What Am I Doing Here? Or There?

Another post over at Millman’s Shakesblog concerned the role of the critic in writing about new work, whether we’re talking about entirely new work or new productions of established classics. I thought that post might be interesting to some folks who might not otherwise be inclined to wander over. So I’ll repost it here to see what, if anything, the rest of you think.


I don’t mean here as in where I am physically – that’s Canada, the promised land, where I’ve already seen six productions at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival that I haven’t gotten around to writing about. I mean here as in on this blog, writing about theatre. What is the purpose of this activity?

The question comes to me because I’m still hoping to take this blog to someplace where I could grow more substantial traffic, but as I’ve contemplated doing that I’ve realized that I have only the faintest idea what I’m about. And that led me to the question: what are critics about generally?

I think the purpose of criticism, generally, is to open up additional windows into work that a casual reader/viewer/listener/etc. might not otherwise think to open, or see were there at all. But that’s the function of criticism of work that is already established as worthy of criticism, or that the critic wants to justify moving into that category.

But criticism of new work can barely do this at all, because it doesn’t have the time to be properly reflective, but also because no windows are open yet. And so other considerations may come to overwhelm the proper function of criticism, functions that I think are at least somewhat questionable.

Most obviously, there is the critic’s own desire to have a reputation. If we’re talking about criticism of established work, one hopes this reputation will be based in part – though it never will be entirely – on whether it generates novel insights, and whether it communicates these persuasively and well. But for new work, a reputation can be gained other ways more easily.

The most rewarding strategy for a critic of new work is to be seen as a good pundit – someone with a good track record of getting it “right” – and getting it “right” means predicting what will be received generally the way it was received by the critic in question. For the most “powerful” critics, this process becomes somewhat self-fulfilling: lesser-regarded critics, some producers, and to a limited extent even audiences will fall into line once the great critic has pronounced sentence. For less “powerful” critics, the critic can achieve some of this success by internalizing the expectations of his or her reading audience. If he or she knows their taste well, then he or she can write reviews that will help that audience find works that will appeal. This, though, has essentially nothing to do with criticism; rather, it’s consumer advice – valuable, I would certainly say, but not as criticism.

A critic can also establish a reputation by being a gadfly, a curmudgeon, a wit, a gossip – by adopting a persona that is engaging and entertaining in and of itself, at least to some of the audience. Negative reviews are especially good for this, and I think most people – even artists who hate critics – enjoy a really well-written savaging, because they are entertaining. But this, again, has very little to do with criticism, the best evidence being that the best reviews of this sort are of work that wasn’t worth reviewing from a critical perspective in the first place. Rather than criticism, this is a kind of comedy writing.

Then there is the critic as gourmet. I think this is what most critics, in fact, think they are: people of exceptional taste and knowledge who, whether the mob follows them or not, deserve respect because they have that exceptional taste and knowledge, which empowers them to say what is good, what is better, what is best. (And what is outright bad.) But this is the critical type that is, it seems to me, the least justifiable. The gourmet, after all, does not necessarily educate in any fundamental way – does not communicate actual insights about the work in question. Because that’s not strictly necessary, and in some cases isn’t even possible – how much can you possibly learn about music from reviews of the opera, or about cuisine from reviews of great restaurants? Reviews like these are frequently stuffed with content-free terms of praise or scorn. Many readers read gourmet critics to acquire opinions about works they don’t understand and may never even have experienced, so the gourmet does not even necessarily drive sales to degree that the pundit or consumer advisor does.

So what am I doing here? Well, what I’m doing first and foremost – in keeping with my producerist predilections with regard to art generally – is pleasing myself. Writing so that I clarify for myself what I myself have experienced. I really do think that’s true for all creative writing: you do it for yourself, and then to share it with others. And I hope I am providing actual criticism, thoughtful reflection on, in particular, classical theater and productions thereof. Sharing insights I learned from particular productions in the hopes that readers who are familiar and unfamiliar will learn something – or will argue with me, and I will learn something. Artists generally, and understandably, hate to read criticism of their own work, but if I had to describe my ideal audience there would be a great many artists in it – writers, directors, actors, etc. I like to flatter myself that, if I have an insight into, say, Leontes’s motivations, which came to me because of a particular actor’s performance, that this insight might prove useful to another actor preparing for the role, even differently useful than seeing the other actor’s performance might have been, since that performance might have struck the second actor differently than it did me, and led to different insights (or merely to the imperative to find a different way in, not to copy someone else’s performance).

But, inevitably, I’m going to fall into some of these other patterns: trying to a pundit, or a wit, or a gourmet. And a little of that is ok. But I hope my limited coterie of readers will keep me on the straight and narrow and reprove me if I indulge in those habits too much.