On Criticism

The following is part of an ongoing debate in Philadelphia over a particular critic. For more on that whole thing, check out We Love Toby!

This was a response to a list-serve post to Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia.


Dear Ed,

There’s no way I can match your epic posting. You’ve posted me into oblivion. I’ve been ass-posted. Stick me on a post, I’m done. But thanks for reading my book.

Anyway, y’all know how I feel about T-Zin (See? It’s come to this – I’m making up new nicknames for her.) Ed, we agree on this: she can be nasty. So for the last time, here it is. It’s like I tell my kids – don’t be nasty to people. Just. Don’t. Be. Nasty. To. People. In person. In print. On line. There is a way to tell people they can do better without hurting them. Do unto others. What goes around comes around. And with this blog, it done come around.

But here’s the thing. Underneath all the hot air about the Zinmeister, her virtues, her sins, lies a troubling question. A breathtaking question. A question which calls into question all other questions. A question which cuts to the heart of criticism, of theatre training, of theatre making. And the question is this:

Is there any such thing as good theatre?

Or for that matter –

Is there any such thing as bad theatre?

And now, beloved fellow Philadelphia theatre community, because I have devoted myself to working with you, to performing for you, to studying with you and learning from you, allow me to stick my neck directly on the chopping block:

I think there is no such thing as good theatre, and no such thing as bad theatre.

And that belief has profoundly shifted my approach to theatre making, to teaching acting and to reading criticism. If I was sitting at Fergie’s with ten of you, and we gave ourselves the task of coming up with a definition of good theatre we could all agree on, at best we would politely agree to disagree, at worst we would end up drunk and throwing bar stools at each other. Now let’s say there were nine of us and one Inquirer theatre critic. Does her definition trump all others? I think not. A person’s intellectual pedigree doesn’t mean her perceptions are better than anyone else’s. What if nine of us agree that Closer Than Ever was one of the most charming evenings of theatre we had ever attended – for whatever reason. But Tobitha doesn’t. Are we all wrong? Is she right?

Of course not. Once we admit there is no such thing as good or bad theatre, all we are left with is our subjective response. A great piece of criticism is an articulate description of a subjective response, which can be persuasive without passing judgment on something as either “good” or “bad”. The height of arrogance in criticism is this notion that there are such things as “standards” in theatre, and that it is the critic’s job to name and defend them. Once upon a time there might have been theatrical standards in America, maybe in the 50s when 95% of the actors were white and everyone thought they should sound like Grant or Hepburn. But in our glorious melting pot, in the mixture of styles and the blending of genres that “theatre” encompasses today, there can be no standards beyond the most elementary (i.e. actors should know their lines). Confronted with the myriad staged events which may fall under the designation “theatre”, what possible standards can apply? In our fair city, are we to judge West Side Story on the Walnut Main Stage by the same standards we judge storefront Fringe theatre? And I’m not only talking about the economic differences from one company to another. I think each individual piece of theatre essentially makes up its own “standards”, its own criteria for success. The same “standards” which may apply to The Crucible cannot apply to The Imaginary Invalid, even though both shows are produced by the same theatre with many of the same artists in common.

This kind of show-by-show assessment is hard. It requires meeting each new experience without preconceptions and formulating a fresh response to each play you see. It’s easier to sit back and pass judgments. I think we have fallen in love in passing judgments – not just critics, but a lot of us. It feels so good to say “That was terrible”, “How embarrassing”, “It sucked”. By taking something down a notch, we are lifted up. In this light, the ugly truth about passing judgment is seen for what it really is: a way for people feel powerful. I’ve noticed how much more often I hear and read these negative judgments passed than their positive opposites. It’s a bit risky in our culture to be an advocate or a cheerleader for something. You become a target for ridicule. It makes me think of all those horrible TV shows in which someone is getting fired, voted off or shot down. The brutal passing of judgment has become mass-cultural entertainment in America, so it’s no wonder that the savage review is held up as “fun to read”. It’s no wonder that the editors at The Inquirer think the Zinster is so witty and smart. We’re so much more cool when we shoot something down. But when we smirk at the savage review, all we’re riding on is the critic’s lust for power.

“Oh come on Ben” I hear some of you muttering, “if you had seen [fill in the blank with the show you hated], you would have said it was bad, very bad.” Yeah, I might have. Or I might have said I really, really didn’t like it – which is different. The first response passes judgement on something. The second response describes the way I reacted to it. If I didn’t like something, I’m going to do my damndest to tell you exactly why. Try sometime to talk or write about something you saw that you had a strong response to one way or the other, without resorting to value laden terms like good and bad. You’ll soon discover that it’s difficult. Good and bad (and their derivatives) are short cuts – sound bites used by lazy writers who don’t have the time or energy to put into words what they saw and felt about something. Speaking about how you reacted to something brings an important component into the conversation – you. Yours tastes, your predilections, your biases, the kind of day you had, all these become a part of the way you reacted to the thing you saw. Then, suddenly, the see-saw comes into balance: on one side, the play; on the other, the witness. A review is a mixture of these two, and the qualities of the witness are intertwined with the thing witnessed in the review. But people invested in their power to pass judgments will resist this approach to criticism. Why? Because when they are drawn into the discussion, their biases are called into question and their power is diminished. This is why La Tobe refused to be interviewed by Vicki Glembocki of Philadelphia Magazine. Being a part of a discussion about criticism admits there might be another point of view besides her’s, and all her obnoxious swipes at Vicki described at the end of the article are a lot of fearful hot air.

Once we get away from passing judgments, in other words, once we imagine a way to respond to something that admits our subjectivity, something gentle happens. We cease to be offended by something we don’t like, since we know we play a role in not liking it, and we begin to speak and write about people with respect. Because when I admit my role in my response to the thing being evaluated, then I am fully present. And when I am fully present, I am concerned with how I may be treated by others, and so I treat them well. Even more important, but more ethereal, when I am present in word or in person I am acknowledging the human exchange taking place. When I am present, I am witness to the effect I am having on others, and I feel the effect they have on me. But most criticism, both in newspapers and in academia, speaks in a disembodied authoritarian voice in which the word “I” is never uttered. Judgments get passed Oz-like from behind the protective walls of an office, their origins clouded by the smokescreen of academic reputation. The artist in the cross-hairs then ceases to be human, but rather becomes an object to be scorned, the collateral damage of the savage review.

The implications of a judgment-less approach to theatre training are staggering, some might say ludicrous. I think it’s for another post (or another book – I hope you’ll read that one too). But let me finish with this. It gets back to my previous post, which you referred to. A judgment-less approach to theatre training leads not to the making of “good” theatre, but rather to an involved examination of the theatre which needs to be made. This examination leads to an awareness of one’s audience, it leads to a connection to one’s community. And we in Philadelphia (and our brothers and sisters in Chicago, where another critic revolt is under way) are ideally positioned to embark on this examination, being Citizen Artists who live where we work. Indeed, this entire donnybrook is a celebration of a community of artists bold enough to spook some sacred cows, passionate enough stand up and say we demand to be treated with respect and adult enough to converse about it without being nasty. It is evidence of our inter-connection.