“Those who can’t do, teach.”
Replace “teach” with “criticize,” and you already have a fairly good idea of what a large segment of the artistic population thinks about critics. One of the more common jobs out there for a dramaturg is that of a theatre critic, though the crumbling newspaper industry is making even this much more difficult. Criticism has been maligned as a non-art that concerns artists. However, while not all critics are artists, and it is impossible to equate a daily review with an indelible theatrical event, good criticism is a very specific type of art. The critic’s responsibility is to be an artist who cannot make art for art’s sake; the art of the review is one of utility. Its craft lies in circumnavigating its restraints, and they are legion.
The first dangerous constraint is that the review cannot truly be for the people it affects most: those involved in the production. A critic is as much an artist as a dramaturg (this can be read either way, depending on one’s opinion), but the critic cannot be the dramaturg of the production he or she reviews. This is tacitly acknowledged by the taboo on reviewing a show in previews. Only once a show is out of the stage where it can be adjusted, are the reviewers allowed to write about it. If the ideas of the critic could truly matter to a show’s development, the system would allow for two reviews; one early, than an adjustment period, than a final verdict. As this is a pipe dream, it is hard to see a review as anything but a judgment for the public, and for the ages. Unfortunately, these two required judgments conflict.
As a lover of both theatre and intelligent discourse, a critic does not want to issue a simple diagnosis – but as the public’s guide, the job’s perimeters narrow into the more basic consumer’s choice. The public cannot, save an expensive and self-defeating walkout, spend thirty percent of three hours watching a play in response to a review that is one-third positive. Nor can a theatergoer necessarily pay for sixty percent of a ticket to see a show receiving moderate but guarded acclaim. Going to the theatre is a yes-or-no proposition, and therefore responding to the task of theatre guide invites the yes-or-no mentality. It is up to each critic to determine to what degree to fight this mentality. An ideal review would not only contain a critic’s personal feedback, but enough engaging information about the experience so that a reader could figure out if he or she would enjoy it. How to achieve this in 500 words?
Word count, perhaps more than anything else, is the thoughtful newspaper critic’s bête noire. This is much more of an issue in the current newspaper industry than, say, on the Internet, though the Internet did spawn the concept of “TL; DR.” Distilling criticism into a restricted frame is a challenge: even if the critic is forced to paint in miniature, there is still a responsibility to be creative and insightful, witty and wise. If painting in miniature requires a more studied, careful brushstroke than a larger canvas, small reviews need more carefully chosen words than in-depth reviews. This is, of course, romanticizing one’s limitations. Miniaturists did not choose their craft because of a canvas shortage.
Newspaper reviews are not only getting shorter, but they are generally created under extreme pressure, presenting a fundamental dichotomy. Playwrights often have months or even years to develop what winds up on stage, and a critic needs to have an immediate response. The imbalance is staggering, and no wonder artists complain. The newspaper medium demands quick content, and speed is a large part of the art. However, the critic’s other function as an historical preservationist makes the disparity of time spent on production and review even more contentious.
Other than perhaps in video, the production is “immortalized” mainly in evaluation; a published script preserves the playwright’s contribution, not the production. It seems dreadfully unfair to have 500 words written in twelve hours permanently impose a lens on history, no matter how inconsequential. The production is ephemeral; it is the reviews that dog one forever. The review is created for the public, but it is the artistic community that may value and remember it historically: how to walk this tightrope of intent?
Director Anne Bogart, at the 1992 Critics and Criticism conference, mentioned the concept of artist as empty vessel, referring to the powerful the feeling of being “spoken through.” However, she later admitted that an artist contradicts the concept of being this kind of transmitter, by bringing their personal prejudices, experiences, and influences to the art they create. Bogart calls these human influences “tragic,” but this sort of tragedy is hard to comprehend. Why would an artist wish to divorce his or her “development as a human being” from the “development as an artist”? The critic is much like the artist in this case: for all his or her intellectual development (to parallel an artist’s artistic development), full of these very human influences.
While intellectually the critic may see that a piece of theatre should work, it is impossible to divorce the personal response, and nor should it be possible if theatre hopes to effect an emotional reaction. The theatre, to the best of our knowledge, is created for humans, by humans, and this is a spiritual conduit that should remain open. Shortly after Bogart’s comments, Ross Wetzsteon, Village Voice editor and founder of the OBIE Awards, spoke of the danger of taking a journalist’s judgment as objective gospel, rather than subjective opinion. While the artist can consider him or herself an empty vessel, the critic must not espouse this same theory of divine inspiration, unless we are using “divine” to refer to a particularly good one-liner. On the other hand, Bogart mentions art as being created in a state of imbalance (which of course leaves the artist more vulnerable to criticism) while the critic is under pressure to be as rational as possible.
Bogart exposed a fundamental difference between artist and critic when she espoused her tenet that the play must be larger than the artist. For the critic, this is not entirely the case. Of course, the critic cannot consider him or herself larger than the play (effect on public perception or purchases aside), but while to the artist, the play looms larger than anything at that moment, the critic (ideally) must consider it as not only a work in its own right but as a speck on the horizon of cultural, intellectual, emotional canon; what critic John Simon calls “being in tune with history.”
In the end, despite the agonizing artistic process and the constraints of market forces and the desire for critical approval, while responsibility towards the public is ideal, the artist is really only responsible for his or her integrity. The critic has a responsibility to the artist, to the public, and to a small part of historical record, though many do not necessarily behave that way. Similarly, in Bogart’s view, the artwork changes the artist, but the play and its subsequent review does not necessarily have to change the reviewer past the basic condition of having or having not seen it. No wonder artists and critics clash, with their very different ways of looking at these tiny universes. The artist uses a microscope to look at the vast sky, while the critic employs a telescope lens with microscopic scrutiny.
Writing a review is in no way harder or more important than the piece itself; without art, art criticism would clearly not exist. But a thoughtful piece of arts writing can play off the initial work, generating ideas and questions. As Bogart postulates that a writer’s art happens with the pen, a director’s in rehearsal, and an actor’s on stage in front of an audience, the real art happens when the act of absorption culminates in the act of transmission; when the postulating stops and the “doing” begins. So, while some will never agree that the art of the review is just that, perhaps eventually they will call it a respectable craft.