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October 07, 2011


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George Hunka

I quite agree with your perspective on this, Isaac. As you mention, the same argument can be made for his passing on the plays of Annie Baker and Sarah Ruhl in the future. I'm not sure what purpose his piece serves.

On the other hand, "Isherwood supposedly has his job because he has good taste"? Maybe according to his editor, but I doubt even that, and I doubt most people would agree as to the quality of his judgment. I often wonder why Isherwood has his job. Maybe he'll write about that next.


"I know several of my playwright and theater artist friends who have felt that if an artist is knocked often enough by the same reviewer, that reviewer shouldn't be assigned to review their work."

Count me as part of this crowd. If I never again have to read a misguided attempt to "review" MilkMilkLemonade from somebody who has no experience with queer theater/camp/irony it'll be too soon. I sincerely believe that not all critics are able to fairly assess every kind of work. Or sometimes a critic and an artist are just oil and vinegar (like in this Ish/Rapp scenario.)

I don't know- maybe I'm wrong. There's a small reservation here, because a part of me thinks those sorts of oil and vinegar relationships are healthy. Then the rest of me tells that little part to stfu.

Ish could have been classier, kinder or just not written about it in a public forum (like the New York fucking Times) but I think the end result is probably better for both of them.

Rob Weinert-Kendt

I mostly agree with Isherwood about Rapp, but my problem with this column is a lot like yours, Isaac: This is a white flag of surrender. Just as a critic should advocate for the kind of theater he wants to see, he should be clear and forceful about what he doesn't want to see, and not fold in the face of prevailing opinion. This throwing up of hands suggests that as strong as Isherwood's taste is (I wouldn't presume to call it good or bad, but it is strong), his stomach for what the job requires is clearly less strong.

Jennifer Gordon Thomas

I don't even think it's a white flag of surrender, Rob. Nor do I think it can be analyzed in any logical sense. I think it's pure laziness. It's like a petulant child's laziness. "I don't wanna clean my room!" Nobody likes All aspects of their job. Man up, dude.
Perhaps this was his passive aggressive attempt at telling his bosses to give him less work.


Mr. Butler, while your site often confuses me, this issue does not. Mr. Isherwood is a culture warrior. He owes it to his fans, to his readers, and to many (let's face it, benighted) writers and artists out there to continue his forward march!


liz duffy adams

I think the problem with a lot of what passes for theater criticism these days is a bewildering lack of a critical foundation. When a critic is only educated about mainstream boulevard theater, and reviews anything else, the entire subtext of the review is usually "I don't understand what this is or what it's trying to do or anything about its aesthetic context, so... it must be bad!" I really wish the Times would hire the most brilliant dramaturgy MFAs or PhDs who can also write and remake the whole field. There used to be at least some critics around who were well-rounded intellectuals, passionate about the field. (This isn't a defense of Rapp, btw. He's doing fine anyway. I'm thinking of idiotic reviews of Anne Washburn's work, among many others.)


Liz Duffy Adams is making my point, but is much more articulate than me.

Jeremy M. Barker

I don't know, Isaac. On the one hand, the opening, which is just dumb, and all his asides (which I dislike in his writing) are offputting, but in general, I don't exactly read it the same way. Here, a critic seems to do what you want him to do--he talks about ten years' worth of a playwrights career, references good things he saw in it, references other positive reviews by others, but concludes with his outstanding issues with it, admits this apparently puts him out of step with a variety of people whose opinion he respects, and state he's clearly not the best judge of the work. I see the angle you take your outrage from, but this strikes me as a critic's attempt not to be put in the position of constantly shitting on someone's work.

Jeremy M. Barker

Actually hold on a sec...I got the ArtsBeat entry confused with the actual review he just wrote. They make a hell of a pairing.


I also love that in the review Ish gets all excited upon seeing the set. "Hooray, it's a play about rich people!" Not so fast, Ish!


A far greater problem is so much power resting with just one person. The Times should switch to a reviewing system akin to their Book Reviews – with different reviews who are chosen because of their background and tastes. 'Theatre' is such a broad area that it makes no sense for the same person to review so many different subsets, styles, genres, etc. It would be akin to Anthony Tommasini reviewing a Lady Gaga performance. At the very least, critics should have term limits like elected officials.


An interesting point in all this is how often the fact that he is very prolific enters the reviews (by most critics) of a playwright such as Rapp (and also someone like Neil LaBute). Sometimes, in the midst of a rave, it is evidence of his great creative power. More often, though, it is brought up in a less-than-favorable way to say, "You write too much. That's why this play was crap." Perhaps you should write fewer reviews, Charlie--and with the work of Rapp off your plate, I guess you will. I'm sure the reduced number will make the general quality skyrocket.


Isaac, slight flaw in your premise: Isherwood chooses what he wants to see. Brantley gets first pick, then Ish, then assignments are made. The comments over on the Times site on this are filled with rage. I wonder how Charles likes being on the other end of the whip?



That's true that that's a factual error, and I'll correct it later, but it actually changes nothing. A theater critics's job is to see plays and write about them. As the second stringer at the Times, Isherwood's main beat is off broadway. If he doesn't want to write about shows happening at major theaters off broadway (which is, essentially, his beat) then I'm sure there are other people willing to do it.

Sam Thielman

You know, I've had similar thoughts to those expressed in that blog post, but to an extent I agree with you that it's a critic's duty to opine on the entire artistic landscape within the medium and beat that he covers, not just the parts of it that appeal to him.

I'm not sure your point about similarly avoiding shows that you enjoy stands up to scrutiny, however. I'm doing book and theater reviews now and as CI says, pans are really unpleasant to write, barring the crafting of a zinger or two. Nobody wants to damage a career or a life. There's a particular writer I've reviewed several times whose star is clearly on the rise, and I just hate, hate this dude's work and find it to be really shallow and easy. And yet some of the critics I respect most in the field have expressed not just measured approval but boundless enthusiasm for this young writer's talents, and so I find myself, time and again, sifting through notes and questions to myself about each new work in an effort to see what's interesting, and constantly coming up with the answer, "nothing at all." The reviewers who can enjoy and appreciate this guy write much more eloquently on him than I ever will, because on some level they're receiving on the same wavelength, in the same way that I feel like I'm really on the same page (ha) with a novelist like George R. R. Martin or a playwright like Conor McPherson.

It's a painful experience to constantly look for whatever innovation your fellow journalists are seeing in a body of work and find yourself constantly frustrated, and I can completely understand the impulse to want your publication represented by a writer more attuned to that artist's sensibilities when it comes to assessing his or her work.

I think it cuts a lot deeper than "I don't want to see plays that suck anymore," which is what the anti-Isherwood camp seems to be reducing this too. And I feel like a lot of those detractors (present company excepted, of course) are the same folks who scapegoat him for the poor state of new playwriting in general, which is just really inexcusably lazy.

Jason Zinoman

Sam: I know what you mean here, and would suggest that if you are out of step with the other critics who love someone's work, your honest dissent is probably even more vital. I recall recently being in similar position where i didn't care for someone's work that most others liked again and again. So i asked a fellow critic i respected: What am i missing? I found the answer unpersuasive, but it was illuminating to grapple with it, and i think it made for better reviewing. That said, i find it much more difficult to review work that is boring than bad, that has no or little ambition, that simply panders to its audience. For me, Adam Rapp doesn't fall into that category. Even when i don't like his work, its fun to talk about.

Sam Thielman

Well, yes, now you've hit on one of the real pleasures of writing a pan, which is that you don't feel like you've had to suffer in silence.

Jeremy M. Barker

@Isaac--Just a point of correction: the error was on my part (or perhaps you misstated it but whatever). My only point was that as a review (leaving aside for the moment the issue of an employee criticizing his job instead of doing it) I was reading it as an open and honest expression. But it wasn't the review. The review exists as is with no substantial discussion or disclosure of what are apparently very strong feelings. Reading them together makes him look like an ass.


I was responding to reader JB not you! Ack! So confusing!


Dear Messrs. Thielman and Zinoman,

Some of what you write makes the business of being a critic out to be part of a larger cultural dialogue, which is very confusing to me. Surely this is incorrect! Surely the business of the critic is about the power to shape culture? Surely it is the critic's job not to engage in conversation, not to offer an opinion, but to state, without reservation or remorse (and with the imprimatur of a major cultural resource, such as a newspaper, so much the better…) whether or not something is worthy or unworthy, good or bad, and to do so in the starkest terms possible? All evidence, gentlemen, suggests this is indeed the case!

A critic who voices dissent from an otherwise clear consensus is surely not creating or participating in a dialogue, but is using whatever leverage he has (such as that of the institution he represents) in order to better establish the true way to perceive a work of art...and the more leverage/power, the better, as the more seriously will the dissent be taken! After all, everyone has an opinion--it is a tragedy of our age that so many feel entitled to express them. But a critic is an opinion with power! Whose pen is a sword! Whose computer is a weapons depot, full of zingers! A critic without power offers an opinion, is one voice among many. A critic with power is a taste-maker, a career destroyer, a living breathing canon of cultural rightness. (And let us not forget that it is far more entertaining to see something eviscerated before our eyes than it is to see it praised. It is even less entertaining to see something, particularly something detestable, become the object of a respectful dissent. And less entertaining still when a critic feels it necessary to enumerate the causes of that dissent. Yawn yawn yawn. The critic’s cry should always be: “Now could I drink hot blood!”)

Surely the critic who loves the art and wishes to see it thrive will never be content to “suffer in silence,” but will naturally strike out with wit and verve and brutal media force (if necessary, and when is it not?) against the cause of their suffering…all for the good of the art! Whose art is it, anyway? The creators or the critics? I will tell you: the critics!! When the artist offers his or her bleeding heart on a plate to be devoured whole, surely the critic’s job is to zing it, not attempt a conversation with it (hearts are, after all, messy and difficult conversation partners). He is certainly under no obligation to “understand” it, let alone “engage” with it! (Let it be known that I detest organ meat.)

Perhaps one or both of you may be kind enough to express what you believe the/a critic’s job actually is? I would much appreciate it as I like very much to know where people stand: it puts me in a much better position to judge them. (Though to be honest, I form my judgments very quickly and am loathe to alter them as it requires far too much cognitive effort.)

Dean Thropwelle


I feel like there's a kind of sado-masochistic dynamic with Isherwood.

When dealing with a green, young-ish, early career writer, Isherwood’s favored mode of critique is to make a public display of the ways in which the young artist fails to meet, or supercedes, his model for ideal play making, and then to punish the unruly youth for their impertinence and inattention.

This is repeated, many times a season, year after year. Ocassionally, however, these public floggings are followed by a moment like the one presented in the recent Adam Rapp blog post. Here Isherwood delivers himself as introspective, flawed, or, at least at the end of his rope, and proposes a professional transgression of his own. He is admitting, in this particular instance, that he is unable to do his job. It’s beyond him. And so he won’t do it anymore.

With a tiny flourish at the end of the post (“What do you think?”), he presents his unprotected flank for a community that he must by now know despises him, and we, as he must have predicted, pile on the abuse, the snark, the belligerence, in blog posts and the comments section of the Times. We attempt to punish him. Maybe rightly.
Some portion of the ill-will against him is vented, he is (I imagine) crushed and thrilled by the erotic press of the negative attention, things roll back to zero (more or less) and we can begin the cycle again.

The thrill of this, I speculate, is the thrill of seeing in reflection just how much power he wields. And the best way to feel one's own power is to feel it turned temporarily against one's self.

Who care if Charles Isherwood stops reviewing Adam Rapp? Adam Rapp might…but I’m guessing not. I’m guessing he’s pleased by the free publicity and the renewed lease on his artistic life. The rest of us, and Charles, take this opportunity to vent grievances without making any substantial change to any of our positions.

Is it necessary to crush a young bad playwright? Or a prolific mid-career one? Theater makers are not producing cars, or jet planes, or eye drops. The damage we can inflict is limited. And the failures, which are wide-spread and numerous, are often are necessary steps leading towards the creation of better work. The critical imperative to “stop an early-career playwright” with the rhetorical equivalent of a public branding is outsized, unethical and counter-productive to the development of a significant, vibrant theater culture.

Finally: if you are a “reviewer” and not a “critic”, if your job is “consumer advocacy” and not “criticism” – then give the fucking thing a thumbs/thumbs down, a letter grade, a smiley face or some number of stars, and leave out the gossip column snark. If you are a reviewer, and not a critic, drop the pretense of being knowledgable about anything but your own alleged good taste.

But if you intend to address the apparatus of a play - to engage with the work on its own terms – then you ought to understand the many hands and perspectives that go into making a piece of theater, the several thousand moving parts, the things that can go wrong and appear to be right, and vice versa – in short, if you’re actually devoting energy and time to writing about theater, then why not do it with some intelligence, perceptiveness and a sense of context?

Otherwise, every review is about the “I” of the reviewer, which is not nearly as interesting to everyone else as it is to him.

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