The Grand Unification Theory of Theatre Reviewing
A “good” play review is traditionally thought of as a “positive” review. We need to move beyond that, and define a good review as a review that meets minimum requirements of what a review should be. We need, at long last, to define a standard of excellence for theatre reviews.
The Grand Unification Theory of Theatre Reviewing begins, as all theories must, by rejecting the historical paradigm. The historical paradigm, in this case is “A good review = A positive review.”
But what to replace this with?
Theatre reviews are read by three distinct audiences: readers interested in theatre in general, the artists whose work is being reviewed, and the potential audience for a particular play. While the three consumers of theatre reviews are all important, most likely the majority of people read theatre reviews to determine if they want to attend the play being reviewed. So, for purposes of this discussion, if readers want to decide whether or not to attend a particular play, then a “good” review is one that assists them in that decision.
So, a ‘good’ review helps readers decide whether or not to attend the play, regardless of the reviewer's personal reaction to the play.
Someone who knows me can advise against or recommend a play to me. A reviewer, who does not know me, cannot. What a reviewer can do is accurately report what he or she has seen, so I can decide for myself whether or not to attend the play. The reviewer hates “it.” That's fine, as long as I can figure out what “it” is. Because “it” might be exactly what I am looking for.
Therefore, The Grand Unification Theory of Theatre Reviewing proposes this new equation:
“A good review = A review that helps readers determine if they would like to attend the play.”
We must hold articles in the entertainment section to the same standard of excellence as articles in the travel section. In assisting readers with travel plans, a well-written travel article describes what the reader might experience upon traveling to a particular destination. If the reader finishes the article without a clue as to whether or not the place may be of interest as a travel destination, the author has failed and probably will not last long as a travel writer. Shouldn’t we hold theatre reviewers to the same standard?
So, a “good” review helps readers decide whether or not to attend the play, regardless of the reviewer's personal reaction to the play. But how can a review help a diverse audience of readers determine if they want to see the play being reviewed?
In order to assist the reader in deciding which plays to attend, a conscientious review must fulfill the following four requirements: First, it must be accurate. Second, it must capture the pulse of the audience. Third, it must use an appropriate yardstick in assessing the play. Finally, it must include the reviewer's opinion of the play. When reviews include these four elements, readers can make an informed decision about whether or not to see the play. When reviews do not include these four essential elements, readers, given the choice between attending a play and turning on the TV, often opt for the latter.
Report It Accurately
As journalists, critics must first and foremost report what they see. Friends of mine took their thirteen-year-old daughter to see a play that got a rave review in an alternative weekly, only to discover that the second half of the play is done in the nude. This was not something their thirteen-year-old daughter felt comfortable with. Unfortunately, nudity was not mentioned at all in the review.
Any competent review should mention the genre of the play. For example, is it a comedy? Drama?
A review of a small production of Kafka's Dick by Alan Bennett appeared in an alternative weekly paper. It is a textbook example of inaccurate reporting. The short review says that the play “expose[s] plenty of myths about how a society views its artists,” and that “it suggests that literary criticism can become... a kind of spotty magnifying glass through which we consider a writer's entire body of work.”
All very thoughtful and accurate statements about the play. But the review has one problem. Kafka's Dick is an outrageously funny comedy. The night I attended, audience members were falling out of their chairs with laughter. Unfortunately, words like “funny,” “hysterical,” or “comedy,” do not appear in the review.
I was there the same night as this reviewer. Indeed the critic sat there stone-faced throughout the evening (it was theatre in the round, in a small space, and I had to look at her through the entire play), and she in turn gave it a stone-faced review.
The problem is not that my opinion is that it is funny and the critic's opinion is that it is not. The problem is that the entire audience was laughing hysterically. The critic did not accurately report on this play and therefore this seemingly thoughtful review did a complete disservice to readers who went to see this production expecting an intellectual exploration of literary criticism. Likewise, it did a disservice to readers who passed on Kafka's Dick because they were looking for a comedy.
A good review must, first, be accurate. Second, it must capture the pulse of the audience. Third, it must use an appropriate yardstick in assessing the play. Finally, it must include the reviewer's opinion of the play.
Capture the Pulse of the Audience
Why should the critic care what the audience thinks? The critic has seen more plays and has a breadth of knowledge of theatre unmatched by anyone else in the audience.
However, the critic should care about the audience reaction for the simple reason that the people in the audience are not there because they are getting paid to be there. The audience members are there because they are the type of people who attend this sort of play.
Is the critic supposed to measure the production by some aristocratic standard of excellence? Or is it the job of the critic to capture the zeitgeist of the crowd? The critic must do both, and clearly delineate the two functions. But the overall rating of the play should, if possible, reflect the reaction of the audience, and in so doing hopefully reflect the potential reaction of the reader should he or she attend the play.
Use an Appropriate Yardstick
In a Theatre Magazine article titled “Artistic Directors on Criticism,” David Herskovits, artistic director of Target Margin Theatre, writes, “First and foremost a critic must ask, ‘What were the creators trying to do?’ …This is the exit from that tired loop of criticizing something because it is not something else.” In-other-words, use an appropriate yardstick and judge a play based on what the play sets out to accomplish. Simple.
Or it should be simple. A review in the New Yorker dismissed a popular play as “nothing but hokum,” observing that “there is no workout for the spirit here.” The review condemned the audience for being taken in by such “chucklehead pleasures.”
All fine and good, except the production being reviewed is Mamma Mia, a play based on disco hits from the seventies. There is nothing in Mamma Mia’s marketing campaign that promises a spiritual workout. We already know that it’s shallow, thanks. It’s ABBA for heaven’s sake. Sorry, critic. The problem isn’t Mamma Mia. The problem is your yardstick.
Give an Opinion
The reviewer, or at minimum the arts editor, must keep in mind the goal of helping readers decide if the play being reviewed is one they would like to attend. Even opinions must be guided by this overarching goal.
A San Francisco critic concluded her scathing review of a gay theatre production with the observation that if the men are going to be nude, then “the men should be well hung”. However, this opinion about on-stage penis sizes does not assist the reader of the review because most readers are not basing their theatre-going decisions on the penis size of the actors. Had the arts editor simply applied the yardstick of “does this opinion assist readers in deciding whether or not to attend the play?” he would have realized that the penis comment does not measure up, and it would have been axed.
A Positive, Bad Review
Let us now apply the Grand Unification Theory of Theatre Reviewing to a few examples. We begin with a gushing, bad review, as reported in an alternative weekly in Seattle:
I wish I had a bat signal I could wheel out and illuminate whenever a play like T— comes along. T— is bat-signal good. … Most theatre is frankly bad, a few plays a year are good, and one or two plays a year are bat-signal good. … Buy tickets, and go. … GO. It's so good.
Every sentence of the 200-word review repeatedly admonishes the reader to attend the play. The reviewer really, really liked the play, and the producers of the play probably considered this a “good” review. But checking out the online reader response to this review and we see the Grand Unification Theory of Theatre Reviewing in action. Readers were pissed off. They do not want to be told to go see “it.” Readers desperately want to know what “it” is so they can decide for themselves whether to attend the play. Readers want good journalism.
A Negative, Good Review
If we accept the premise that a well-written review assists the reader in deciding whether to attend the production, then it becomes easy to spot “good” reviews.
Here is an example of a well-written theatre review of the play Metamorphoses found in The New Yorker:
Ovid's tales, loosely adapted and directed by Mary Zimmerman, who had the ingenious idea of staging the caprice of the gods in a swimming pool. The production is fun and full of wonder, but it illustrates rather than dramatizes psychic struggle. The show's gimmick, the pool, turns out to be its metaphor—refreshing and shallow.
Traditionally, this review would be considered a “bad” review, because the critic did not like the play. But applying our four-point standard of excellence to this review classifies this as a “good” review! Why? Three sentences and I have all the information I need. Notice that this review wastes no words on descriptions of the actors or the plot. It quickly and efficiently describes the look and feel of the production, and cleanly separates the description from the opinion. Swimming pool, fun and wonder. Shallow and no drama. Sounds like one of those “performance art” shows that I absolutely love. Sure, it may be emotionally shallow but that's the price you pay for that rich, juicy avant garde thrill. I'm turning off the TV. I'm going.
There, that really wasn't so difficult was it? All it takes is good journalism.