What to Make of (Meta)Criticism Today

Who can or should write theatre criticism, and what are they allowed or supposed to say?  I already feel the tension in my own diction, and this post has just begun. Criticism lately has started to feel like a tightrope act.  At least the fall is shorter from the blogosphere.

As someone who writes “theatre criticism” here on Drama, Daily and also for other “legitimate” sources, is it fair and/or accurate to describe the kind of analytical writing I do on this blog as the meanderings of a “rank, amateur wannabe,” as one person commenting on a Guardian blog post has said of theatre bloggers?  Is what “I” write here not ‘real criticism’ because “I” don’t always heed the 3rd person rule?  Based on his 4/5 post on the LA theatre blog BitterLemons, Trevor Thomas would argue that my review pieces on this blog are more diary, than critique.  Thomas’s post is a response to his colleague Colin Mitchell’s reprinting of a blog stage review of Urinetown by UCLA grad student, Sarah Taylor Ellis.  Thomas writes:

“Contrary to appearances, there are no “I’s” in “critic,” there are only “eyes.”  That is not as needle-pointy as it sounds. You don’t often see first person singular in professional copy. Its unbridled presence in Miss Ellis’ work is the surest indication that there is bloggery afoot.

A critic attends an event as a representative of the reader and keeps the hell out of sight.  He’s on assignment, not an adventure. To interject oneself is to create competing lines of focus, one towards the stage and another back to the writer.  There are several reasons someone might do this; none are legitimate.”

In response to Thomas, Ellis writes, “In my opinion, a critic should not be some disembodied, superior voice speaking down to a generalized public.”  I see both viewpoints, and I can’t help but feel that somewhere between the two lies a reasonable middle ground.  The “I”, after all, is implicit in the 3rd person voice–one’s byline, says “I wrote this…I support the views expressed here.”  And yet, there are moments when writing in which asserting outright the “I” of the critic feels like the surest means of conveying a particular point candidly and genuinely.

It’s been barely six months since metacriticism last took center stage on theatre blogs.  As the above example shows, the discussion has resurfaced yet again.  This latest revival of the debate also has other impetuses: for one, the news in early March of Variety Magazine’s cost-cutting replacement of long time theatre critic, David Rooney, with outsourced freelancers; for another; Andrew Lloyd Webber’s dismay over theatre bloggers reviewing preview performances of his latest musical Love Never Dies (See for ex., Victoria Thorpe’s 3/14 piece in The Guardian).

Yet another thrust in the (re)charged debate is a recent piece in the Guardian, in which TimeOut New York theatre critic, David Cote, questioned why—in nearly every creative genre besides theatre—creators also serve as critics.  In a post that linked to Cote’s piece and Rob Weinert-Kendt’s thoughtful response to it on the TCG blog, John Holtham of 99seats weighed in from the playwright’s perspective, expressing his own reluctance to review other playwrights’ work because of his acute awareness of theatre’s grim economic landscape and, in light of this, his concern that saying something negative about another person’s work might 1) be career damaging and 2) appear as a self-aggrandizing measure, ie. the old ‘put down the competitor to improve your own odds’ tactic (in J’s words, ‘taking food from someone else’s mouth’).

While I grant Weinert-Kendt his point about ‘not poopin’ where you eat’ and Holtham his point about the playwright’s plight (indeed, it really is one), I really feel we have to free ourselves of these strictures (and W-K and H seem to want this also).  I particularly like Cote’s hopeful vision that,

“the artist who reviews fellow artists has a chance to occupy that vital public role of critic-advocate.”

Wow, critic as advocate, rather than adversary, imagine that.  I would like to think that most theatre critics (whether for blogs, journals, papers, etc.) are decent human beings and not reducible to vice figures from a medieval drama, though we may sometimes want to see them in such stark terms as good or evil, depending on where their position on a show stands in relation to our own.  Regardless of one’s background, professional affiliation to the theatre industry, years of experience (or not), one’s review of a theatre experience should come from a sincere and well-meaning place within.   Reviewers should not only be honest with their readers about their connection, if any, to a production, and whether or not they’ve seen a production in preview or regular run, but reviewers should also be honest with themselves about their own dislikes and preferences before they even sit down to write.  Take stock of things: what kind of day are you having?  How was your day at work?  What was your trip to the theatre like that night—did you barely make it on time because you got caught in traffic due to heavy rain causing you to get flipped the bird or cursed at by angry drivers and to arrive at the theatre angry and drenched?

While we may be taught as children that it is better ‘to say nothing at all, if we don’t have something nice to say,’ upholding this adage when writing theatre criticism—whether we are a playwright-critic, viewer-critic, teacher-critic, director-critic, designer-critic, etc.—is detrimental to the function and integrity of criticism.  The key here is twofold: nice does not necessarily equal honest, and the opposite of nice is not necessarily mean, snarky, or fill in the derogatory synonym of your choice.

Theatre lovers have long praised the medium as a pure and uninhibited form of expression; unfortunately, the same can not yet be said of theatre criticism.

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Comments
3 Responses to “What to Make of (Meta)Criticism Today”
  1. Aaron says:

    Agreed. And I would rather be advocate than adversary, any day of the week, though if I need to insert myself into the review to make my point, then there’s been a failure on my part to accurately describe the show’s merits.

    • nstodard says:

      Aaron,

      I read your blog and have taken note since I began reading it a good year ago that you maintain the 3rd person in your reviews. I appreciate that. I respect that. It takes time and discipline and mindfulness to write consistently in that voice. And I say that as someone who has spent the past decade involved in both academic and professional research and writing as well as teaching. The third person has been ingrained in me (beaten into me, in a nonviolent oxymoronic way feels more appropriate), and I’ve tried to stress its importance to my students through the years.

      I remember being really stuck when I first discovered black and feminist scholars using “I” in formal, published writing. It felt radical and wonderful, though I trudged along, writing, and instructing others to write, in the 3rd person.

      When I started writing Drama, Daily, it was really my first venture into allowing the 1st person to enter my critical writing. It felt very freeing, but also like I was breaking rules. It continues to feel this way. Thomas’ reference to the “I” indicating that there is “bloggery afoot” bothers me a bit, not because I disagree with the merits of 3rd person reviewing, but because it essentially doesn’t allow any real value to reviews on blogs, and especially reviews that use “I.” In her NY Post theatre blog, Elisabeth Vincentelli uses “I” at least once in several recent posts. My point here is not to bring her down with me or to poo poo the 3rd person, but to say that there is lots of solid theatre criticism being written these days ON BLOGS, and this criticism may or may not contain “I.”Either way, the mere presence of an “I” should not be a red flag that the piece holds no merit. “Bloggery afoot” makes me think of many other negative words, buffoonery, buggery, beggary, etc. none of which I feel apply to my writing, Vincentelli’s or other theatre bloggers whose writing I respect.

  2. staylorellis says:

    I appreciate your comments, Nicole! Like you, I use 3rd person in most of my scholarly writings, but my blog is intentionally a blog – a space for me to put myself back into the scenario. I didn’t ever expect that my blog would stir up a debate, but I am glad it has created a little controversy. At the very least, it points out the often unquestioned structure underlying “formal theater criticism.” Hopefully, this encourages readers to an awareness of the constructedness of any review – and encourages critics to question whether there are other equally valid forms of criticism available.

    Keep up the great work! I’m glad I ran across your blog through Bitter Lemons!

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