Friday, November 24, 2006

And then there were none . . .

Rumor has it the Boston Herald has laid off Terry Byrne, their erstwhile theatre critic, whose job it was to vet shows for the Father Flanagan crowd. Details are murky (the Herald won’t comment on "internal human resources issues," according to the Boston Business Journal, and perhaps the tabloid intends to publish the occasional review by a stringer, but it looks like another print venue for criticism has shut down; indeed, with the departures of Ed Siegel and Bill Marx from the scene, the number of local “name” critics – the kind that could “open a show” - has suddenly been cut just about in half. And like characters in some Agatha Christie murder mystery, the survivors keep dropping, one by one . . .

Ironically, the theatre scene itself seems to be flourishing – many have warned that critics could kill theatre, but few anticipated it would work the other way around! Indeed, as I once pointed out to Bill Marx in a testy public exchange, as the influence of Boston reviewers has declined, the quality of Boston theatre has improved. This was probably because even in their heyday, the dead-tree media critics were a sketchy lot (I should know, I briefly was one): within recent memory, they often promoted the bogus (Peter Sellars), clung to long-lost hopes (the return of Sarah Caldwell), and in general delayed change and carried water for the powerful. In short, Marx’s self-image – that of a lonely intellectual warrior for truth – had little to do with either his own career or the scene in general.

So now said scene is obviously in ruins – but should we miss it? And will its passing matter to theatre? I’d argue not to major producers; “Big Theatre” will struggle on, as reviews are merely a form of publicity, opportunities for which continue to expand (and touring shows and the college houses can just rely on blurbs from New York). For the smaller companies, the disappearance of the local critic will have a more significant impact; there’s simply no one to notice when the Devanaughn or Whistler in the Dark strikes artistic gold, and while established companies may be able to grow their subscription base incrementally, they will lose the opportunity to “leapfrog” to larger prominence on the back of a hit.

Of course the leap Boston theatre people would really love to make, from second-banana-to-Manhattan to the level of a “new Chicago,” is hard to imagine without a team of functioning critics. Sure, it still could happen; the ART has all but abandoned its hometown (except for its rock bands), but the Huntington’s new play program, and BU’s Playwright’s Theatre, along with the development programs at the Lyric and elsewhere, could still engender such a transformation; but without mainstream critics, it will just be that much harder to do.

There are, of course, deeper questions left hanging by the disappearance of critics: theatre may survive, but it certainly won’t be the same. I imagine a plethora of web critics (like yours truly!) will rise to “take the place of” the MSM reviewers, but we’ll almost of necessity be a cacophony of more-or-less eccentric (and more-or-less trustworthy) voices. What the death of print criticism really lays bare is the death of what people are now calling “monoculture” – or at least the decoupling of monoculture from any kind of intellectual synthesis, or self-consciousness. In my view, what the digital age has done in one arena after another is simply create “spikes” where once there were “pyramids” – the middlemen of influence, of critical discussion, of publicity, will disappear (just as they did in the real-world industries the Internet has impacted), leaving only a handful of reviewers behind, who will perforce be drawn to the middle of the road (and, needless to say, the lowest common denominator) to maintain their audience. That is, until some crit-bot app is unleashed by Google to tend to each of our personalized media spheres. Sigh. It’s not really a pretty picture, but I suppose it’s the future.

So long, Terry.

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