Once, outside a performance, an actor/director/playwright (I’ll never tell who) approached me in a kind of passive-aggressive fervor. S/he began asking how I became a critic, what were my qualifications, and finally, what did I really want to do? The first two questions were easy, but the last? Well, that left me stammering.
I really wanted to be a critic. Like, always wanted it. S/he pressed on. “Yeah, but really. What do you really want to do?”
I said I wrote some fiction, some essays on the side, but really, truly, I had my dream job. I saw all the performance I wanted, whenever I wanted, with whomever I wanted, researched every show, examined each, in print, for pay (less pay these days, but still), all the time. S/he still wasn’t satisfied, and we both left the conversation slightly annoyed and puzzled.
I’m guessing, but I think my inquisitor’s subtext was a familiar one: that every critic is a frustrated something else. But isn’t theater criticism enough of its own thing? And if not, why not?
The premise of this week of essays on criticism is the “Critic as Artist,” but I think that’s the wrong approach. Despite Oscar Wilde’s admirably strenuous contortions in “The Critic as Artist” on the profession’s behalf, I don’t believe arts criticism is itself art. But that doesn’t mean it is without its own merits. I believe the artist/critic relationship is less symbiotic and closer to that of a host and parasite, but just look what we’ve done with leeches. And there’s some anecdotal evidence hookworm, though irritating, cures asthma.
I’m not being entirely glib here. A critic’s pen (or, more likely, cursor), recklessly wielded, has very real potential to damage progress within the form. It’s some small miracle that the psychologically fragile Sarah Kane, after her initial eviscerating critical reception, continued writing as long as she did. But reading the evolving critical response to her work—watching the recoil become an embrace—offers an overview of the culture’s readiness for her particular message, opens the door for us to examine what may have changed in her, in us, and in the world between the writing of her first play and her last.
Without that critical assessment, without critics going on record to champion a playwright, performer, or movement—or conversely, without critics opening up a can of whoop-ass on a show they despise and occasionally receiving a bigger one in return—would theater retain even its peripheral position in our culture? No way. Not even if it’s a review of your city’s 10,000th touring performance of Nunsense. It’s a critic’s job to compare and contrast, to examine the spaces in between those performances, to see where they intersect with our lives and where they diverge, and to keep this ephemeral living art form among us a little longer by recording what happened onstage, while challenging audience passivity in the bargain.
And yet criticism, which by now should have evolved from a one-sided conversation (and we critics all know colleagues who are so accustomed to spouting opinions unchallenged that every “conversation” becomes a monologue) to a full-fledged back-and-forth between audience and critic, still drags its knuckles. Over in the online sports section of my particular newspaper, the threads are lively, angry, and impassioned. In the political and local sections, they’re horrific cesspools of blatant racism and sexism that continue for pages. But here on the performing arts page, save for the occasional response from someone associated with a production that received a negative review, they’re empty.
I recently reviewed a production of Endgame I didn’t like, and I didn’t like it for fairly subjective reasons: Beckett didn’t want any “improvements” on his work, and considering what Beckett has given me, I feel a responsibility to act as his sentry. Obviously, there are arguments to be made for going against Beckett’s wishes. Certainly this director, a respected professional at a respected professional house believed so. I gritted my teeth, girded myself for the backlash and waited.
I’m still waiting. Why didn’t anyone call me a regressive parrot, or agree with me, or say anything at all?
Maybe there’s silence because theaters have internalized the idea that they shouldn’t engage a critic, lest they earn their wrath. Maybe it’s because critics have spent decades being complacent and often don’t feel obligated to engage with any of what they dish out. Maybe it’s because reviews don’t make money for a news outlet, and as a result, don’t get promoted the way crime and sports get promoted. Whatever the case, a critic shouldn’t be the last public word on a production, they should be the first, and 21st century criticism—should anyone care to pay for it—is in a position to reimagine itself as a gathering place for those who care about the arts in general, and a region’s arts scene in particular.
John Guare recently said that contemporary playwriting offers a record of “how it felt to be alive in the 21st century.” In turn, criticism (and even reviews, if you choose to make that distinction) offers a record of how our civilization responded to the arts. Theater critics are not theater artists, but we are recorded proof that theater mattered, and for me, that’s more than enough.