Should playwrights review theatre, the way authors commonly review each other’s books? That’s the simple question posed by Time Out New York theatre editor David Cote in a recent blog post for the Guardian, and it reminded me of a contentious reader talkback that New Yorker critic John Lahr did last year, in which Lahr—who’s written for the stage as well as about it—summarily accused most of his critical colleagues of being unqualified to write knowledgeably on their subject:
Most of the people dishing out judgment have no working experience of the theatre, have not written a professional play, a sketch, or even a joke; have never worked in a theatre, taken an acting class, or published any extended piece of work. They are creative virgins; everything they know about theatre is book-learned and second-hand.
But what do you really think, John? Of course, the biggest objection to reviewing a field you work in is, as Cote succinctly concludes, “politics.” Another way to put that is: Theatre is a small world and you shouldn’t poop where you eat. With the advent of social media, it can be an even smaller world, as Alexis Soloski, a critic for Village Voice, noted in a blog post last year that tracked her evolving views. She says she used to think there was “no reason theatremakers and critics shouldn’t fraternise. We went to the same parties. We took the same drugs. We even dated one another. And most of my journalist colleagues were also aspiring actors, directors, playwrights or dramaturges; for models, we looked to Shaw or Tynan. We knew the heartache and toil that went into theatrical productions, even bad ones: surely, we were uniquely qualified to critique them.” These days, though, Soloski wrote, she turns down Facebook requests from playwrights and actors because she found her cozy relationships with some were affecting her judgment: “I would fret over articles, worrying that acquaintances might be hurt by what I’d written.”
As a working theatre critic and very intermittent practitioner (I’m a composer), I’ve navigated these tricky waters for more than a decade, both in Los Angeles and New York. I can’t say I have a one-size-fits-all answer; there is a short list of artists and theatres I choose to recuse myself from reviewing, and it would likely grow larger if I worked in the field more. Some of the critics I most enjoy reading have, as far as I know, precisely zero working experience in the theatre; it is the cultivation of their critical acuity and their writing voice, not necessarily the breadth or generality of their experience, that can make a great critic indispensable. And certainly it can be agreed that there are plenty of smart people with ages of experience in the theatre who would be positively terrible theatre critics, for any variety of reasons (conflicts of interest being just one of them).
I think the most useful way to think about what critics do, at their best, is to think of them a bit like artists (even when they seem like the artist’s enemy!). I don’t mean that what they write is “art,” necessarily, but that they do their job best when they’ve cultivated their critical faculties, their sensory and analytical powers, their sense of language, and their connection with their audience (by which I mean their readers, not their subjects—a source of great confusion and pain), in much the same single-minded way that the best artists do. Critics are best when they don’t aspire to some unattainable ideal of “objectivity,” but to a kind of passionate subjectivity, a questing and often lonely mandate which links them to the artists they cover more than any overlap in resumés. The British critic Fintan O’Toole put it best, in an old essay in The Economist:
The job of the critic is to try to ignore the magnifying effect of print and hyperbole, to preserve a sense of proportion, and to give a genuinely individual opinion. It is a modest but by no means a contemptible task. And it is one that is inextricable from the artistic process itself.
If some talented playwrights or directors can manage this neat trick—and I’ve no doubt that some can, as Lahr and Brustein do at their best, and indeed Shaw and Tynan did in their day—then so much the better. But as the rank of good critics is as small, or probably smaller, than that of the great playwrights, there’s no reason to check their theatre-making credentials at the door. The proof is in the printing (or the pixels).
Rob Weinert-Kendt is associate editor of American Theatre magazine. He also co-runs the site StageGrade.com and is father to a strapping infant named Oliver.