writing it (and THAT I guess would be the difference between blogging a show and reviewing it), and it's a given that they're subjective in their opinion. Which leads me to critical thought #3.