By Isaac Butler
I tweeted and facebooked and social networked about this earlier, but if you haven't read it yet, Jason Zinoman's NYTimes blog piece on the value(s) of bad reviews is well worth your time, as is George Hunka's response over at his place, where George writes (in part quoting himself in the comments to Jason's post):
“It’s not so much a matter of whether a critic who gives a bad review to a show has a vendetta or seems to engage in abuse. It is, however, a matter of whether or not the reviewer has the thoughtfulness or the knowledgability to render such a review valid. Especially with plays that seek to extend the form, the critic should be able to differentiate between a bad play and those which do not yield their pleasures as easily as others.” The contentious and rude review often enough calls attention to itself and the reviewer, not the play and the artist, which does a disservice to reader and artist alike. It also might serve as a cover for ignorance.
Here's where my ever-evolving thinking on critics and reviews stands right now.
Argument. First and foremost, a review is a work of argumentative writing and as such the common ways that we think about argumentative writing are helpful here. A well written review should have some kind of central argument that can be proven using the available evidence of the "text" (which in this case is the show that's being reviewed). It doesn't need to follow the formal rules of an argumentative essay, obviously. Who would want to read a review written in the keyhole format?
But at the end of the day, the reviewer is putting forward an argument about the worth of something they have seen. And so if we want to evaluate the quality of a review, we should be able to apply most standards of argumentative writing to it. Does it use evidence to support its points? Is it well structured? Is there a clear and needing-to-be-proved thesis at its core? Etc. As someone who reads a lot of reviews, lemme tell ya, you'd be surprised how many of them fail as basic works of argumentative writing.
Intent. So let's talk for a moment about what the review should be evaluating in the first place. It seems to me that the most obvious place to start is with the work's intent. Keeping in mind that the reviewer is not psychic, their first job is to try to divine the work's intent from what they have seen. You might never end up describing this intent to the reader, but without having some idea of what you think the intent is, there's almost no way to evaluate the rest of the piece except by raw standards of "taste," and that is one of the places that issues of fairness can sneak in.
The second part of divining the intent of a piece is figuring out whether or not you think that that intent is worthwhile. It could be that the reason why something doesn't work (for you!) is that it's intent is antithetical to what you think theatre should be. Or offensive. Or not achievable. Or a waste of time. If you believe this then it really is on you to make this clear and make an argument for why on such a basic level you reject the work. Perhaps you are tired of seeing plays about upper middle class white people and their problems and thus Rabbit Hole isn't for you. Then you have to make this clear (as David Cote rather colorfully did in his review).
Spider-Man 1.0 provides an interesting test case here. As Jason Zinoman pointed out in his Slate.com review, what's most interesting about the piece is the intention-level fight about what Spider-Man is about. And in the case of Spider-Man, that was actually a far more interesting thing to write about than how much the music sucked.
Another reason why thinking through intent is important is that there are many, many different kinds of theatre. Theatre is a medium, it isn't a genre, and applying one genre's rules of quality universally is going to get us all in a lot of trouble. To use books for a moment, the things that make a mystery by George Pelecanos good are not the same things that make a novel by Don DeLillo good are not the same things that make Pride & Prejudice good are not the same things that make His Dark Materials good. All of those works are trying to do very very different things and they accomplish them in very different ways.
Formal Properties. The next thing is figuring out whether or not (and how) the formal properties of the show support or undermine this intent. Formal properties here could mean a whole lot of things, from the quality of execution (staging, acting, design) to ways the text gets in its own way, to clashes between the production choices and the text etc. And it could be that there are aspects of a production that both support and get in the way, obviously.
For example, in Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo, every character except for the protagonist has a clearly stated thing that they want/need/are-trying-to-get over the course of the play. This in some ways helps serve the piece in that it turns the protagonist into even more of a victim; he has little power in the play and that's part of the point, so having things happen to him and having him be torn between other people's desires is important. But it also undermines the work because as audiences we naturally gravitate towards characters with clear superobjectives and thus what and who the play is about gets very muddy.
Similarly, to focus on production choices for a moment, the directing style of both Black Watch (which I disliked but was impressed by) and Unnatural Acts (which I really quite liked and was deeply moved by) is flamboyant and frequently movement-based in a similar way that's become somewhat trendy in post-Gross Indecency nonfiction theatre. At times this very active, somewhat-showboaty style supported the work and the work's intent. The costume parade in act one of Black Watch for example was a devilishly clever way to take you through a huge swatch of history in a very short, visually engaging period of time. The the gorgeous and moving opening and closing "photo shoot" tableaux that the actors move out of and into at the beginning and end of Unnatural Acts forms a lovely and moving frame for the piece that also helps emphasize the nonfictional nature of the event. Sometimes, however, directorial excess undermined the pieces. In both cases, they had penultimate loud movement sequences meant to be emotionally stirring that instead made me feel like I was being pounded into a kind of emotional submission instead of given space to respond to the work. (Coincidentally or not, Gross Indecency also has a penultimate expressionistic movement piece that undermines the emotional power of the work.)
Formally Outre Work. George's point above is an interesting one, and one well worth keeping in mind. However, there is a way that such a position can be used as an argument from authority to simply dismiss that someone thinks your work is no good. How often do we take a review to a bar and talk about how the reviewer "just didn't get it"?
Certainly, with work that seeks to (as George put it) "expand the form" there is some extra work involved for the reviewer, particularly with work that jettisons expected surface pleasures. The question becomes in that case, what else is the work bringing to the table? This gets us back to intent and quality of execution.
At the same time, work can retreat behind a kind of gnomic shield to such a degree that the author can claim that only they are sufficiently well versed in what they were trying to do to be able to judge its quality. This is basically a dodge by thin skinned people who don't like being criticized, and in their case they should probably just stick to doing plays int heir living rooms for an invited audience.
When you get a review where the reviewer clearly didn't get what you are going for, there's a kind of twin interrogative process that I feel needs to take place. The first it towards the review itself, which might be clearly written by a moron, or a vindictive malefactor. It happens. But you also have to interrogate your own work and ask if it really is reasonable that someone didn't get it. Sometimes it is.
I directed a play called The Honest-to-God True Story of the Atheist which is, at its heart, about storytelling and manipulation. As a result, it is constantly and deliberately frustrating your expectations for what storytelling should be. Amongst other things, no scene in the play ends in what you might call a "satisfying" way. The play constantly slams into walls, scenes get interrupted by other scenes, or by silliness, or by digression. It's structure is a lot more akin to a Flying Circus episode than to a normal play. That's part of its point.
So when we got a review saying that the writer clearly didn't know how to end a scene, my job as the director was to look at the production choices we had made and see whether we had not taken steps to make that sufficiently clear to the audience. I think honestly, in that case, the reviewer had certain formal expectations of what "good" and "bad" theatre were and applied them regardless of the work's intent and that lead him to this conclusion. But had I received a lot of notices like that, or quite a few people coming up to me afterwards and complaining about that, it might be a sign that I hadn't done my job right.
Fairness and Decency. So, to circle back to the argumentative writing thing... I think it's important, just as in argumentative writing, that we strive for fairness and decency. Which is not the same thing as being nice. If something is bad, it should be described as and called bad. And this also does not mean that one is never harsh nor cruel. You can be a fair-minded and decent person and still think that occasionally someone or something needs to be put on blast.
When I think of reviewers being unfair, I think less of critics I disagree with than with critics who are unnecessarily cruel and dismissive to work that doesn't deserve it. And to my mind, a garden variety play that you just don't really like doesn't deserve cruelty. The problem is this: cruelty is very, very entertaining, and one of the other things that reviews should be is entertaining to read. It's a difficult gravitational pull to resist. But I also think then that when one is deciding to pull out the knives, part of the argumentative weight then involves justifying it (to see this brilliantly executed, read Laura Miller's review of Chuck Palahniuk's Diary, a heroic pan if ever there was one).
Let's also not forget exactly how harsh we can be in our criticism of other people's work at bars, via e-mail, to our friends etc. It's a little bit hypocritical to get up in a high dudgeon about reviews committing some sin of cruelty when we ourselves say far worse to each other.
Word Count. Obviously, most of the reviews today have very little space to do any of this. So a lot of the above is about the process that goes into writing the review, rather than the review itself. Still, I feel that you can tell when a reviewer has done the work to actually consider a piece and when they haven't.
Dismissiveness. I still don't know how I feel about reading dismissive reviews. Sometimes I feel like "well, people are working hard and being vulnerable and getting paid shit, the least they deserve is your full attention and consideration." But then again, I also think about how many times I've seen a play and just thought "meh. I'm glad I don't have to come up with 200 words to say about it."
UPDATE: I was remiss in the above in not linking to David Cote's review of Rabbit Hole, which can be found here. Jeremy M. Barker weighs in colorfully and with great force on this whole thing over at Culturebot, elaborating on how the idea that the critics didn't get it (or lacked sufficient expertise to get it) is largely a dodge (and an infuriating one at that). It will shock no one to learn that I largely agree with him and hope that in the above section on Formally Outre work that that is clear.