A diversion: Our friend Izzy Morgana Rabey has recently begun working with Welsh jazz pianist Bill Sutton, and just last month they recorded this version of “God Bless the Child,” which should take the edge off of any Monday blues. Welcome, spring.
UPDATE (Easy Irony Department): It turns out that theatre and film reviewers for Backstage can’t even “engage” their own, presumably very interested, readership any more — according to this report from Kris Vire, posted late today, the trade magazine will stop publishing all film and theatre reviews on 11 April 2013. Vire quotes executive editor Daniel Holloway: “An analysis of metric data by our executive team led to the conclusion that too few readers are engaging our reviews for Backstage to continue to invest resources in producing them. We will be shifting those resources primarily to the creation of additional advice, news, and features content.” Maybe the problem isn’t with the readers after all, but with the critics who can’t engage even those in the business.
CLARIFICATION: I am told by a Howlround representative that, contrary to what I wrote below, “anyone can invite him/herself to the
HowlRound table.” Of course, I stand corrected.
Well, the series on criticism at Howlround has finally wound its way to the end of its weary week; you’ll find essays by Rob Weinert-Kendt (American Theatre and the New York Times), Jason Zinoman (the New York Times, again), John Moore (formerly of the Denver Post), Wendy Rosenfield (Philadelphia Inquirer), and others here, a lineup heavy with print critics. It’s worth what it’s worth.
Those interested in a rather different perspective can turn to “21 Asides on Theatre Criticism” from critic Mark Brown, which appeared in a 2010 issue of Critical Stages, the Web journal of the International Association of Theatre Critics. Mr. Brown, theatre critic of the Scottish national newspaper the Sunday Herald and Scottish performing arts critic for the UK national newspaper the Daily Telegraph, also teaches theatre studies and theatre criticism at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. In this essay he writes:
It is painful, and nauseating, to observe and comment upon an arena of cultural practice which is under increasing pressure to infantilise itself. We find this pressure in the commentators and practitioners who deride as “elitist” the assertion that the art of theatre must eschew the commercial and cultural pressure to “entertain.” We find it in the liberal critic who wears as a badge of honour his or her belief in the socio-political functionality of the theatre.
These “Asides,” therefore, are a personal response to the pain induced by this pressure. They are a cry, an ideological assertion, in defence of “radical elitism” in the face of the faux democracy of cultural relativism and the puerile shibboleths of liberal humanism.
1. The critic is a privileged member of the audience.
2. The critic’s pen is a wand, a quill and a dagger.
3. Criticism exists in the discrete space between journalism and art.
4. I write here of true criticism; there are other kinds.
5. The only true critical agenda is the pursuit of quality, and so the critic is a radical elitist.
6. Without mercy or malice: the motto of the true critic.
7. The critic is subjective. She does not deny her subjectivity. Her only responsibility is to be worthy of it.
8. The demand that the critic “reflect the collective view of the audience” nauseates.
9. When he asserts the “equal value” of all genres, the critic slits his own throat with his pen.
10. The critic is not a human “clapometer.”
11. Criticism abhors equivocation (which is distinct from nuance).
12. The bad critic: a fence sitter, deferring to personal sentiment, social propriety or cultural fashion.
13. The true critic: suspicious of consensus, prepared to be in a minority, even of one.
14. Synopsis is not criticism, although it often masquerades as such.
15. All theatre is political. So the critic is suspicious of the term “political theatre.”
16. The critic is not a doctor, she gives no prescriptions.
17. The prescription is a noose around the neck of the free artist.
18. Criticism, like poetry, is not a job, but a vocation; but the critic, like the poet, has bills to pay.
19. Polemic is for the street. The theatre is not the street.
20. The critic has to be a pugilist, prepared to give and take blows.
21. The critic must suffer like everyone else.
I find it doubtful that Mr. Brown will be invited to contribute to any online Howlround symposia anytime soon; I’ll just say that my own opinion hews closer to his than to those at the Howlround table.
Mr. Brown also contributed an essay called “The Critic is Not an Artist” (NB: Weinert-Kendt’s piece for Howlround is called “The Artist on the Aisle”) to the most recent issue of Critical Stages, in which he writes:
[Criticism] is (as I have argued above) not art, because it requires a clarity of analysis which it would be absurd and destructive to require of artistic works. Nor, however, is it journalism. When a newspaper wants a journalist to report on the news associated with the arts, it employs an arts correspondent, a journalist who reports on the facts of the appointments of directors of national artistic companies, the vagaries of arts funding, social or political controversies over artworks etc. This journalistic role is, and should remain, quite distinct from the role of the critic, which is to deal in the entirely non-factual realm of aesthetics.
Originally posted on 18 February 2011.
Though he wrote more extensively about it in his English Drama Since 1940, David Ian Rabey first suggested a “New Expressionism” as one of the strands of contemporary theatre in his 1997 book on David Rudkin:
Rudkin’s drive to express the poetry of otherness, from the wellspring of conventionally submerged inner possibilities, has some affinities with the objectives of the early twentieth century German Expressionists, whose savage and passionate affirmations of Dionysian dynamism sprang defiantly from their profound sense of individual isolation and fascination with sickness and death. In 1917, Kasimir Edschmid described the visionary imagination of the Expressionist writer as crucially different to that of the documentary or social realist: “The Expressionist does not see, he beholds. He does not describe, he experiences. He does not reproduce, he creates. He does not accept, he seeks.” In 1918, Kurt Pinthus extolled drama as “the most passionate and effective form” for expressionism: “There Man explodes in front of Man.” Lotte H. Eisner notes how expressionist phraseology is ruled by a desire to amplify the “metaphysical” meaning of words towards a “total extravasation of self,” where “exterior facts are continually being transformed into interior elements and psychic events are exteriorized.” Michael Patterson observes that “the very name of the movement suggested that … having rejected realism, artistic creation could have its source only in the subjective personality of the artist; and yet, especially in a public medium like the theatre, the artist’s desire to communicate remained intense.” To this end, the Expressionist “sought renewal not in mass movements” but in the “passionate search for individual regeneration,” where dramatic progression is dictated by the writer/protagonist’s search for self-realization as possible redemption of his suffering. Expressionism’s “bold violence of images …” made the theatre once again a place of intense sensory experience.” 
Rabey goes on to mention that Rudkin himself identifies his own drama with gothic art, but I’d like to back up a little to the historical basis of New Expressionism and examine for a moment its relationship to the Neue Sachlichkeit movement that followed it in Germany and which suggests an additional dimension of this description. Although the Neue Sachlichkeit movement is often characterized as a reaction against the internal and personal vision of Expressionist writers and painters, it can in another sense be seen as its continuation. The painters of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement like Otto Dix, George Grosz and Christian Schad reacted against Expressionism’s abstractions but did not entirely abandon them for photo-realism. The paintings and portraits rendered by the painters retained the two-dimensional quality of Expressionist work, which foregrounded all the subjects of an individual painting rather than dispersing some of them through perspective, and in their subject matter seemed to claim some of the dream-like qualities of Surrealism as well. More importantly, the Neue Sachlichkeit movement foregrounded art’s relationship to urban modernity (though, as the above Kirchner painting demonstrates, the Expressionists themselves also rendered urban scenes and subjects).
Schopenhauer’s will operates through urban modernity and its residents as well as any other site, and the new sharpness with which both painters and writers of the Neue Sachlichkeit foregrounded the sensuality of the human body suggests various avenues for the exploration of both New Expressionism and erotic tragedy, especially in its ambivalent relationship to gender roles and erotic experience. In a 2001 study, Richard W. McCormick discusses the emergence of the Neue Sachlichkeit from the decline of the historical Expressionist movement, a movement “that began in German painting around 1905, became important in literature around 1910, flourished just before and during the war (especially in the theatre), but by 1920 was nearly exhausted. Only then, when this once revolutionary aesthetic had begun to degenerate into a fashionable, decorative visual style, did it enter the cinema, and by 1924 it was pretty much over there too.” 
More observations from McCormick follow below.
… I want to make a point of affirming as emancipatory the blurring of fixed gender and sexual identities — not just to take a position that is now much more acceptable, but because the enmity to such blurring seems to me clearly connected to the crimes of the Third Reich. In this I differ with more canonical interpretations of Weimar “decadence”: in my opinion what ought to be celebrated includes precisely that wich has been derided as decadence and “effeminate weakness” by many writers on the left — work in the postwar era on Weimar culture by Peter Gay and by Siegfried Kracauer come to mind….
I disagree strongly with this intepretation both of Weimar culture and of “decadence.” The comparison with the Third Reich is instructive, however, for in that regime “decadence” was denounced as biological degeneracy, a denunciation that was clearly connected not only to anti-Semitism but to misogyny and homophobia as well. As opposed to the open anxieties about gender expressed in Weimar culture, Nazi misogyny was embodied in a cultural politics that had much less space for any acknowledgement of male weakness (except in submission to the state) or for any confusion on the part of either sex about “natural” gender roles — not to mention confusion about “race.” It ought to be obvious today that this drive for clear boundaries and identities led only to barbarism.
In contrast, I want to emphasize again that what was most emancipatory about Weimar’s crises of identity was precisely the blurring and confusion of traditional categories of identity. We find in Weimar culture a relatively open discussion of the hollowness — indeed, cynicism — of the masquerade that prescribed roles and identities seemed to demand. … [In both masculine and feminine masquerade] one notes an anxious attempt to conceal any deviation from traditional norms for gendered behavior. This anxiety in turn can be interpreted as a tacit admission of what Judith Butler has called the performativity of gender roles, a concept that involves the realization that there is no underlying “essence” to them at all: “If gender attributes and acts, the various ways in which a body shows or produces its cultural signification, are performative, then there is not a preexisting identity by which an act or attribute might be measured; there would be no true or false, real or distorted acts of gender, and the postulation of a true gender identity would be revealed as a regulatory fiction.”
… [T]he New Objectivity and Expressionism were in many ways merely two sides of the same “coin,” as it were — a rather undialectical shift from a romantic and idealistic inwardness to a somewhat forced “unsentimental,” materialistic affirmation of the external surfaces of modernity — and it was a transition made by many artists and intellectuals of more or less the same generation. Furthermore, it is clear that to the extent that this move to “sober” New Objectivity was an attempt to come down from the idealist, anti-modern heights of “auratic” art to embrace modernity, the masses, and the metropolis, it was a moved that was marked by ambivalence on the part of the intellectuals and artists who were engaged in it. It is also true that this move can be seen as the attempt of an endangered social group, the intelligentsia, to find a niche for itself in the emerging modern society that preserved some of its former prestige and autonomy. It was also an attempt that largely failed. The book burning in May of 1933, soon after the end of the Republic, would provide the most visible demonstration of this failure. …
But I want to stress again that there is a need to celebrate the emancipatory aspects, especially those emancipatory, indeed utopian moments of “polymorphous perversity” in Weimar culture — an emancipatory “queerness,” if you will, that still fascinates us to this day. I use this term not just to imply a questioning of traditional norms with regard to gender and sexuality, but also to imply a contestation of fixed categories and identities that must be seen as crucial to the project of radical democratic politics. This, I would insist, is a project important for people of all identities. What better legacy from the Weimar Republic can we salvage as we face the new millennium? 
As part of the “Tracing Our Roots” series of discussions at NYU Steinhardt’s Piano Studies program, Marilyn Nonken will offer a unique program focusing on her own career and teachers on Sunday, 21 April, at 3.00pm at NYU’s Black Box Theatre, 82 Washington Square East. During the free event, Marilyn (who directs the Piano Studies program at NYU Steinhardt) will perform works by Arnold Schoenberg, Luigi Dallapiccola, and Tristan Murail, and also provide reminiscences of her mentors David Burge, who passed away earlier this week, and Leonard Stein. Her first book, The Spectral Piano, is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.
Did I mention it was free? I look forward to being there. For a brief taste, here’s Justin Urcis’s interview with Marilyn about Murail’s Territoires de l’oubli:
Originally published 1 May 2012:
Beneath the known history of Europe there runs a subterranean one. It consists of the fate of the human instincts and passions repressed and distorted by civilization. From the vantage point of the fascist present, in which the hidden is coming to light, the manifest history is also revealing its connection to that dark side, which is passed over in the official legend of nation states, and no less in its progressive critique. …
Most mutilated of all is the relationship to the body. … Love-hate for the body colors the whole of modern culture. The body is scorned and rejected as something inferior, enslaved, and at the same time is desired as forbidden, reified, estranged. Only culture treats the body as a thing that can be owned, only in culture has it been distinguished from mind, the quintessence of power and command, as the object, the dead thing, the corpus. In humanity’s self-abasement to the corpus nature takes its revenge for the debasement of the human being to an object of power, to raw material. The compulsion toward cruelty and destruction stems from the organic repression of proximiity to the body, much as, according to Freud’s inspired intuition, disgust came into being when, with the adoption of the upright stance and the greater distance from the earth, the sense of smell, which attracted the male animal to the menstruating female, fell victim to organic repression. …
In the fiendish humiliation of prisoners in the concentration camps, which — for no rational reason — the modern executioner adds to the death by torture, the unsublimated yet repressed rebellion of despised nature breaks out. Its full hideousness is vented on the martyrs of love, the alleged sexual offenders and libertines, for sexuality is the body unreduced; it is expression, that which the butchers secretly and despairingly crave. In free sexuality the murderer fears the lost immediacy, the original oneness, in which he can no longer exist. It is the dead thing which rises up and lives. He now makes everything one by making it nothing, because he has to stifle that oneness in himself. For him the victim represents life which has survived the schism; it must be broken and the universe must be nothing but dust and abstract power.
Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno
Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments
Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2002, pp. 192-196.