The critic goes into the theater with a detailed and educated expectation. They enter the performance area a self-described authority prepared to judge an artist’s ability based on rules about morals, text, style, and genre. How can you criticize something if not against a standard?
Punishing a performer for violating those expectations is an inherently fascist and anti-theatrical attitude.
What can be done? The critical mind is a fascist mind bent on preserving a standard: aesthetic, moral, political. Audience members can be whatever they want to be. I’m asking critics to be more. I’m asking them not to be authoritarian critics, but to report on a play- primarily on it’s ability to be theatrical.
As we’ve already covered, theatrical action is unexpected physical, moral, or social actions. While Dramatic Action is simply action that asks a question of compelling human concern and answers it in a climactic moment. Theatrical Action uses conventional dramatic norms to establish and then exploit expectations.
When bad critics evaluate how closely a play meets their expectations, they are the prime enforcers of an anti-theatrical theater. They use criteria and convention to box off a play and evaluate it “properly”.
1. Moral critics
The lowest and most abhorrent critique is the moral fascist who states that they simply disagree with the artist’s premise. This confuses many things: truth with fiction, performance with education, and, um, feelings with agreeings. It’s not that they don’t like the way it made them think or feel; they don’t like that it expected them to think or feel in an unaccustomed way.
In her recent critique of “Invation!” by Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s play at Silk Road Rising, SunTimes head critic Hedy Weiss has taken heat, NOT for supplanting her moral beliefs in lieu of theatrical criticism, but for having the wrong beliefs. The dialogue emerging is about the validity of the moral argument and not the quality of the work. (Proof of the theatrical work’s success but critics should be above this.) Counter-critics (like Eric & Andy’s Reviews You Can Iews! are just being fascists in the opposite direction by shutting down the opposing idea. They attack her character rather than criticize her inability to look past an issue.
*I am against racial profiling. This blog is about anti-theatrical criticism.
Hedy attacks the moral premise of the play, rather than it’s execution.
“But coming at the very moment the U.S. State Department found it necessary to issue a worldwide alert warning of planned attacks in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia “by al-Qaeda or its affiliates,” a certain skepticism [within Hedy] met those cries.”
“But despite Khemiri’s passion, those still thinking of the horrific terrorist attacks at the Boston Marathon might well be tempted to ask: What practical alternative to profiling would you suggest?”
This type of critic insists that the realm of ideas are not the place for theatricality. In fact, outside of the physical realm (for which Hedy is also the SunTimes Dance critic), moral and social concepts are the only place theatricality exists. And as we’ve already covered, the only way to be theatrical is to defy expectations.
I might suggest that Hedy’s review caused a more theatrical reaction than the play itself, which sounds politically correct and well-meaning.
Note: I do understand what motivates the salaried critic:
Commercialism primarily judges a critic on how well their review matches audience reactions.
A critic who fights against the grain risks being fired for being out of touch. Predictability is the inherent enemy of the theatrical, yet the critic’s worth is their ability remove a layer of the unexpected. I presume that this is why Hedy also recounts (spoils) the majority of the play’s plot and surprises. She wants us to see it coming. She’s protecting us from this work.
In Red Theater Chicago’s production of Red Hamlet, we surprised the audience with a small, harmless dousing of water. I had to fight critics to remove this spoiler from their reviews. These critics felt it was their duty to warn the audience and remove the shock. Did they think the moment would be better if you knew it was coming? I suggest that they meant well, wanting to help others avoid the uneasy feeling of the unexpected: the theatrical.
The stage does not work like the screen, and our critics watch too much TV. We accidentally enforce the dogmas of one art form (private, comforting, alluring television) into another (public, challenging, exciting theater). It’s like marching band critic judging a jazz musician for failing to keep a regular meter.
In short critics mistake the stage for live television. They criticize it when it is at its best; when they are unsettled and must check their reaction against the audience’s; when they feel uneasy about their own supremacy over the artist or subject matter; when we upon the stage refuse their games and reject their expectations.
There is bad theater. There is a lot of it, and in part, the moral critics are causing it.
Ideas need to be challenged: that is exactly what theater is supposed to do.
“The generous Critic fann’d the Poet’s fire, And taught the world with reason to admire” - Edgar Allan Poe
2. Conceptual critics
I have often heard it said that audiences will forgive ONE thing in every show. One conceit is allowed. One adjustment can be layered atop the dramatic action and accepted. That layer must be consistent and focused on some didactic and easily digested theme. This layer is often called a concept, and once its presence is known, it must be as predictable as the action itself.
Robert Falls’ Measure for Measure was running in Chicago when I started writing this post. It had a layer (often mistaken for a “concept”) transplanting the play’s location to 1970’s New York City. It seemed to say, “the vice and virtue of this play is like those 1970’s movies set in NYC”. [In actuality a theatrical concept- as opposed to a theme or location or design- is translated into the theatrical action as it focuses the dramatic question.] No doubt, Fall’s had a concept!
Falls’ Measure concept was likely something closer to:
“No matter how pure or clever you are in this city, vice rules”.
Falls attempted to focus the second act around this concept, and used the Bard’s textual holes to inspire action. Falls’ surprise ending stuck a final knife in his concept’s exciting execution. I loved it. The audience walked away desperate to discuss what they had seen. Falls’ choice was courageous and effective, but mostly it was a theatrical action.
Famed stage reviewer, Chris Jones, commented on Falls’ full implementation: “That changed ending is, I think, a mistake, not because it changes authorial intent, although that will drive some folks crazy. The play has survived many auteur productions. The problem is more one of aesthetic consistency: It makes a drastic change in a wordless moment, which does not jibe with that which has gone before.”
Mr. Jones is wrong; that is exactly the world Falls has been giving us- Nothing rules but vice- it’s just not the world Mr. Jones feels is ‘correct’ for the play.
Falls’ ending is shocking. It leaves everyone talking as they exit to the lobby. It defied our expectations and makes us reflect on the action before it. It was a wonderful theatrical act. Enter the critics: it is their job to stifle it, referring to “authorial intent”, placing historical correctness above an artist creating a theatrical moment. Jones claims he’s not defending the Bard’s words, but Fall’s silent action is consistent with his play on the stage (not the words on the page).
Any critic attending Measure for Measure has already read and visualized the play; they’ve likely already seen a few productions; they’ve established an ideal of what the play should be. Their review will be directly related to the play’s ability to meet those expectations. Unexpected actions, such as Falls’ ending, will be marked as “incorrect” no matter how effective.
Time Out insists it knows best and writes, “Falls hasn’t found a satisfactory solution to the ambiguous denouement.”
Center Stage fails to wrestle with the action and writes, “But it’s the very end of the play where it falls apart, when Mr. Falls brutally kills one of the major characters (that Shakespeare had heretofore let live), leaving the audience stunned. Just because it’s possible to shock the audience for no apparent reason, doesn’t mean you should.”
Chicago Stage Review seems to understand how theater works: “Director Robert Falls has shockingly thrown convention by the wayside and in doing so, uncovered a more emotionally rich and theatrically enchanting Measure For Measure than one might believe to be possible. If you are a purist that pains at the thought of tampering with the Bard, then this Measure For Measure will be a nightmare of scandalous excess. If your mind is open to the magic of mixing stagecraft with depravity, then this Measure For Measure will be a dark deviation into delightfully resplendent debauchery.”
This is also why new plays often fair better with critics: they have only genre to force upon a play, and most playwrights are happy to comply. They are evaluating the execution of drama onstage. Any theatrical action is inherently a violation of the expected dramatic action. If you don’t know the dramatic action, the two are the same. If you “know” what is “supposed” to happen, then the outrage of the enforcers is sparked.
In short the ideal audience member is themselves. They need not put on the hat of an authority. They need not pretend anything. In fact, the struggle in the theater is to get most audience members to stop pretending they are important powerful professionals and realize that they are one of many beautiful and vulnerable living organisms that might hope to live well together before we all, one day, die.
Critics ARE people. They need to fight the good fight and write from a human place, not a place of authority. It’s not their job to defend Shakespeare or Brecht or political viewpoints. It’s their job to talk about how a play moved you and others and resist protecting people from being moved in ways that they might fear. Critics have to put their bias aside and be the best beautiful and vulnerable living organisms in the audience.