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October 20, 2009


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Thomas Garvey

But if there are no criteria for judging plays, then how can going to a lot of them make critics "highly seasoned experts"? This post seems to contradict itself.


Who would you classify as a dispassionate adjudicator? I can't think of any critic I've read who claims/claimed that role. I'm thinking here of Bentley, Brustein, Rogoff, Kauffman, Young, Clurman, Kroll, Winer, Simon, Rich, and so on. They were/are all very passionate about what they wrote/write and to varying degrees acknowledge the personal, subjective nature of what they're doing. Even Rich has stated that the part of reviewing he liked best was attempting to recreate the experience of the play for the audience.

Prince Gomolvilas

"How personal should reviews be?"

Isaac, I think the answer to this question depends on who you define as a "critic" these days. As the blogosphere continues to become more and more relevant, the line between formal critics and bloggers who have informal opinions continues to blur.

For example, I in no way consider myself a critic in the traditional sense of the word. When I write about movies and plays on my own blog, I try my best to avoid writing about them like traditional reviews. I'll usually spend, at most, one sentence describing the plot, and the rest of the time I write about themes that I found particularly interesting or about something personal that connects me to the movie or play. Sometimes I elect to talk to about my personal experience of sitting through the play or movie. Once in a while, I cross into territory that seems like a normal "review," but it's usually by accident or because some things about the movie and play just have to be talked about in that fashion. I figure, if people want a traditional review, they can go to the L.A. Times or L.A. Weekly or Flavorpill or what have you. People come to my blog for me, not for the Bamboo Nation "brand," so that's my thinking around it.

Anyway, even though I see my approach as drastically different from what you would find in the Times or the Weekly, quotes from my posts about plays I've seen do sometimes end up on theater companies' promotional materials, which I used to think was kind of weird. I sometimes wonder about the casual reader who clicks my quote on a theater company's website and is led back to my original post. I can imagine how odd they must think my "reviews" are because they're not like the reviews they're used to. "Why is he talking about his cat so much? What does Levi Johnston have to do with this? Etc."

The old saying: "Everyone's a critic." It's taking on a new resonance in the Internet age.

malachy walsh

Agree with a lot of what you say here.

My opinion is that reviews by "professionals", in the age of Yelp!, are pretty much unnecessary. And, for related reasons, it's getting harder and harder to find any consensus on what constitutes quality and high craft in art. So, if I ran a paper, I'd stop sending critics to shows for reviews altogether. Of course, I'd still send someone to the show, but I'd have that person write about what the show brought up, what it was attempting discuss and what trends the show's style and/or subject might be part of in theatre and the larger culture. Generally, I find articles that do this are much more interesting to read, and a much richer source for thought, than say, critics who tell me that the dialog I liked in the second act was dialog that they found flabby. Or that a play I was bored by was really a taut thriller. These dramaturgical opinions don't lead much of anywhere for me since it seems to come down to "It worked for me" vs. "it didn't work for me."


To play Devil's advocate Malachy:

Why even bother sending somebody to the show at all? Just get the theater company's P.R./Marketing/Dramaturgy Department to write up that article for you. I'm sure they'd be happy to. They already do this in the form of press releases. And these pieces you are referring to are pretty much already in existence, (most of them derive from the pre-show press anyway.)

As you point out about the "age or Yelp," The criticism will take care of itself. In the comments section of these pieces the readers will sound off about their experience at the play.

But, mark my words, their, ummm, opinions, will make artists start begging for the return of that professional reviewer.

Most theater companies announce that "Word of Mouth is our best form of advertising."

Some of them don't understand that it is also the most accurate.

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I agree with the above person who posted that "This post seems to contradict itself." It's true there are no formal rules for judging a play, as it is entirely up to someone's personal likes/dislike. KWIM?

malachy walsh

Mirror... not sure how you construed what I suggested as akin to reprinting a press release. That isn't what I put out there at all. And I think you know that you're turning my argument into a straw dog.

But I can tell you why I'd send someone to see the show and write the kind of piece I've outlined: I'd like to read it. And I'd pay for it. So I think others might, too. I know I was a lot more willing to pay for the NY Times on Sunday when the Book Review was run by Anatole Broyard who ran think pieces about literature and the world on the front page of the section. Using a literary figure or just published book as a starting point, essays were informative, interesting and relevant. And definitely not reviews.

A word about Word of Mouth that's also worth considering - in marketing and advertising everyone talks this up knowing that WOM often needs a push from somewhere besides the product (in this case the show). This is one reason all ad agencies and marketing groups talk about their social media capabilities these days and the government is openly discussing laws that require bloggers to make full disclosures about the products they receive money to flog in their opinionated postings.

Thomas Garvey

I do want to say that there's a fine, but important, point about criticism that often seems lost on those who claim that reviewing "comes down to 'It worked for me' vs. 'It didn't work for me.'"

In my experience, folks who says things like that often imagine that criticism is merely a contest between differing opinions. If that were true, of course, all reviewing would be a pointless debate between apples and oranges. Some folks like apples, and some oranges, and there's really no way to settle a debate between them; true enough.

What makes criticism different from a mere statement of opinion is that criticism is about perception. And while everyone, of course, is entitled to his or her own opinion, who would argue that everyone is equally perceptive? In short, it's a critic's powers of perception that make him or her worth reading. And those perceptions can be valuable whether or not you agree with the critic's opinions about those perceptions.



I don't seem to remember the New York Times Book Review not containing reviews, even under Anatole Broyard. ;)

But don't the best think pieces apply critical faculties? Don't they render at least some type of judgement of success or misplaced importance?

I was wasn't trying to set up a straw man, I was kind of, tongue in cheek, suggesting that if you want to avoid criticism of something altogether then your best bet is to go straight to the artist who created the work, no?

But, then again, the artist, in defense of his or her own work, will usually have no problem criticizing the work of other artists. (See: Sarah Ruhl, Theresa Rebeck, Adam Rapp, Pinter, Brecht, Albee, Miller etc.)

As Eric Bentley pointed out: If you want to understand Brecht's drama, avoid, at all costs, his theory.

malachy walsh

Thomas, you define the problem perfectly. And I think it justifies my POV almost too well. And it's certainly why I do find "reviewing" in the current world generally pointless. After all, why is a critic more perceptive than me or you or the guy we're standing next to on the subway car? And perceptive about what, exactly?

When Charles Isherwood says he didn't like the acting in a show where I thought the acting was good, I don't think, "Oh, silly me, Charles is so much more perceptive than me - I must be wrong." However if Isherwood were to point out that the acting in the show is small and intimate and part of a larger trend he's been seeing elsewhere and connects it to a larger cultural phenomenon, I'm much more likely to be engaged and think about what he's said and what I saw. Plus, it's more likely to be useful in thinking about other things I might be seeing elsewhere.

The first instance is criticism as currently practiced by many. The second is an example (albeit imperfect) of an insight based on observation. And it's much much harder to do than point out that the 3rd act is too long because you were bored, didn't follow the rules you learned in school and/or are practiced most of the time, or you didn't like the acting.

malachy walsh

Mirror, again, didn't say the review didn't contain reviews. What I did say was that I looked forward to the part that wasn't a review. And I'm not going to defend what other artists say about other artists.

I'm just talking about what I'd like to see based on what I find useful and interesting. The "dialog sagged in the middle" is particularly useful to me, unless, of course, I smugly agree with it.

malachy walsh

There's a typo in my last sentence.... should read:

The "dialog sagged in the middle" isn't particularly useful to me, unless, of course, I smugly agree with it.

Thomas Garvey

Perhaps your posts can be read as being in agreement with mine, malachy, but you do seem hostile to many "professional" critics (or maybe just Charles Isherwood!). After all, a reviewer does have to include plenty of seeming "snap" judgments, such as "the dialogue in the second act sagged," to get to any kind of complex insight about a piece. And I think it's easy to fall back on an attitude of "Who is this guy to tell me what to think?" when a critic disagrees with you; it's harder to engage with his or her analysis openly (far harder, I think, than it is for the average reviewer to be "open" to a show!). Of course, many reviewers don't really do much analysis, they just coast along with puns and jokes and a few genuflections to general trends. But this is what makes your comments about "pointing out larger trends" a little worrisome; that's not quite the same thing as analysis (which might run along the lines of "this is becoming a general trend, and here's the problem with it"). In my experience, most critics are happy to trend-surf, and quite good at it; but few try to analyze them.

malachy walsh

Well, maybe they should do more of that. Certainly if they want me to buy their paper.


An interesting conversation here. I do hope that it never comes down to deep sixing formal reviewing altogether--for both their historic and historical significance. The best reviews provide not just documentary detail, as useful as that can be, and certainly not just value judgments, as useless as they can be, but context--in the truest sense of the word, 'with text'--whether the insights take us backwards in time or alert us to events affecting our lives at this very moment. I just read what I would consider a badly written review of Ibsen's "Doll House" playing in Florida, for it contained no sense of history, no sense of why the play might still be relevant. But I think this problem may also have something to do with a jadedness that comes with seeing the same "classics" too many times.


Oh, I’m with Nicole. I’ve just blathered about this a great deal recently, but I really dig good criticism. I think the frustrating part of lame reviews and lame criticism is when the critic only writes his or her opinion (using as much flowery language, of course) yet forgets the actual reporting aspect of the job. Good criticism is a mix between op-ed opinion writing and news reporting. (I think a well-written review, even a negative one, should give the reader a good enough descriptions of the play so he or she can decide for herself whether or not to see it.)

In other words, a critic shouldn’t just write, “the dialogue sagged in the middle.” He or she should probably write something to the effect of, “in the second act, the play comes to a grinding halt when Porky and Petunia spending 20 minutes debating whether ‘Roman Holiday’ or ‘When Harry Met Sally’ is the best romantic comedy of all time, an exchange that’s never referred to or used in the third act. It kills the momentum of the show, and merely adds to the plays already overlong runtime.” Something like that. It’s what our high school English composition teachers would write in the margins of our essays when we made a standalone declarative statement: “Prove.”

I think it ultimately boils down to the fact that some critics are better at their jobs than others.

Thomas Garvey

Yeah, well, when I was writing for the Boston Globe, my reviews couldn't be longer than 500 words (a total which had to include title, location, run, etc. of the play). Your ideal sentence there just gobbled up 63 of those precious commodities, or about 13% of the total. Only six more sentences like that one allowed! Hence perhaps you can see why so many critics opt for "the dialogue sagged in the middle."

One thing that I often notice about critics of critics is that they rarely have an appreciation for the critic behind the critic - the newspaper editor, who is always there, trust me, cutting and shaping the content - for better or worse, but usually for worse.


And oops! Speaking of editors, I meant to write, "...Porky and Petunia spend 20 minutes debating..." D'OH!


From the Boston Globe review of Speed-the-Plow today:

i>Though “Speed-the-Plow’’ sags a bit in the middle, Mamet was mostly in top form with this tale of two blockbuster-obsessed movie producers and the idealistic temp who upends their moral universe.

Emph mine. ;)

malachy walsh

Thanks, mirror.... and my question about this play's production is: Why now? What's the point, today?

The reviewer barely alludes to it (production history, worry about the theatre's stewardship) and then ignores it with synopsis, dramaturgical notes, and observations about acting and notes.

Isaac.... great series of posts of late.


Thanks, Malachy! Much appreciated. I think after 6 months of going back-to-back with projects and now having a breather I just have a bunch of shit stored up to say!

Thomas Garvey

Interestingly enough, the Globe was right about one thing, Art - "Speed-the-Plow" did sag in the middle. I'll be writing about why in the Hub Review. Just to summarize here, though - and this is a point that malachy might find interesting - the production sagged in the middle because the female lead had been misdirected. Mamet's long middle scene is essentially a seduction in which the temp tries to get her newly-found pet project greenlighted by pushing her boss's sexual and emotional buttons. The New Rep production, under Robert Walsh's direction, blew this subtext by making the temp too open and sympathetic. Yet the Globe reviewer also claims that she had "an air of mystery." If that were true, however, then the seduction scene would not have sagged. Whether this lack of perception on the part of the Globe reviewer (or perhaps the disconnect between his perception and his analysis) supports my or malachy's contentions is an amusing question!

As for malachy's query, "Why?" - which I take it to mean "Why do 'Speed-the-Plow' now?", I think the answer is obvious: because it was just on Broadway, and in the news. That's basically why a regional house in Boston is dusting it off. Butts in seats, etc.

Of course the Globe review disappoints in another way: it doesn't grapple at all with a key contradiction in Mamet's play. I'll be discussing that, too.

malachy walsh

Already, two different reviewers, two different opinions that you either agree with or don't when you see it. Just like vanilla and chocolate ice cream.

And perhaps your answer to my larger query is obvious, if you make it obvious and, in this case, cynical.

But let's say it's the correct answer. I'd still rather read an article about why this particular play may (or may not) still call to audiences than a review that simply tells me what the plot is and what the reviewer thought of the acting and writing - honestly, I've seen this play a lot (and like it), but if there is a reason to do this play, a good writer and observer can find them in the production and discuss them in a way that teases out this larger and more interesting (to me) discussion.

Thomas Garvey

I see my earlier comment didn't post - but perhaps because as I've scanned up the blog, I've noticed that part of my comment was actually covered in later posts. So that's just as well.

But I'm going to try to make the other point again - which is that the issue in this particular review is not one of "different strokes for different folks," or "vanilla vs. chocolate ice cream."

It's about the inner logic of the review. If the reviewer felt that the lead actress had "mystery," then it follows that her big scene, which depends on that mystery, should crackle. But instead, it "sagged," according to the reviewer. He has to explain that seeming contradiction. But he doesn't.

malachy walsh

Thomas, I don't want to beat a dead horse, so I'll stop after this, but you're just pitting one person's inner logic against someone else's. Which, to go back to the top, I can find in various reviews (in well, moderately-well and poorly written forms) almost everywhere. The first writer does explain why he thinks it sags in the middle - it's because of the writing. You think it sags in the middle because of the acting. You agree on sag and you're both clear, but not why. And I think if you sat down together, you'd could easily disagree about where the middle even is in the play. Ask another audience member what they think, they'll tell you it didn't sag at all for reasons neither of you cited. Or maybe even because of the reasons you cited (they like the writing and the acting). Is that viewer's opinion wrong? No, because it would be a legitimate reaction to the work. And no matter how good someone's reasoning, the only way someone could say someone else's response to a work of art like this is wrong would be out of complete arrogance.

My point? There are more interesting things to talk about and what is thought of as traditional criticism is missing it.

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