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On Criticism

by | Dec 5, 2017 | Review | 0 comments

(This is a repost of an essay that I wrote a while back.)

A few years ago, I was talking with a local director in a theatre lobby. I had recently given a show of his a mixed review and, as we spoke, he became so enraged that I braced myself for a blow to the head. He and I had already had an extended and difficult conversation that morning and I could feel myself running out of rational resources, so I said, “Let’s just drop this for now. It’s not a discussion anymore, it’s a battle.” He replied, “Fuckin’ right it’s a battle, man. It’s gonna stay a fuckin’ battle. You better remember that.”

Another director was so furious about a review I gave him that he tried to bar my entry to his next production—although he allowed that maybe I could come in on the understanding that I would publish a review only if I liked the show.

Some readers tell me that they make all of their theatre-going decisions based upon my critiques. An actor who was mortally sick informed me that my public words of praise for his performance made the prospect of his impending death easier to bear.

By casting me as saviour, savant, publicist, or antagonistic career-killer, all of these folks are missing the point of criticism. As I see it, my job is to contribute an informed opinion to the discussion of theatre, and my primary responsibility is not to the consumer or to the artist, but to the art itself.

When I began writing for the Georgia Straight in the ʼ80s, Max Wyman, Vancouver’s critic emeritus, gave me a small book of essays on criticism. I don’t remember the name of the writer whose ideas impressed me most, but I do remember what that person said: “The most reliable way to read criticism is as autobiography.” Right on.

Theatre is about social processes; we go there to examine the ways in which we treat one another and come to know ourselves. As a bonus, as we sit in the dark, we get to mentally rehearse potential new modes of being. So it matters how I analyze social power and where I place myself in that framework. It matters that I’m male, gay, feminist, white, socialist, and middle-aged—that I come from the working class and grew up an uncomfortable Christian.

I declare these biases in my reviews because I think that’s the most honest way to write. This does not mean that my viewpoint is narrower than anyone else’s. When writers don’t declare their biases—when they hide behind a supposedly neutral voice, as happens all too regularly—their assessments take on a tone of authority that I think is way out of line. By answering the reader’s question of “Who the hell does he think he is?” I hope to place my assessment firmly in the realm of personal response.

Besides, no writer’s voice is ever truly neutral. People regularly accuse me of having a “political agenda,” as if that somehow makes me unique. Everybody has an agenda; disappointingly, the agenda of too many reviewers seems to be to support the status quo. In a discipline as passionate, personal, and important as theatre, I don’t find the middle of the road a very interesting place to be.

All that said, I disagree with people who claim that reviewing is entirely subjective. The German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe proposed that every critic should ask three questions: What is the artist trying to do? How well is the artist doing it? Is it worth doing? In reviewing a production of Phantom of the Opera, I might answer Goethe’s first question by saying that Andrew Lloyd Webber sets out to entertain through mechanical spectacle. If the production under consideration is virtuosically executed, I must acknowledge that it’s a wonder to behold. A multitude of factors including directorial and design decisions, actors’ technique, and the playwright’s handling of image and plot all influence how effectively the play’s themes—whatever I may think of them—come across. As a critic, part of my job is to try to untangle those strands to figure out what’s working and what’s not. It’s not until the third question that social considerations really start to kick in. I might answer Goethe’s final query by saying that, despite a tantalizingly concealed theme of incest, Phantom is fundamentally superficial, and that all you’re really buying with your expensive ticket is distraction for yourself—not necessarily a bad thing—and another yacht for Lloyd Webber. I’d probably also point out that when you go to Phantom, you participate in an aspect of theatrical culture that is fundamentally conservative and business-oriented.

Alright. That should cover the word opinion in my job description. But what do I mean when I say that I want to contribute to the discussion of theatre? How realistic is that? Well, that’s partly up to you.

By declaring who I am in reviews, I hope to invite readers to consider their responses in relation to mine—to take responsibility for their own assessments of both my arguments and the production in question. We’re all lazy, of course, so many of us don’t want to bother getting mentally involved. We want one to four stars from our newspaper writers and a thumbs-up or thumbs-down from Roger Ebert. While it’s easier to go the route of the passive consumer, however, it’s more rewarding not to; one of the great pleasures of both reading and writing criticism is that, if you perform either activity well, it will help you to appreciate the potential of the arts more deeply. Besides, deferring to “expert” opinion plays into a system in which we grant critics undue authority and then proceed to resent them for it.

I was on a panel with choreographer Lee Su-feh a couple of years ago. Besides being a talented performance and martial artist, Lee is a huge hockey fan. I remember her saying that a big difference between hockey and the performing arts is that, in hockey, when the home team loses, people talk about it; in private conversations, in newspapers, on TV, and on the radio, people try to figure out what went wrong because they’re interested in the team doing better next time. When a theatre or dance performance fails, on the other hand, people slink away. Quietly.

Partly, that’s because theatre is so obviously personal. I know from going to the theatre with scores of people over the years that many folks get intensely embarrassed when a show isn’t going well. “Oh God!” they seem to think, “That could be me up there making an idiot of myself!” And artists do make themselves vulnerable. If I say that I don’t like an actor’s work, for instance, what am I criticizing exactly—their voice, their physical self, or their emotional resources?

Overpersonalizing makes discussion virtually impossible, though. If critics and artists hope to maintain any serious dialogue about theatre, it’s important to remember that a distinction does exist between an artist’s personal worth and the success or failure of a particular piece of work. That might seem obvious, but in a field as riddled with neuroses as the theatre, it can be a difficult notion to keep a tight grip on—especially for the creators whose every choice may be subjected to public examination. Part of my job is to support my arguments as fully as I can, so that it’s clear that I’m making an assessment, as opposed to practicing some kind of reader-pleasing hit and run. If I do that job well, it’s the artist’s responsibility to respond to my argument with counter-argument—if they wish to—rather than strings of retaliatory insults. After all, my expression of my opinion does not mean that they will never be as loved as they deserve to be.

I know that, in the Straight, I will get a louder say than anybody else as long as I’m the main theatre writer, but it’s important to remember that the letters section is the most widely read portion of the newspaper. I actively encourage both theatregoers and artists to write letters to the editor and I welcome artists to contact me personally. [I also encourage all readers to comment on online reviews.]

So. That’s the job I try to do. I get a lot of support for my efforts and I appreciate it. Still, I elicit flashes of rage. To figure out why, I think it helps to look at my work in the context of time and the general critical milieu.

Obviously, I’ve provoked some of the venom people spew; my words can be harsh. Generally speaking, I have the sense that members of Vancouver’s theatre community liked me better when I first started writing for the Straight. In the early days of this career, I was closer to my own intense period of work as an actor and playwright, so I was more sympathetic to intention and process; I gave a lot of credit to what might have been. But that gets tired pretty fast. I found myself imitating my own accommodating voice long after my original sympathy had dissipated. My reviews grew flat until I finally tore a strip off a show I loathed and felt a rush of honesty. Writing has to stay truthful in order to stay vigorous and false praise serves no one; it might make a few individuals feel good for a while, but it diminishes our sense of theatre’s potential. Longevity breeds contempt in another way, too: a few years ago, I felt myself starting to turn into an institution in the eyes of some—the establishment in some weird sense, a force to be resisted on principle.

There’s more to it, though. I suspect that one of the reasons some people get so inflamed about my opinions is that my views carry disproportionate weight—not because I’m in Susan Sontag’s league, but because theatre writing in Vancouver is too often ill informed. My practical experience—my understanding of the processes of making theatre—helps me make my assessments. I respect a couple of critics in this town, but the level of criticism in most newspapers suffers from a common error: editors think that critics are reporters and reporters think that they can cover anything. In my opinion, critics should be specialists, not generalists, well-informed analysts, not efficient recorders. You can always tell when a reporter masquerading as a critic has no idea what to say: they spend endless paragraphs describing the action.

In the end, of course, I don’t do this job because I want to be liked, or because I relish the perverse power of being disliked. I do it because I love the theatre. That devotion is an intrinsic requirement for being an artist. I think it should also be a requirement for being a critic. The fundament of a critic’s job, after all, is to fan the flame of devotion in those who already harbour it, and to excite that love in those who don’t.


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