The Critic Gets a Callback

What readers need from reviewers—if there are any readers left

My recent comments on criticism's tenuous position in our increasingly Web-woven world ("Theater Criticism Reconfigured," Voice, August 12) provoked many responses from an unexpected area. I had suggested in the article that Broadway, as it stands, might not be a theater critic's primary focus of interest, and that the Tony Awards, which glorify Broadway achievements, might not be worth taking all that seriously. To my amazement, I heard from a fair number of notables who had benefited from both Broadway success and the Tonys' prestige. And they all seemed to agree with me that criticism is neither irrelevant to the theater nor fused with it in eternal love-hate, and that the Tonys had perhaps lost some credibility by choosing to drop the press from their voting roster.

For most of them, that second point was probably the key. People who win an award by vote like the world to think it was fairly won and was not purely partisan. What's true of Iranian dictators must be that much more true of Broadway's far more sensitive and kinder folk. That the latter could take comfort from my comments is touching, though maybe a tad ironic: I'm not exactly famous for administering comfort to the Broadway establishment or, for that matter, to anyone.

In fact, I'm not exactly famous at all: Because my idea of theater has included Broadway, but tends to range far outside its conventions, I've somehow managed to enjoy a very long career of writing about the New York theater while mostly staying outside of its spotlight. I've assumed for decades that nobody read me because I didn't fit any of the standard pigeonholes; I tend to view any response at all on my writing as a pleasant surprise. This positions me perfectly to comment on our new era, in which my colleagues—those still employed—are busy anguishing about their diminished status. Never having had any at all, I can live with it easily—as long as I'm still getting paid to write. To update Kipling: "If you can keep your job while those about you/Are losing theirs and blame the Internet/Just disregard the fools and knaves who doubt you/And ask yourself, 'How lucky can I get?' "

"Anyone can write drama criticism," the great British critic James Agate said in the 1920s. "It takes a very clever fellow to get it published." The Internet has nullified Agate's second assertion: Anyone with a website or access to a chat board can now get his or her notion of drama criticism published. Like the coffeehouses of 18th-century London, our new electronic Grub Street offers a multitude of fly-by-night opinions, backed by no journalistic ethics whatever. As then, anything that gets published can find believers; such times breed fake phenomena, like the "Cock Lane Ghost." Fortunately, they also breed a counterforce: honest crusaders revolted by falsity and illogic. The coffeehouse world produced the great Samuel Johnson, whose gift for skewering falsehoods helped launch journalism on its perpetual quest for credibility.

Dr. Johnson also coined the famous couplet, "The drama's laws the drama's patrons give/And we, who live to please, must please to live." As Bernard Shaw pointed out, during another proliferation of newspaper babble a century later, the tricky part for artists is choosing which of "the drama's patrons" they strive to please. Shaw the critic used his weekly column to battle a lazy-minded public's prevailing attitudes. In 1904, wearing his playwright's hat, he teamed up with the actor-director-playwright Harley Granville Barker to create four memorable years at London's Royal Court Theatre. Besides solidifying Shaw's stature as a major playwright, they restored Greek tragedy to the repertoire, established an innovative modernist approach to staging Shakespeare, and spawned a generation of "social" playwrights, including Maugham, Galsworthy, and St. John Hankin. London's intelligentsia loved the Court; ordinary audiences mostly stayed away. Shaw's wealthy wife repaired the annual deficit. When the enterprise finally shut down, Shaw reflected, "I don't think playgoing London ever came to see us to any great extent."

That would probably make most Americans today view the Shaw-Barker Court as a failure, another proof of Henry James's apothegm that there's something a failure is which a success, somehow, ineffably isn't. Agate, a critic of a more conservative stamp than Shaw, put the dilemma most succinctly: "The drama is an aesthetic phenomenon; the theatre is an economic proposition." There's no disentangling the two; the need to do justice to their conflicting claims is the torment of creator, critic, and producer alike. The postmodern era's new conflicts over modes of production and definitions of drama only tangle the matter further.

The audience experiences no such torment: It goes to a show because it wants to see a show, and has heard something about this one. Misled by the shilling of tweeters and chatters, let down by media-hyped celebrities who turn out to lack the stage's basic tools, it may well hesitate before laying down its hard-earned money again.

Under such circumstances, the critic might have a role somewhat different from the dispenser of instant opinions, the passionate advocate for this or that mode of theater, or the lofty pontificator who analyzes through a veil of academic jargon. A poster on a theater message board, discussing my previous article, said that most people go to a play based on what their friends have said about it. Maybe, but what about the many who enjoy the theater—or would, with a little prompting, but don't have such knowledgeable, up-to-the-minute friends? For them, the critic might well function as a virtual friend, a sort of aesthetic ombudsman who has seen the show, knows its world, and is more interested in discussing what it contains than in dismissing it or drooling over it.

Whether readers agree with such a critic's taste or not is less important than their ability to know, from the review, how well the play might please them: the sort of knowledge of another's opinions that comes only with longtime friendship, or with its journalistic equivalent, regular readership. The Internet has been blamed for destabilizing such reader-critic relationships, but the destabilizing started decades ago, as newspapers folded and magazines began cutting down or dropping their theater coverage. The Web has given back, virtually, all of that lost space. Anyone can now publish theater criticism. But—to update Agate—it will now take a very clever writer to give it value, and an even cleverer one to get paid for it.

mfeingold@villagevoice.com

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