"The Horton Connection"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide



Date: Fri, 22 Apr 2005 12:13:54 -0400
From: Geralyn Horton g.l.horton@mindspring.com
Subject: Todd London on Theatre Criticism

Todd London on Theatre Criticism

"What people read and like is good: that is what good means."
­Randall Jarrell, The Age of Criticism (1952)
by Todd London

If theatre critics didn't exist, would we invent them? If we did, if they sprang full-blown from the collective head of the artists of the American stage, what shape would they assume? What questions would they ask, what qualities possess? How would they talk about art?

Sony Pictures invented a critic over a year ago, David Manning of the (real) Ridgefield Press, a Connecticut weekly; his job was to praise Sony films for quote ads, at least until he got fired for being non-existent. I give theatre people more credit. We would invent critics, I imagine, not merely to praise us­nor, certainly, to bury us. But we would invent them sure enough, and our new critics would look a lot like the old ones. They'd be better informed, maybe, more sensitive to intention, more invested in description and evocation than judgment (of the thumbs up, thumbs down variety). They'd understand context for work, perhaps, and even demonstrate their love of the theatre, maybe, but essentially they'd be the same guys or, newly diversified, the same women.

I've been writing and worrying about critics and criticism since the mid-'80s. The words and worries keep returning to an interdependent tangle of people who make theatre and people who write about it. More specifically, they return, self-reflexively, to those of us engaged in developing and producing for the stage. What is our complicity in the system of American criticism? What is our responsibility for changing it? What is our power? In short, how can we expect critics to change their tune when­in the realm of critical response­we sound so much like them? Theatre people may not be responsible for the moribund state of criticism, but we must be responsible for imagining it back to life.

Two personal experiences bracket my thinking about this responsibility. The first began in February 1990 when American Theatre published my essay "The Critical Knot," which through analysis and polemic explored the dependency of theatre people on criticism­for approval and marketing­even when that criticism resembles abuse. The essay, written at the height of congressional attacks on the arts, drew on the language of those attacks­ antitheatrical, violent and infantilizing­and on then-current psychological writing, especially that of Swiss psychologist Alice Miller, about child abuse and society's institutionalized hatred of children. It paralleled the relationship between critics (journalistic, familial and interior) and artists, as perceived stand-ins for willful, unruly children in the America of Bush père.

The essay encouraged theatre people to rethink their ambivalent, even compulsive, relationship to criticism: that is, the way we fight for freedom from the superego­the internalized, symbolic "father"­through art, while at the same time craving Dad's (the critic's) approval at every step. I suggested specific, if extreme, pie-in-the-sky ways to end this dependency, including stopping the use of quote ads for publicity (if we don't believe 'em when they pan us, why should we quote 'em when they rave?) and searching for alternative methods of audience development; limiting free tickets for critics; lobbying media for more in-depth features; giving up on reading reviews (as a community) and asserting the moral rights of artists, in accordance with the international Berne Convention, which gives writers and fine artists in some countries "The Right to Protection from Excessive Criticism." Moreover, I called for "new sources for and forms of supportive, constructive criticism from within the theatre community."

While I felt sickened by the attack-letters American Theatre received from critics­even 11 years later I can't bring myself to quote them­I was troubled more lastingly by the outpouring of affirmation and praise from friends and colleagues in the theatre. I expected critics to miss the point­no one likes to be compared to a child abuser, even metaphorically and for the sake of argument. But I've never been able to shake the thought that many of the theatre people who felt the essay spoke for them were avoiding its central premise: As a profession we help foster a system we loathe.

Over the next 10 years, I searched for ways to link up theatre artists and critics by casting them as parts of a single community of people who share a love of theatre and investment in its future.

I wrote and spoke about it. I profiled critics, evaluated their journalistic work and book-length collections in print­reviewed the reviewers­trying to make sense of both the system and the people working in it. At New Dramatists, where playwrights' works-in- progress are never reviewed, we brought in critics (as dramaturgs, readers and panelists) and co-hosted annual playwright/critic lunches with Columbia University's National Arts Journalism Program's fellows.

Last year at a day-long gathering of five critics/arts journalists and five New Dramatists playwrights, organized with freelance critic and biographer Alexis Greene, I had a epiphany that, like the "Critical Knot" letters, changed the direction of my thinking.

In the morning all 10 participants took part in a playwriting workshop; in the afternoon, led by former L.A. Times critic Daniel Sullivan, they wrote a pair of reviews of a short play, authored anonymously by a leading American playwright and performed staged- reading style. Again, it was the artists who surprised me most. I was less shocked that the critics' playwriting exercises sounded more like plays than the playwrights'. (Working with uniquely talented playwrights, I'm awash in plays that defy convention and strive for new, often unfamiliar dramatic forms.) The jolt came when the playwrights wrote reviews. Not only did they sound like criticism (think Algonquin Roundtable), but in a couple of cases, they sounded like savage criticism (think Dorothy Parker). Perhaps it's unfair to generalize from so small a sample, but I became convinced­a conviction that had been growing for years­that we carry a kind of categorical criticism in our heads, a shared idea of what critical response sounds like. And the category is "the pan."


I went to see a play­The Stone by Abromowitz. I must say, I really ­
loved it­and Lars Helbig especially, in the role of the doctor. That ­
whole day I thought about the play. And then the next night, I had ­
dinner with Joan. She'd seen the play the week before and had found ­
it sentimental, and Helbig's acting she'd found very broad. When she ­
said those things, the performance that was sitting in my memory was ­
poisoned. It died. Every moment of it died on contact with her words­ ­
every moment's hopeful little face turned purple and died. In the ­
days that followed, it was painful to revisit what had become of the ­
memory I'd had. Finally I emptied the whole evening out of my mind ­
like trash. ­
Wallace Shawn, The Designated Mourner

We all know Joan. We've all been Joan. The negative response­sought or unsought­seeps through most conversations about plays and production unnoticed, a usual poison. I've often wondered if, at least in the world of new-play development and production, negativity­in the guise of identifying a play's problems­isn't mistaken for intelligence and insight. Playwright Bridget Carpenter (Fall) once theorized to me that Americans resort to negative criticism because they see being positive as proof of stupidity, ignorance, shallowness. I think she's right. Have you ever seen people at post-play discussions champing at the bit to share their MOST IMPORTANT insights? Have you ever heard a MOST IMPORTANT insight that didn't say what was WRONG, what needed fixing? In this way, critical response from within the theatre resembles the criticism we complain of from outside. Despite the love of theatre that brings someone to the audience (as spectator, colleague or critic), despite the best intentions toward the work itself, the critical coup is achieved in the act of pointing out the problem. Diagnosing the malady makes us wise. The force of this coup, the energy with which the negative assessment is delivered, nearly always tips the tonal balance until­out goes the good air­ "every moment's hopeful little face" turns purple and dies. The critics?

They are us.

How different this is from our natural responses to works of art. While as humans we bring critical capability to all we survey­ assessing what we like and don't like, what we find good and less good­our basic human responses to music, say, or painting include a complex mixture of emotion and intellect, identification and rejection, boredom and wonder, memory and longing. Our interest ebbs and flows. We turn back to our own thoughts. We grow aroused or sleepy. We think about people we've known. We feel smaller than the genius that animates the symphony, maybe, or superior to the guy who assembles a collage from objects found in alleys. In other words, we respond to art with an intense and intricate subjectivity comprised of body, mind, spirit and heart. Our critical responses, meanwhile, are usually centered in the logical mind and, to the extent we engage feeling, in the generalized realm of what we like or don't.

In "A Few Maxims for the Instruction of the Over-Educated," Oscar Wilde observes, "The only thing that the artist cannot see is the obvious. The only thing the public can see is the obvious. The result is the Criticism of the Journalist." Here, typically, Wilde uses epigrammatic overstatement to seize on a truth: Art is mostly concerned with the invisible. Whether attuned to spiritual mystery; sexual energy; glancing, mutable truth or the subtle dynamics of human interaction, the aim of art is nearly always the elusive invisibilities that underscore our lives­that which cannot be reported. People turn to art with a desire, hope or instinct for that unreportable something. The journalist, by learning and training, reports, and the language of that reportage­because it lacks the vocabularies of body, emotion and soul­has, at its disposal, only the analytical, inquiring mind with which to seek the unseen. That language can only be partial. The journalistic critic, therefore, can unearth a play's structure, for instance, as a way past more obvious narrative facts, but he or she hasn't the language to evoke the physical sensations that run through the body when the orchestra stops playing and the ensemble continues its soaring fugue a cappella. The critic can describe the moment as a joy or a thrill, but to suggest more than that, that the moment is one of spiritual connection, for example, or to recount a personal memory triggered by the flight of song might appear, well, uncritical, not to mention silly.

This discrepancy between critical language and natural human response has come home to me in the most personal way over the past couple of months. I carry in my date book a sheaf of e-mails and letters, written mostly by friends and colleagues, in response to my first novel, recently published. As journalistic reviews of the book trickle in and as I hear directly from readers I know, I'm struck by how different in kind published responses are from private ones. Many of the letters and e-mails contain personal information about the reader­memories brought to mind by the novel. Many of them speak about the way they read it­fast or slow, in the middle of the night or on a train. They talk about the writing, sure, but they also ask questions of the writer as a person. Where did this or that come from? Did I know that such and such had happened to them, too? And they ask questions about the book's setting­and period. It's a novel about identity within the family and, among other things, mental illness, and many have talked movingly about their own families.

Is there any reason to think that feedback like this wouldn't have been helpful during the dozen years it took to write the book? Certainly, it would have made the process less lonely and countered the erosive fear that nobody would be interested in a story like this. It would have helped me "hear" the work, having it read back to me in these ways, and provided new insights, details, meat for the story's bones.

It's a dead end, I've come to believe, to expect a fuller, more human and invested response from critics, especially when papers and their editors are pushing them to be consumer guides, cutting pages and column inches, treating theatre as a lesser child of the entertainment industry and devaluing cultural criticism in general. (When we reinvent critics, we'll have to do the same with editors and publishers.) On the other hand, there's no good reason for the supporters and makers of theatre to rely on the partial, journalistic language we've adopted. In fact, we have every reason to expand it, mess with it, make it multidimensional, precise, physical, spirited, full of feeling. We just haven't figured out how to do it.

Formal and informal discussions of new work almost always center on two questions: "Did you like it?" and "Was it any good?" The first of these leads mostly to limited, irrelevant answers. The second­ because the theatre community has no common definition, vocabulary or agreement about artistic quality (nor, probably, should it)­leads straight to hell. I polled close to 50 playwrights­members of New Dramatists and graduate playwriting students at Yale School of Drama­ to find out what they mean when they say a play is good. Out of dozens of fascinating answers, there was only one they agreed on: A good play does what it sets out to do. (One writer added, with Matthew Arnold, that what it sets out to do should be worth doing. But who, I wonder, will decide?) Judging a play on its own terms frees us to consider a play good even when we don't like it, many of the writers explained. It would help if more people made that distinction, instead of conflating matters of taste with those of quality, and analysis with opinion.

There's no end to the possible ways of talking about plays and production. It's just that we've settled into, essentially, one way. And there's no end to the possible, productive questions we might ask of a play or production. How does the play use the theatre? How does it live in time and space? How does it fit in a body of work? What does it say about the world? How does it say what it says? How does it work (as opposed to "does it work")? How does our personal experience of it change as it unfolds? What's strange about it? What's familiar? What's the relationship between the strangeness and familiarity? And my favorite: What is it?

Partly, I suspect, building a new critical vocabulary from within the art will come from redefining the aims and questions of our own conversation. Just as a different "super-objective" can change a performance or a different "spine" can alter a production, so different intentions can transform critical discourse. As long as we see the goal of new-play development, for instance, as fixing plays or making them better, we'll have to begin with what's wrong with them. What if the goal of dramaturgy were stated differently? If, instead, we strove "to sustain the writer through the difficult work of writing the play," responses might be more about identifying successes and articulating the specifics that challenge and excite.

Or if the aim were "to help the writers evaluate the play's effectiveness on their own terms," we might be called upon simply to describe the work back to them without feeling or judgment, in order for them to hear exactly what it is they've written and to determine in the privacy of their own artistic consciences how that stacks up against what they wanted to write.

I'm excited to see many theatres experimenting with the process for critical response pioneered in the early '90s by D.C.-based choreographer Liz Lerman. Lerman's system gives the artist a fundamental power: the option to invite criticism. This model for peer response to work-in-progress begins with affirmation of each work's specific accomplishments, what respondents find "surprising, challenging, evocative, compelling, delightful, unique, touching, poignant, different for you, interesting," in Lerman's words. The second step is guided by the creator's questions­attempts to get feedback on specific aspects of the work he or she is exploring.

Then the respondents form their own opinions into neutral questions, again with the assumption that questions lead more naturally to illumination than does telling the artist what's wrong or how to fix the piece. The fourth step provides for "opinion time," with the creator(s) retaining the prerogative to invite the opinions or to refuse them. Two additional steps allow for discussion of the work's subject matter­and possibly related responses, such as personal stories­and for continuing to work on the work in the context of the feedback session.

In my experience, Lerman's system helps create a safe environment for exploration and constructive exchange. It works best when the generating artists have specific questions they want addressed. It can feel a bit formal or rigid, especially with artists who know each other's work and ways of talking, but it allows for a surprising amount of ground to be covered in a short time and provides a structure for restraining grandstanders. It's aimed at fixing the problems but grounded in celebrating the accomplishments. I wish there were more such models out there.

Specifically, I'm interested in pursuing a more constructive, examined subjectivity in critical feedback within the theatre, a process whereby the thing we do best­getting people literally and figuratively in a room together­is reflected in our discussions.

Theatre is unabashedly interpersonal, unquestionably live, but we easily distance ourselves in conversation. It's a distance familiar from journalistic criticism, where critics for the most part rely on opinion (subjective response) stated as reportage (objective stance). Critics admit there's no such thing as objectivity and even scoff at the suggestion that they see themselves as objective, yet their language and tone comes from a journalistic tradition in which the author is depersonalized. The critics who have risen above this tradition (for good or evil) have done it through the force of their personalities (Shaw good, Simon evil), their incisive clowning (think Algonquin Round Table again) or the passionate clarity of their aesthetic values (e.g., Clurman or Brustein).

The current crisis in criticism inside and outside of the theatre may be related to a culture-wide transition. As we transform from a culture of homogeneous authority (where people could talk about good with relative?comfort) to one of jangling diversity, the vocabulary of critical distance and journalistic objectivity has lost ground to that of personal essay, confession, memoir and the performance art of punditry. Whether we respond to art in print or conversation, we face the challenge of constructing an "I" that reveals and questions itself as it goes­monitoring the place of perception in the formation of judgment­while remaining humble. In other words, the responder's "I," written or spoken, must never mistake itself for the subject, that is, the work of art being examined.

It's a tricky business. There are alternative critics who explore point of view in this way and always seem to be talking about themselves. Others use the "I" almost as a replacement for phrases like "this reporter," without self-consciousness. The one theatre critic I've read who seems sensitively engaged in exploring the role of the subjective in her responses is New York Times culture critic and, now, Sunday reviewer Margo Jefferson. Jefferson comes across as smart, enthusiastic, widely read and personally probing, as though in addition to evaluating productions, she's determined to understand the role of identity and cultural influence in one's approach to art. Sometimes haltingly and sometimes vivaciously, Jefferson switches between observation, opinion and self-reflection in her essays and, by doing so, investigates not only the "I" of a review but the "we." In her review of Pamela Gien's The Syringa Tree, for instance, she begins with her own response:

What moved me most was that I could feel so many things, full-out sometimes, at odds or in conflict at other times. And I could keep switching my attention from life to life and story to story, even those that were fragmented or partly submerged, then supply what was left unsaid.

From that revelation, she can hypothesize about a more communal response: "The play of the small against the large, the individual and the group, personal actions and political or social consequences: this is what we crave from the theatre." While Jefferson can seem to be struggling in this middle ground, I believe the struggle is worth it and worth taking a cue from in our own conversations about art.

"No artist needs criticism, he only needs appreciation," Gertrude Stein writes in the voice of Alice B. Toklas. "If he needs criticism he is no artist." If it's true that theatre people have internalized the voice of negative criticism, then Stein may be right. If we are the critics, then we are also the self-critics; if we've learned to accentuate the negative within, we may have even more need for appreciation from others. However much we need criticism, it's clear we need it in a different voice­unveiled, expressive, more nuanced, precise and wholly human. If we would reinvent criticism, though, we have to start with ourselves.

Todd London is the artistic director of New Dramatists and the author of The World's Room, published by Steerforth Press.

Geralyn Horton, playwright
Newton, MA


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