Theater Criticism Reconfigured


By the end of this paragraph, the producers of Burn the Floor will be sore at the Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing. When the news broke that these two organizations, which jointly manage Broadway’s annual Tony Awards, had decided to remove the first-night theater press from the ranks of Tony voters, my first action was to e-mail my editor that I wouldn’t be reviewing Burn the Floor, Broadway’s new ballroom-dance compilation, an Australian import that has been trekking around the world for some years. As a Tony voter, I might have felt obliged to go: The nominations are so eccentric that you never know what may or may not end up on the ballot, and the ballot always specifies that you may not vote in a given category unless you’ve seen all the nominees. My new non-voter status has liberated me from events like Burn the Floor. Unluckily for its producers, my editor has no space outside my column for it either, so their show will get no Village Voice review. Let the League and the Wing deal with it.

Some of my colleagues on the press list are dismayed by the Tony administrators’ decision; some are downright irate. For me, it’s a blessed release. The League, the Broadway producers’ association, works hard to make the public equate “Broadway” with “the theater,” but the two were never identical, and in recent decades, the gap between them has steadily widened. Theater, sometimes very fine theater, does still occur in the large-scale venues that function on Broadway contracts and charge Broadway’s staggering ticket prices, but not so often that theater critics need to spend the bulk of their time there. These days, most of what we call “Broadway,” good or not, comes, like Burn the Floor, from elsewhere: London, Off-Broadway, resident theaters across the U.S. The era when “Broadway” meant a specific way of creating theater, with its own attitudes and its own approach, is long gone; its surviving practitioners are mostly older than myself. And I am not young, except at heart.

The roster of Tony voters includes Broadway producers, presenters of touring attractions, artists with Broadway credentials, and officials of the theatrical unions. By removing the first-night press, the one sizeable voting bloc not directly involved in producing Broadway shows, the Tony management reaffirmed what the award is: a trade association prize, given by members to the work they hold most valuable—which, in practice, often means most commercially valuable. The theater press, as a group, is not part of this association, nor should it be, though many of its members, myself included, have crossed the line as individuals. Newsday‘s Linda Winer, in a spirited defense of our right to be Tony voters, wrote that, as the only disinterested parties voting, “we keep them honest.” But with so many interested parties involved, how honest could they be? (The press never made up more than an eighth of the total vote.) Ask those posthumous Tony winners, Alexander Borodin and T.S. Eliot, what they thought of their prizewinning work on Kismet and Cats, respectively. Some recent Tonys handed out to living artists have been even more absurd. But the main point is that Tonys have nothing in particular to do with what the press does, and especially not with the function of criticism.

That function has found itself in a shaky situation, in our new era of digitized communication, which partly explains the aggrieved edge in the tone of those protesting the Tony decision. Newspapers and magazines, once the great repositories of arts criticism, are embattled phenomena themselves today, phasing out, as they downsize, not only their staff critics but most of their arts coverage. Springing up to replace it is the babble of voices flooding the Internet, some qualified to speak and others not, some striving for honesty while others pontificate from questionable assumptions and even more questionable motives.

Like most human phenomena, this one has precedents. A century ago, when New York had two dozen or more daily newspapers, representing every income level and every shade of political opinion, they all carried theater reviews, which—no surprise—mostly reflected those papers’ overall outlook. Mid-18th-century London, where the practice of publishing regular theater criticism began, offers an even more Internet-like picture, with fly-by-night news-sheets and scurrilous pamphlets popping up everywhere, mingling blind-item theatrical gossip with detailed analysis, often willfully and malevolently inaccurate, of plays and performances. Picture Datalounge and Educational Theatre Journal as the same website.

The Internet’s speed makes today different. Reviews by news sites’ designated critics get posted the minute a show opens. Even these are being supplanted, for enthusiasts, by the instant reactions texted or tweeted, to chat boards and networking sites by those privileged to catch the workshop, the invited dress, or the first 15 minutes of the first preview. The multiplicity of opinions online can be refreshing, like a spring rain, but their instant, unremitting inundation of all discourse seems more like the Johnstown Flood: The sane person instinctively retreats to higher ground.

Finding such ground is no longer easy. Newspapers, fighting to stay afloat in the Internet torrents, can hardly promote it. The weeklies that still cover theater now strive to post reviews simultaneous with the dailies’; the space their later deadlines used to offer for reflection and reconsideration has mostly vanished. Though many bloggers and chatters have shown that they can supply an intelligent perspective, they’re vastly outnumbered in a medium where even those who purport to love theater seem mainly concerned with which TV stars will appear onstage, or which stage stars on TV.

‘Twas ever thus. Shakespeare’s first audiences had no designated critics to help them sort good work from bad. Among the first pieces of theatrical chat we have is a rhymed wisecrack about someone who didn’t know the difference between actor and role: “For when he would have said King Richard died/And call’d, ‘A horse, a horse,’—he Burbage cried.” He was the ancestor of those AllThatChat posters who get flamed for saying “soundtrack” instead of “OBCR.”

Still, Shakespeare’s plays outlasted that era’s formless, gossipy commentary, just as they outlasted the centuries of criticism, wise or woolly-brained, that followed. Great plays have a way of outwitting both their supporters and their detractors. They may lie low during the clamorous times when criticism seems either too distracted or too helpless to light their way. The mid-19th century was such a chaos of newspaper chat, often about star actors and the trashy vehicles they toured in, that masterpieces like Woyzeck and A Month in the Country lay ignored for decades.

Our time is an exceptionally rough one for criticism. With the dizzying changes in the way we communicate altering the whole fabric of our social life, we are going through a double revolution, and revolutions are never optimal moments for integrity and clarity of thought. The critic—whether viewed by the theater as an enemy, a necessary gadfly, a creative partner, or a poor relation to be tolerated—was never more than a small part of the picture. The theater that leans on critics as a crutch, deriving its own estimate of its worth from its reviews, is probably in as unhealthy a state as the theater with no critical guidance or intellectual perspective at all. Somewhere between those two conditions, the new world that the Internet has caused will probably find a healthier middle way for the astute critical sensibility to function as part of the theater. We can’t guess yet what that will be, because we can’t predict what the theater will become. Today’s world has abolished business as usual.

One clue for criticism’s future may lie in the aspect of its essence most overlooked in the current upheavals. The instant thumbs-up or thumbs-down so beloved by the Internet is only the smallest part of a critic’s job. The rest involves writing—exploring, simultaneously, the work under review and the critic’s response to it. Oscar Wilde’s definition of criticism applies: “the record of a soul.” The habit of reading critics of the past has ebbed in recent decades. But many cultural habits have ebbed and been revived over the centuries. Phenomena like Kindle and GoogleBooks may yet bring this one back, too. The pleasures that lie in wait for readers who love theater may be ending only to begin all over again.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 11, 2009

Archive Highlights