On The New York Times‘ (“We don’t just report it. We are it,” goes the current advertising slogan for the newspaper, which is deserving of a post in itself — “People will think what I tell them to think,” Charles Foster Kane once said) “ArtsBeat” blog yesterday, reviewer Jason Zinoman discussed “the meaning and purpose of bad reviews”: “Of course, fairness is important in criticism. Critics are human and a negative review can go off the rails and veer into cruelty and personal attacks. The temptations of the witty put-down are real, and when it comes to the Fringe, seeing five shows in a day can also play a role. We should take our responsibility seriously. But I would rather live in a theater culture where discussions about plays can get as contentious (and occasionally rude) as those about politics.” In the comments section to this essay, I respond, “It’s not so much a matter of whether a critic who gives a bad review to a show has a vendetta or seems to engage in abuse. It is, however, a matter of whether or not the reviewer has the thoughtfulness or the knowledgability to render such a review valid. Especially with plays that seek to extend the form, the critic should be able to differentiate between a bad play and those which do not yield their pleasures as easily as others.” The contentious and rude review often enough calls attention to itself and the reviewer, not the play and the artist, which does a disservice to reader and artist alike. It also might serve as a cover for ignorance. The same can be said for rude and contentious political arguments, for that matter, whether from Noam Chomsky or Ann Coulter. True, sometimes readers find these reviews fun — but that’s only to cater to the lowest common denominator. Perhaps in a world of 140-character Tweets and Facebook status updates, this is to be expected, but the serious reader should want more than this, the serious critic or reviewer should want to write it, and the serious arts editor should want to publish it. That such criticism and reviews can be provocatively and entertainingly written is proven by the writings of critics from George Bernard Shaw to Eric Bentley, Robert Brustein, and many many others. Mr. Zinoman’s full post is here.
There has been some comment this week on Charlotte Higgins’ “Arthur Miller: Why America lowered the curtain on his reputation” in today’s Guardian. It is more or less a report on a speech that Miller biographer Christopher Bigsby gave at the Edinburgh international book festival; the second volume of the biography was recently published in the United Kingdom. I myself find it doubtful that Miller’s political reputation plays any role in the reception of the dramatist’s late work in the US; the fault lies in the poor quality of the plays rather than the politics of their author. Perhaps, to turn the transatlantic telescope the other way round, it’s Miller’s political reputation that leads to the higher esteem in which the British hold his late drama and not whether the plays themselves are any good. Terry Teachout’s obituary for the dramatist, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal and seems to be the focus of some of this comment, is here. For what it’s worth, I share several of Mr. Teachout’s misgivings about Miller’s plays, even his most celebrated: “I expect that Death of a Salesman will continue to hold the stage, though not because it is beautiful or intelligent or provocative,” he wrote in 2005. “It is, rather, sentimental, and sentimentality always goes over big in the commercial theater, so long as it’s disguised as realism. More important, Death of a Salesman has a coarsely compulsive power that somehow manages to mask its aesthetic deficiencies, or at least render them momentarily palatable. That’s the mystery of theater: It’s all about what works, and like it or not, Death of a Salesman works. But it’s no Lear, just as Arthur Miller was no Shakespeare, and anyone who thinks otherwise is as lead-eared as he was.” In short, it was his ear, and not his politics, that crippled him.