Thursday, June 5, 2008

You knew this was coming . . .

Yes, I've decided to "chart" the print theatre critics - after all, they're performers too, my friends. But much to my surprise, it turned out to be far more difficult rating them than it was rating productions, and I'm not sure I've really got it right. Part of the problem is the simple fact that none of them are all that great, but they're all bad in different ways (the theatre companies are marvels of consistency by comparison); and part of the problem is that there are almost too many hypothetical axes to judge them against. Louise Kennedy was pretty easy to rate - her writing is superb, or at least it's a superb rendition of the Globe's house format, but she's intellectually incurious, not particularly engaged with theatre, and views herself and her peer group as some kind of objective lens; obviously one would rate her high on style, but low on substance. Terry Byrne and Nick Dussault were even easier - since both are clearly weak on both counts (so it's no surprise these two birds of a feather flock together). Carolyn Clay is trickier, though - her writing is dry, often expository and impacted, but also highly witty - the trouble is that her perceptions can be wacky when she has no academic guidelines to steady her, and of course she's made very, very big bets that went utterly wrong (such as her cheerleading for Peter Sellars). So how "perceptive" is she, really? It seems to depend on the day. And even if she seems brighter than, say, Ed Siegel, isn't he a bit more reliable (I wound up rating him higher on perception due to this consistency)?

Then there's the problem of what the axes should be on the chart. Some of these folks are intuitively perceptive, but hardly logicians - they can't really argue their cases. Others (like Bill Marx, who's not on the chart, as he's no longer in print) can develop a line of thought, but are far from dependable intuitively, and clearly have emotional issues which occlude their judgment. Jenna Scherer was another problematic data point - obviously smart, and the funniest of the lot, but too immature and moody to be useful; her real forte would be critical stand-up, if such a form existed.

Before you say it - why am I not on the list? Well, first, I'm not a print reviewer. And though I certainly think I'm a solid stylist, when it comes to the "perceptive/unperceptive" access, I'm really off the chart, literally, simply because I don't really do what these people do - I don't write "reviews," per se, and I often open up whole avenues of free inquiry, which they're not allowed to do. So yeah, in my conceited, arrogant way I think I'm better than any of them - but on the other hand, I'm not sure how well they could do against me if they weren't shackled to their editors' demands; it's only fair to compare them against each other, not me.

Lastly, some might call me on unconscious sexism - my two "most perceptive" reviewers are men. That might, true, be due to sexism. But it also might just be the case.


  1. This is fascinating. I wish I could click on the names and drill down.

    The axes are problematic, as you say.

    Would frequency of reviewing help to plot somebody or just throw things off more? In other words, would a reviewer who writes several reviews a week be easier to assess than one that writes weekly or bi-weekly.

    Another point: Jenna Scherer writes slightly different in the Herald as opposed to the Dig.

    Also, Carolyn Clay now has the standard requirement of combining two reviews into one. Not all reviewers on the list are required to do that.

    And word count and column space?

    By the way, I noticed on production chart you didn't include Whistler in the Dark?

    I ask because I was interested in where you felt the worthiness of the Barker fell.

  2. You forgot an important --though probably not the most important-- part. Boston used to have (and needs again) more critics. Period.
    (I know you don't appreciate Clay's puns; I do, but, like Thurber, I tend to think of those who don't appreciate them as missing out on life's guiltiest pleasure.)

  3. To Art:

    I think I've read enough from all these people to have a handle on all of their styles. I actually don't want any of them to write more. (Like Robert, I think more voices would be better than more from these voices.) It's true Scherer is on a shorter leash at the Herald, but that work is actually what I'm basing my assessment on; the Dig hardly ever publishes theatre reviews anymore, at least on the Web. As for Carolyn Clay - the poor dear, two whole plays a week! How does she manage?

    As for Whistler in the Dark - sorry I forgot A Hard Heart when doing that chart, which probably tells you something. I don't think it's Barker's strongest script, but it could be a scaffold for some intriguing acting. Alas, the Whistlers I felt didn't have the perverse depths of presence the parable required (and which it felt somewhat superficial without).

    To Robert -

    I don't mind Clay's puns per se; in fact, I often find them very inventive and funny. I only have a problem with them when I feel they've actually become the content of the review, or when she uses them as a dodge to avoid saying something out loud that might offend someone she's trying to stay on the right side of.

  4. I can't say that I read every reviewer you've charted (so I have an even less scientific assessment of the critics) but I've come to depend on Clay as the first reviewer I go check either before I attend a play or the few days after I attend a performance.

    Scherer's writing for the Dig is funny at times, but it's basically the Dig's gonzo house style of "emphasize anything that might shock our parents" (which doesn't do much for me as a reader, because my parents are unshockable) but I never get any insight from from her reviewers and she tends to miss the larger cultural context which theatre inhabits.

  5. Clearly Carolyn Clay has her defenders - and I'm certainly impressed by the poised, complex critical coiffures she's teased up, week in and week out now, for some thirty years. But I have to ask you folks - how would you describe her critical profile? To be a bit more pointed - do you even think she has one, beyond a need to always appear 'tasteful'? This is the problem with Clay - she writes more intelligently, I suppose, than the rest of her sorority, because she imagines the audience for the Phoenix is more educated, but is there an actual critical personality kicking around behind that calm façade? I confess I've no idea what's behind all the camouflage; she often seems to be typing up an elevated gloss on what she perceives as the educated consensus, and little more. That's okay as far as it goes, I suppose, but I always think the most useful critics are the ones you feel you understand, if only because this allows you to put their raves and pans in some sort of context (as in, "oh they hated that, but they always hate that kind of thing, and I often like it"). And then there's the problem, as I've pointed out before, that when she does abandon the crowd, I often find she wanders out onto some weird critical limb that not only do I not understand, but which seems utterly unconnected to the rest of her work. Consider also that after thirty years of doing something, most people become known quantities - that Clay has remained so personally elusive might almost be the result of a strategy, which is a little strange to say the least. And then there's the problem of a larger legacy, or critical stance, formed over the course of her career - but as far as I know, there's no book, no seminal essay, no nothing from Clay. And don't imagine there's been nothing to talk about: over the last thirty years, for example, the ART arrived in an explosion of challenging hits (Six Characters in Search of an Author, The King Stag) but then staggered and slowly failed. How did America's leading critic go so wrong as an artistic director? There's also the rise and fall of Peter Sellars to consider, the struggle between the city's "real" theatre and its academic one, and I'm sure a half dozen other topics worthy of lengthy consideration. But out of Clay, over three decades, there hasn't been a peep on any of this. I know this sounds cruel, but this gap really represents an abject failure, not just of vision but of nerve.

  6. Thomas-

    That's a well argued polemic regarding Clay's work that deserves it's own blog entry, instead of being buried down in the comments section.