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Theatre: What do we want from a theater review?

By Robert W. Bethune
ART TIMES May/ June 2012

NYTCriticWatch asked this question online in late March, and it would seem they’re actually trying to find out. They have an online survey going, and they’ve discussed a few ideas.

They’ve started with a useful question, which I will rephrase: “Whaddya mean we, white man?” The idea that there is a “we” out there is obviously merely a starting point from which one must hastily depart. “We” immediately breaks down into “us” and “them.” But that’s not the end; who “us” and “them” refer to further breaks down depending on who’s working the pronouns.

The people who do theater — actors, designers, directors, choreographers, writers — have an ancient and eternal hostility to those who judge their work. It’s a pity we don’t have Menander’s thoughts as a twenty year old up-and-coming comedy writer about that old fart Aristotle who just died. I doubt they would have been friendly. Aristotle didn’t think much of comedy, after all, though he tried to sound fair, and to Menander Aristotle’s championing of Sophocles would have been the oldest of old-fogeyism. However, if you take theater artists and pin them down to the pavement, slap them around a bit, and threaten them with endless revivals of Noises Off, you can get them to admit that reviews and criticism do have a place, and that place is not in Hades. It is sometimes helpful, they will grudgingly snarl, to have an outside view of the work, especially if that outside view applies to someone else, and even more so if that view is thoroughly negative and applies to someone they don’t like.

What an artist wants is praise. If that weren’t true it would be astonishingly contrary to fundamental human nature. When you’ve worked your butt of fighting your way into a profession that needs newcomers like a hole in the head, and when you are working your butt off trying to do good work while getting paid like a serf, the last thing you need or want is somebody telling you, in public print, “God, you suck!”

The people who buy the tickets aren’t quite as down on critics and reviewers, but there’s still not a lot of love lost. The ticket buyer’s attitude is, “Tell me what I will like. And don’t be wrong because if you are it’s all your fault.” Of course, a review is the ultimate one-size-fits-all garment, written once by one and read many times by many people. Like all such one-size-fits-all products, it doesn’t actually fit anybody except by random chance. Of course, the ticket buyer’s profoundly logical and deeply considered response is, “He’s an idiot. He never likes anything I like.” The implications of this for the megalomania of the ticket buyer bear consideration, especially if your life is a bit short on cynical laughter at the moment.

There is, of course, a third side to this triangle. What does the reviewer want? I’m afraid that’s all too obvious from reading any reasonable selection of reviews. Reviewers want power. They have it, too, of a kind. One well-placed negative review can ruin a production; a series of them can ruin a season; enough of them can destroy an artist or a company. Oddly enough, however, a review, positive or negative may mean everything or nothing. There are any number of productions in the history of the theater that were loved and praised to the skies by critics and reviewers while the ticket buyers stayed away in droves. And likewise, a negative review may leave the reviewer on the sidelines fuming while the ticket-buying yahoos flock to the theater and mob the box office.

The irony is that all sides of the triangle want, ultimately, the same thing: certainty. The audience wants to feel certain they will enjoy the show. That’s not possible. The critics want to feel certain their opinions are right and will be the dominant influence on the public. That’s not possible. The artists want to feel certain their work is good. That’s not possible either.

So, what do we want from reviews? Something we cannot reliably get. The process of creating, experiencing, and judging esthetic experiences is a perfect tangle of constantly shifting breezes, blowing any way they want to, any time they want to, regardless of anything we think, or want, or do. It has always been so; it will always be so. We’d better make up our minds to like it.

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