As I hitch up my pants and swing into the critical saddle again, I’m musing about what kind of value my own reviews and essays might offer (aside from my own prejudices, that is) that may not be found anywhere else. At present, the theatrical blogosphere appears to be in a period of transition, and as an old-schooler of the first generation who sees the blog as an independent individual voice in the critical arena, I’m seeking justification for my continued efforts. I do find it here and there.
In 2011 I found a little of it in Jonathan Kalb’s 2002/2003 essay “Advice to the Young Critic,” which first appeared in Yale’s Theater magazine and was subsequently collected in Play by Play. I described this finding in the below post.
In May 2011 Elizabeth Hunter Spreen was awarded a master’s degree at San Jose State University for “The New Playgoer’s Club: The Emergent Theater Weblog Culture and the Practice of Theater Criticism.” Ms. Spreen, who herself runs the Ghost Light Web log, focused specifically on the “Bloggers’ Nights” of a few years ago which now seem to have been suspended, but in analyzing his period of theatrosphere history she makes several compelling points, referencing old friends both foreign and domestic. I participated only briefly and rather controversially in these events and am glad to let Ms. Spreen tell you about this. She offers considerable food for thought about the “crisis” in contemporary dramatic criticism in the United States, which is also suggested by the 2008 publication of Bert Cardullo’s American Drama/Critics: Writings and Readings. According to the publisher, “The thesis of Americam Drama/Critics is also that the decline of American drama in the late twentieth to early twenty-first century is paralleled by, and even attributable to, the decline or disappearance of American dramatic criticism” — a thesis that some will find arguable, others compelling.
I haven’t read Mr. Cardullo’s book so can’t judge whether his thesis is well-founded. But I have been reading over the past couple of days “The Death (and Life) of American Theater Criticism: Advice to the Young Critic,” a speech that Jonathan Kalb gave to students at Barnard College and New York University in Fall 2002 and was subsequently published in the Winter 2003 issue of Yale’s Theater magazine; it also appears in his book Play by Play. As it happens, Mr. Kalb delivered his lecture just a year before I launched this blog and just shortly before he launched his own online journal, Hot Review. It is an inspiring and informative speech and I do recommend it (and if anyone can track down Stanley Kauffmann’s 1967 “Drama on the Times” essay, which Mr. Kalb calls “the most important piece written about theater criticism in America” and was published in the New American Review #1, let me know: it’s a tough one to find).
Now, in 2011, are things much different than they were in 2003? Before taking up the blogosphere, one can answer for the print media: yes, they are, and they are worse. When Mr. Kalb delivered his speech in 2002, he noted that there were still a “handful” of “real critics” working in the daily and weekly print media: Michael Feingold at the Village Voice, Robert Brustein at the New Republic, John Heilpern at the New York Observer — “more names could be added,” he admits, but “The point is … that no matter what names I added, this would be a small, embattled, and aging group.” Feingold is still at the Voice, but Heilpern left the Observer some years ago; Brustein writes only on rare occasions for the New Republic. Those critical voices who have taken their place have done so as the print medium itself has been evolving in a more consumerist, post-capitalist direction, and those voices reflect that direction too. Among Mr. Kalb’s nine items of advice for the young critic is “Ground Your Work in Knowledge, Not Style,” and it’s worth quoting at length here because it hits home:
Some of you are no doubt wondering at this point, “What about fun? Don’t delight, enjoyment, and entertainment come into the equation at all?” Absolutely. I, for one, get more pure enjoyment out of good theater than I do from most other pursuits, and I try to convey that in my writing. Recently, I had a medical condition that paralyzed half my face for months, and when I went to see Edward Albee’s The Goat I laughed so hard at one joke that a spasm developed in my deadened cheek and jump-started my healing. I tell you this not just to amuse you, however, but to illustrate where the majority of pseudocritics begin and end their ruminations: with stories about themselves and their deep feelings that are, at best, precritical. So far, I’ve told you nothing critical about Edward Albee; I’ve told you about my cheek, a subject hard to construe as momentous or urgent, no matter how amusing you may find it. The point is, the pleasure of deep feeling never needs defending in the United States; the pleasure of good thinking always does.
Here’s a practical test you might apply: pick up any newspaper or magazine review and read it with an eye to whether it could be transferred to the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times without jarring anyone’s sensibilities. If the answer is yes, then you have discovered a stylist in critic’s clothing. A stylist is someone who thinks the world is all attitude, and that any hip point of view and mode of expression ought to apply equally to clothing, jewelry, furniture, kitchenware, food, bands, clubs, and, oh yes, dramatic masterpieces. Reflexive feeling is all, reflection is nil, and most of the time the first-person pronoun is a sort of verbal shill, avoiding responsibility while seeming to accept it (“this is just my opinion”). To place masterpieces in such a person’s hands is like leaving a national forest in the care of a theme-park owner. A stylist is a caretaker of recycled culture, a blind monster that feeds on itself. A critic is an independent human being with open eyes, who knows what and where to eat.
At the moment the three print publications of most influence in New York theatre are The New York Times, Time Out New York, and the Village Voice, approximately in that order, and they have evolved over the past decade as well. The Voice, with Feingold, we can take as read; I’m not sure what The Village Voice is any more; I’m not sure that The Village Voice knows what The Village Voice is any more. And the Times? The tone and quality of the Sunday Styles section of the Times that Mr. Kalb references have slowly spread to the rest of the paper, manifesting in lifestyle sections like “Home” and “Dining” that appear each day in the Times (and sometimes two of these a day), so that the Arts section and these new Style sections have become almost indistinguishable. In the public relations project to make the paper more a trendy consumer-interest guide (evidenced by those commercials a few years ago in which upper-middle-class readers described their favorite sections of the Sunday Times), the New York Times has become more of a “lifestyle” newspaper than … well, than a “news” newspaper.  One needn’t point to more than the puffy interviews with young playwrights and detailed diaries of drama critics’ junkets to London and Washington to demonstrate that the theatre pages remain in the hands of the “stylists” Kalb describes; and the regular assignment of downtown and fringe theatre reviews to freelancers and “theatre nerds” slumming from their regular beats doesn’t bode well for the future.
The same tone and style affects the arts coverage in Time Out New York as well. TONY still exists — as it has always existed — as a listings magazine, a glossy calendar-of-events, but the tone that crosses over all its coverage of the arts participates in the same trendy consumerism and sexual/materialistic titillation that sells products in ordinary advertising, leading to cover stories like “New York’s Top 10 Restaurants for Coprophiles!” (My readers will know what a dictionary is and can look it up.) Some New York drama reviewers and critics (like myself) have written for both, suggesting that far from being an alternative to Times coverage, Time Out New York theatre coverage is just a snarkier extension of it.
The theatre blogosphere in those early years had to potential to provide a genuine alternative. Has it done so? Again, the answer is no. As the “Bloggers’ Nights” that Ms. Spreen investigates suggest, early on bloggers were ghettoized and, in the worst cases, demonstrated the same concern with “style” as the print medium. And they ghettoized themselves: if anything, the producers who went along with these “Bloggers’ Nights” further eviscerated the blogosphere from the print world, inviting them to individual events rather than sending invitations to press openings, underscoring the amateur status of these writers; the bloggers themselves cooperated with this marginalization. When the nights themselves failed to produce the desired publicity stir for these productions, they were phased out.
Many bloggers now have moved to other social media like Twitter and Facebook, which in 140-character tweets and status updates are more amenable to the desire to become what Kalb describes in his speech as “blurb whores”:
Ours is the era of the “blurb whore,” the pseudoreviewer bribed with perks to say flattering things that can be quoted in ads. This movie-world creature is admittedly rare in the humbler environs of the theater, but its cynical spirit pervades the theater field as well. The corruption of the annual theater awards systems, the shameless journalistic fawning over productions with large budgets, the cozy relationships between high-profile critics and stars: opinions are all clearly for sale, so who can care deeply about anyone’s thoughts? “Whatever,” “Get over it,” “Not even” — all these generational catchphrases capture the essence of the leveling effect, which, curiously enough, was already apparent to Horkheimer and Adorno in the 1940s. “The cult of celebrities,” they wrote, “has a built-in social mechanism to level down everyone who stands out in any way. The stars are simply a pattern round which the world-embracing garment is cut — a pattern to be followed by the shears of legal and economic justice with which the last projecting ends of thread are cut away.”
Less apparent than this is the devastation this causes to the writing and dissemination of longer-form dramatic criticism, a lack which is bewailed by those who want to appear concerned about this criticism but which continues to go unmet, even by those who gnash their teeth over it. The blogosphere — which, as part of the World Wide Web, is open to all, instead of corporate entities Twitter and Facebook, to which you have to subscribe and give up considerable privacy in the process — has no 140-character limit, and blog posts do not disappear down the bottom of a long column of 14- and 15-word brainfarts. It’s just possible, I suppose, that somebody out there is Tweeting, 140 letters at a time, the next Theatre of Revolt. But as someone who doesn’t have the time to keep up with the rapid never-ending stream, I don’t know about it. In addition, the theatrical blogosphere is far more combative than the pages of print journalism as a matter of course, as Miriam Gillinson writes in the Guardian even today — an arena of incendiary rhetorical bombast that many, like myself, have little sympathy for, not least because it further undermines the validity of the medium for thoughtful discourse.
I noted a few weeks ago that the third generation of the theatrical blogosphere is an institutional affair, more self-justifying and self-rationalizing than even the most egocentric individual blogger, and will leave that sleeping dog where it lies. As I enter my ninth year of writing Superfluities Redux, I do so without the expectation that any one writer — or any one medium — will be able to revolutionize the genre of drama criticism. The faults are more endemic and systematic than that. As fragmented and disparate as these entries over the past eight years may appear, I believe that certain threads of thought become evident — and had I the time to draw these out even further, I would be able to weave them into a sturdier fabric. After many years of assiduous theatre going, I can’t be as indiscriminate as I used to be with my time (not that I’m missing much — as Mr. Kalb says, “95 percent of what is produced in New York … deserves the obscurity in which it wallows, or else enjoys a notoriety it hasn’t earned”: a cruel estimate but not, in my experience, inaccurate). As it is I can only suggest. “Theater criticism is an art (some might call it a vice) I have practiced for twenty-two years,” Mr. Kalb noted at the start of his lecture nearly ten years ago. For me, formally, it hasn’t even been a decade — eight years is a mere start. But for some of us it is a life indeed.
- About ten years ago, a joke circulated that a Times editor proposed another new section, one which would include stories about recent events around the world and the United States, politics and wars, reported objectively, accurately, without opinion and with context. This section, he wryly suggested, could be called “News.” [↩]