To set your wisdom (holding not a doubt of it,
Although in truth there’s neither bone nor skin to it)
At work upon a book, and so read out of it
The qualities that you have first read into it.
—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
Criticism can talk, and all the arts are dumb.
—Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism
The teacher, critic, competition judge, assembly of fellow students all watch the performance in order to judge, and so their opinion, either of the moment or of the piece as a whole, is worthless.
—David Mamet, Theatre
This past summer, I was on my way to the Ottawa Fringe Festival office to purchase my Fringe pins (or pick up my media pass, I can’t recall which), and I stopped at a Bridgehead to pick up a coffee. As I was leaving, I passed a lady wearing sunglasses on the patio. She was reading a Fringe program. I commented favourably, and mentioned that I was on my way to pick up my pin.
“What should I see?” she asked. I balked. There were sixty shows in the Fringe, and it hadn’t even started yet. I hadn’t seen anything. There hadn’t been anything to see. There were performers from out of town (and some local companies) that I knew nothing about.
I seem to recall muttering something about Jonno Katz, giving her the FullyFringed.ca website information, and hightailing it down Dalhousie.
This is neither the first nor the only time something like this has happened to me.*
Playwright, philosopher, and plenty else besides Sterling Lynch raised the perennial question of the role of popular criticism in the arts recently. Although as someone who writes theatre reviews I’m probably singularly unqualified to judge their value, I do have some opinions by which I attempt to govern my conduct. These may amount to a statement on my view of the place of popular criticism.
There exists a large portion of society that has to “know before they go”. You can test this. Find someone, and say “hey, I have two free tickets to see X show, would you like to go?”** Among the possible responses you will receive are: “Sure!”, “No.”, and “What is it?” From experience, “I don’t know, I haven’t seen it yet” is never the answer they’re looking for.
Most people want to go into the theatre knowing something about what they’re seeing. It almost doesn’t matter what.*** (Is it a comedy? If so, is it funny? Is it a tragedy? If so, is it funny? A melodrama? Satire? Who are the actors? What have I seen them in? Is the play one I ought to know? Did the playwright write anything else I should recognize? Arthur Milner… did he marry Marilyn Monroe or Anaïs Nin?****) The publicist is aware of this fact, or at least they act on it as if they were. The publicist can be trusted to say good things about the production, and they are most likely written before rehearsals start. If there is a synopsis, it is usually accurate; if there are adjectives, they are usually hyperbole. But at least it’s something.
I think, ideally, the critic as reviewer is working on behalf of the potential audience. Therefore, it does the critic no good to dwell too heavily on the themes or the minute details of stagecraft unless they interfere with or add to the enjoyment of the performance. The potential audience wants to know if a production is worth spending money and time to see.***** They also want to know why—and as different things appeal to different people, the popular critic has to be aware of this, and roughly judge what will be popular to whom.
There is a piece of advice often given to directors, playwrights, and the like that critics and reviewers ought to follow to a certain degree. They are told to sit in the back row during the performance and watch the audience. Yawns, fidgets, excessive playing with the program… all these indicate something isn’t working. When I am reviewing, I take note, in my peripheral vision, of people sneaking glances at their watches, and ask myself “What went wrong there?” It’s the easiest way to zero in on the shortcomings of a production.
The easiest review to write is the absolute failure. Remember Dorothy Parker: “The House Beautiful is, for me, the play lousy.” Such a thunderbolt. (These, by the way, bring some public in the door; they want to see if it really is that bad of a trainwreck.)
Personally, I don’t read the reviews until after I’ve seen the performance and written my own; I understand, too, the actors and directors who don’t read the reviews at all, and have sympathy for the poor publicists who must.
So the popular critic is… the foreman of the audience? An armchair director? The advance scout of the general public? A scapegoat?
Maybe. But the answer, as with most arts, is that the more you complicate something, the more theory you evolve around it, the further away you are from understanding it. So at its most basic, the scene is: a popular critic goes to see a production, writes about what they saw, if they found it good or not, why, and what parts. The utility thereof is determined wholly by the person who reads (or listens to) the review.
And unlike the actor, there is rarely applause to tell us if we are doing it right or not. On occasion, as a reviewer, I have received some word from an audience member, a performer, or a (paid and consecrated) theatre critic that lets me know what I write is being read and is thus of use to someone.
I find that is all that I need to know on the subject.
* Serves me right for setting myself up as a bloody authority on the subject.
** Prepare to back this up with actual tickets. It may backfire.
*** You will see this same phenomenon in a variety of situations where a person comes up against the unknown. For example, a doctor’s office: Doctor: “Well, you’re going to need surgery.” Patient: “Wha… surgery? What kind of surgery?” Doctor: “Oh, we’re just going to go in through the medulla oblongata and cauterize the corpus luteum. It’s an outpatient procedure.” Patient: “Ah, that’s alright then.” Now, it doesn’t matter that the patient doesn’t know where or what a medulla is, why it might be oblongata, if that’s even an orifice through which the body can be entered (it isn’t)… but he has been told something and that’s all that’s necessary in a great many cases.
**** Neither. Arthur Milner is an Ottawa playwright and director. Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman and married Marilyn Monroe. Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin were lovers. Henry wrote Tropic of Cancer, which ended up helping to shape the legal definition of obscenity in the United States. If you can keep all of that straight, you have enough material to last you through at least one cocktail party.
***** A reviewer has to be a bit of a Method actor: he has to believe and act as though he has paid full ticket price, even though he got into opening night Scot free (rather, for the low, low price of staying sober, staying awake an extra couple of hours to write, and not being able to look certain actors and directors in the eye at parties). Otherwise his experience is not that of the general audience member.