Wednesday, April 27, 2011

More thoughts from Larry

On Monday, after Larry Stark (at left) forwarded me his open letter to the A.R.T., he asked that I open a discussion on reviewing style on the Hub Review.  Which I agreed to do.  I suppose I wasn't quick enough in doing so, however, for today I received the following message in my inbox, which I agreed to would post.  Comments are welcome.  My thoughts will come in due course.

Hi Tom,

I was quite serious when I suggested you open a discussion of "style" in your blog; but since you haven't I will.

Specifically, I see a difference between "negative" reviews versus "destructive" ones - and I see a difference between real criticism and mere assertion.

It's probably because I was schooled by a very hard editor who always demanded that I Justify any assertion with demonstrable facts from the stage. My mere Opinion that something worked or didn't was never enough.

The older I get the more correct Joe Hanlon's approach seems to be. If you Explain an opinion - good or bad actually - then the readers Learn something. Without it, all they can do is compare their opinions with yours (assuming they see the same show you did) and either praise your insight or damn your stupidity. An Explained opinion in a negative review is, actually, a positive thing.

But negative assertions without explanation are often destructive. They leave the reader no recourse but anger when they disagree. They benefit no one - except perhaps the ego of the critic.

Actors in plays cannot fight back; they haven't the critic's megaphone, and any complaint of injury, however true, is always construed as whining. The creators have to "suck it up like true professionals" at least outwardly. Destructive criticism is simply shooting fish in a barrel.

I remember reading a Globe review - can't remember the show - that asserted that, though the audience loved the show, They Shouldn't! That to me was a classic case of "elephantiasis of the ego' - and a stupid misapprehension of what theater is for.


That should get things started, I think.

Your ideas?

- Larry Stark


  1. The critic as an educator is the ideal, which is mainly the reason I read these reviews - to learn something. If the critic teaches me nothing, I see no reason to pay attention to their work. By definition the critic attends more events than the rest of us. (S)he enjoys the privilege of being able to draw parallels between pieces and to make connections that we may not. It is arguably a duty of the critic to highlight continuities and trends. What are the seminal pieces and why? Where is the culture going?

  2. Thanks for your comment, Doug. I think you've put your finger on part of what makes The Hub Review different from any other critical writing in Boston - my attempt, as you say, to "draw parallels between pieces and make connections," to "highlight continuities and trends." No one else in Boston does that, and it's largely because (at least for the print critics), they're prevented from doing so by their editors. When I was working for the Globe, for instance, my overlords consistently edited out any references in my reviews to other performances or works - even performances by the very company I was covering! They had a theory to explain this censorship, of course, which I'm sure they'd learned in "J-school;" but really it only amounted to a conceptual confusion between reviewing and reporting. At any rate, the upshot was that you couldn't talk about context, and therefore you couldn't really critique the work of art in question. It took me a little while to realize that that was the whole point; actual critique might jeopardize ad revenues, and of course coherent thought was always going to rile up somebody somewhere (and generate outraged letters). The whole idea at the Globe, therefore, was to seemingly offer its audience a forum for critical thought, but secretly constrain the reviewer into intellectual irrelevance. (There was no constraint on pure style, of course, and honestly, the Globe arts pages are more stylishly written than ever; Sebastian Smee just won a Pulitzer, in fact, for saying as little as possible as beautifully as anyone in Globe history has ever managed.)

    MY intent, of course, is to be as salient as possible - indeed, to actually shape the scene as much as I am able. And I think I've been pretty successful at that; or at least more successful than anyone else in town; there's a strange coincidence between my early reviews and the eventual profile of a number of local companies and artists.

    But of course I probably would never have been able to achieve that influence if I'd had an editor - partly because even enlightened editors want reviewers to subscribe to the precepts Larry describes above. They ask that a reviewer, like a good cub reporter, verify all his or her "assertions" with "demonstrable facts from the stage" (as if it were a crime scene or something). This makes sense from the professional standards of reporting - but it has little to do with the appreciation of art. Indeed, to my mind a critic isn't like a reporter at all - he or she is more like a detective, drawing inferences, comparing this scene to that one, and following clues wherever they may lead. If there is a journalistic parallel to true critique, it's the investigative story - the kind that builds over weeks to a conclusion. Intriguingly, the Globe does have an "investigative reporter" for the arts - Geoff Edgers - but his discoveries are never allowed to "contaminate" the atomized musings of the reviewers (and thus his reporting is emasculated). My reviews, by way of contrast, are more like that investigative story - the culmination of both artistic perception and real-world observation.

  3. I had planned to respond earlier, after all, I had been one of the first to publicly take a position in this debacle, but my own performance and rehearsal schedule had kept me busy.

    Let me start by noting why I am a fan of The Hub Review: I enjoy how Tom gets at the themes of a play, inquires into how the script itself addresses those themes, the extent to which the production expands upon those themes, and the relevance of those themes in the culture as a whole. For me, it makes Tom's reviews worth my while, even if I'm not planing on seeing a particular show (and sometimes even when it's a genre that has rarely sparked my interest.)

    While this sort of thematic exploration presumingly occurs between a dramaturg and director, it's not something that usually comes up in local theatre reviews-- but it's also threatening to some, (not necessarily to actors, who can only be responsible for their own performance) but to the writers and directors who are most responsible of the play doesn't work (I say this as an early-career playwright-- if my writing sucks then the actor is not to blame!) Quite simply, writers don't like hearing that their plays are intellectually simplistic, or two ideologically narrow-minded, and directors don't like having their taste in simplistic, narrow-minded work exposed to the public.

    Tom's sidebar blurb "He's got no theory!" is very appropriate: many university educated people feel the need to have a "theory" for their political or aesthetic engagement. Of course, these "theories" aren't theories in the manner that people trained in the natural sciences, social sciences, or philosophy of science understand them, but ideologies framed in academic jargon-- and these ideologies often do more to proscribe thematic exploration than they do to foster it. Is it any wonder that some theory-dependent writers, directors, and ADs (such as the sort that congregate around Parabasis) are threatened by The Hub Review?

    However, I've also spoken to a few friends who are from the D.C. theatre scene, and some of them make a point: they respect Tom's intellect and knowledge, but there's a matter of tone (D.C. is a very polite town-- most southern towns are.) Tom isn't just a smart critic, but practices criticism as a performance. There's a definite persona: one that uses sarcasm to deflate the self-important, dishes out vulgarities for the vulgar, and employs satirical collages; indeed one that is relentless-- and that's oft-putting even by those that respect the intellectual content of the performance,. To those who can't see the content for the performance, it just comes across as mean (not that I think that segment of the audience would appreciate Tom's work even if he was polite.)

  4. Well, I can understand why your D.C. friends would eschew sarcasm and ridicule; our capital, after all, is well-known as a center of ethics and integrity. Who needs sarcasm when you're in Washington D.C.?

    But maybe I should try being more polite . . . let's see . . . hmmm . . . how about, "Dear Harvard, would you please fire that crook and start acting like the great university you claim to be? Pretty please with sugar on top?" We'll see if that works!

  5. Just analyzing the cause of the friction; not justifying it.

    (D.C. of course, like many southern towns, has a major tradition of using politeness to deflect any addressing of historical injustices and ideological fracture lines.)

    The small-minded focus on your tone without attending your argument. The rest of us, who understand your arguments, sometimes have to work with the small-minded-- so we have to make certain compromises-- or carefully navigate around those compromises.