Monday, March 17, 2008

metaDRAMA: Critical Thought #4 - Yes, But What Do You Mean?

When I first started writing criticism, I split my reviews and my ramblings between this site, That Sounds Cool, and my sister site, metaDRAMA, out of a desire to separate fact, if you will, from fiction. But the more I write, the more I notice how everything bleeds together: a review isn't informed simply from the show one sees, but from personal experiences, reactions, and the world itself. Since both sites sift everything through a dramatic filter, I see no need to keep the thoughts separate, and this gives me a good chance to collect myself and catch some of you up on where I stand.

I started with a miniature manifesto back in April, "Criticizing Criticism," which got me thinking not just about why I reviewed, but what the purpose of a review should be. I reviewed, after all, out of love for the theater, not hate or embittered passion, and accordingly, the review would have to represent the experience of each individual play -- the soul of each well-intentioned (one assumes) production -- and to try to reflect and record that view as honestly as possible. In particular, a phrase of Cynthia Ozick's stuck with me: the idea of making a review into a "ghostly twin" of the work in question.

By December, these thoughts had percolated into what I called "Critical Thought," which was my struggle to find a better way of writing in such spectral support. John Updike and W. H. Auden both provided valuable touchstones for what I felt were increasingly negative reviews on my part, with the former noting that the goal was to "understand the failure," not just to record it, and the latter speaking of the value even an inflammatory and potentially wrong review could have if only it were able to spark discussion. As long as one remained true -- passionately, sometimes angrily true -- the review would take fine shape.

So I started considering what had to go into the craft of a review. For instance, were spoilers alright? And did a critic have a duty to fight for the integrity of his viewpoint, i.e., to champion a play, even if that meant coming down on other critics? (The rule of thumb remains that there is no rule of thumb: writing is what it must be, not always what it should be.)

Which leads me to my current problem: density. I found that all of this was making me write more and more for each review, which is not really a problem for me, or a difficulty for the seemingly infinite white space of the Internet (I've started to invert the colors on my screen so that the space isn't so dauntingly empty). And though I'd blurb my reviews at the New Theater Corps to make them more accessible, or shorten them to capsules as race entries at the Show Showdown, I wondered if all the citations and references weren't perhaps hurting the review. The thought came to me while reading the March 19, 20008 issue of The New Yorker, in particular John Lanchester's review of a book on perfume, of all things:

The idea that your palate and your vocabulary expand simultaneously might sound felicitous, but there is a catch. The words and the references are really useful only to people who have had the same experiences and use the same vocabulary: those references are to a shared basis of sensory experience and shared language. To people who haven't had those shared experiences, this way of talking can seem like horse manure, and not in a good way.
The emphasis is mine, and granted, he's talking about scientific terminology used to lock down a description of perfume, or, in this example, wine. But apply that also to theater: the overly specific (such as when we call the style of a play Chekhovian or Albeeish), while concise and effective for that in-the-know audience, is also strangely alienating to people who want to see theater, but come into it as a casual observer (like, say, my father). The best review, then, would be one that would both educate and describe -- it's also one that would be more sensory, which goes back to mirroring the play itself (which would be a stylistic example in of itself). "Imaginative writers," writes Lanchester, "tend to flee as far as possible from the too-specific nomenclatures of the expert and toward pure evocations of sensation. It is possible to feel envious of people who wrote . . . before the tyranny of expert descriptors . . . " In light of all the dismissals of blogitics (blog-critics) or casual but creative reviewers by the so-called "experts" (like Frank Rich), color me envious.

Theater may not always invoke the harder-to-nail-down physicality of taste and smell (unless, say, you're Ivo Van Hove), but art itself demands something more sensory and less sedentarily measured in terms of "good" or "bad" in comparison to another show. My goal? To write a review as powerful as Luca Turin's description of Lanvin's perfume Rumeur as "baseless." And how would that look in critical format? Would it be more personal? Perhaps, as in Turin's review of Lancome's Tresor: "I once sat in the London Tube across a young woman [sic] wearing a t-shirt printed with headline words ALL THIS across her large breasts, and in small type underneath, "and brains too." That vulgar-but-wily combination seems to me to sum up Tresor . . . " Would it be more culturally referential? Sure (I was never one of the people offended by Caryn James's habitual usage of television.), although I would still push myself more to make the connection to something more mutually experienced than mass media.

OK, so that's what I mean: now, is any of this possible? Given how rushed I sometimes become, trying to get the thoughts out of my head before they mix and mingle with the next show on my list, I don't know. But don't I have an obligation -- especially while still working for myself -- to try?

1 comment:

Esther said...

Hmmm, this is interesting. I think the best writing is accessible to everyone. But it's not an easy thing to do, especially if you're dealing with a subject that has its own vocabulary, like the theater. And if you've been doing it for a long time, there's a tendency to write for the people you cover rather than for your readers.

One of the the problems that I find, coming at theater reviews as a novice, is that I don't have the right vocabulary. Sometimes I can't really explain why I liked or didn't like something in a show. I don't know the technical terms. All I can say is whether the material grabbed me in some way, whether the performances and the story engaged me, whether I was drawn in, or hoped it would all end soon.

And I definitely write way too much! I mean, I look at other bloggers and I'm in awe of the way they're able to boil down the essence of a performance, to explain it very succinctly, in a very readable way. It's easy to write long. It's much more difficult to write short.