Monday, June 08, 2009

metaDRAMA: More "Big Stuff"

The comments continue to roll in, here and elsewhere, regarding the etiquette of critiquing and of critiquing critics. I'm most in line with Helen Shaw, of TONY, but I'm also struck dumb by an angry comment at Parabasis:

You know what critics? Your job is not to tell your readers if it's your thing and judge it based on your own feelings. Shocking I know. You are to approach a work on its own terms. If the writers' goal was to write a sitcom-level homage to G&S with songs chock full o' family fun, AND on those terms, you succeed and people in Boston are actually enjoying it (people in Boston showing joy?!? who knew that was possible!) then your review should reflect that.
Now, I admit that there's a nugget of truth there, and I wrote about this subject back in 2007, when I was trying to define the rules of criticism (for myself). John Updike, speaking for book reviews, said:
Try to understand what the author wishes to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt . . . if the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author's ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it's his and not yours?
And I guess that's where the angry reader at Parabasis is coming from. However, that's taking a rather shallow reading of the situation, and of the goal of a critic. If I set out to write a play that offends the audience, and I successfully offend the audience, should I be praised? Perhaps, if you handle it like Peter Handke, and do something more than the sum of your intentions. But if I achieve that goal by writing the word "Fuck" for ten pages, and then scream and spit at audience members in "performance" of this play, should I still be lauded? (The "perhaps" here is another story, for masochists only.) No matter what you do, the critic must absolutely bring their own sensibilities to the forefront--to demand a "better" theater.

In fairness--and here's your compromise--the critic should be talented enough a writer to describe what the play was like (that is, what the author intended) and to explain why they didn't like it. Not to dismiss it, but to engage with it, to ask the big questions that, for better or worse, the play may have failed to ask. Note: this means that I'm still against bias. But let's clarify what bias is. Bias is the inability to explain why you don't like something, mainly because you can't give it a chance. If that's the case--i.e., you hate G&S--then you probably shouldn't volunteer or assign yourself to critique the show.

Again, Kennedy showed no bias, and she her review of the show covered the bases by describing what happened in it. And that's good for the theater--after all, if I describe a show as being a literal assault of "fuck" for ten minutes, that may actually convince someone to see it. They trust their own tastes more than mine, so as long as they can still sample the work--even if it's colored by my own experience--then it's a job well done. After all, I'm not trying to convince people not to go to the theater, even with a bad review. (Well, okay, maybe once or twice.) I'm just trying to make sure people know what they're getting in to. And you know what? That's a place I don't mind being in.


Chris Caggiano said...

I agree with the Parabasis reader in one respect: it's important to judge a work on its own terms. And that's exactly how I judged Pirates at the Huntington: as a carefree romp in the G&S vein. And you know what? It still came up short.

But I totally disagree with the commenter on the critic's supposed responsibility to report the audience reaction. People stood and cheered at Lestat. Likewise The Pirate Queen, Cry-Baby, Glory Days, and any number of other unqualified disasters. The job of the critic is not to gauge the extent to which the show pleases the audience, but rather how well it matches up the the CRITIC'S OWN set of artistic standards. How could it possibly be otherwise?

John said...

The problem is, my friend, that nearly ALL of your reviews are negative. I find you to be the kind of reviewer who enjoys saying bad things about a show so you can show everyone how intelligent you are. What was the last show you produced and got off the ground in NYC yourself? You actively look for the negative and try to show your readers that you're "intelligent." What a shame.

Aaron Riccio said...

Chris, I agree in part. Yes, you should judge the work on its own terms. However, if those terms are shallow, then judge those terms, too.

John, obviously I disagree with you, but I'm frustrated that it you read my work that way. If it helps, you can look at my index from the 200+ shows I saw in 2008 ( and see that it's actually almost perfectly distributed between shows I didn't like and shows that I did like. Which, I would argue, is a pretty clear indication that not all (or nearly all) of my reviews are negative.

I guess the question is what you determine "negative" to be. I would consider my review of "Book of Lambert" to be negative, as I would of "As We Speak." I would not consider my more recent reviews of "Marathon" or "Bigger Than i" to be mostly negative. I would hardly say (especially in comparison to other reviews) that I spoke negatively about "Into the Hazard." And in fact, I would say that I tried hard to be fair to "DR.C," a show that--from the few reviews I have found, pretty much dismissed it without trying to take it on its terms.

I'd love to have you clarify your stance on "negative" and perhaps tell me where you think I'm going out of my way to point out the bad in a way that makes me seem intelligent. (I actually think that would make me seem pretty stupid.)

As to the final point, I'm not sure when producing a show became a qualification to write about theater. Believe me, if I had the money, I'd be doing a lot more than simply producing a show. Clearly I'm just a lazy, angry writer. What a shame indeed.