There may have been a time, now lost in the mists, when the critic’s job was akin to that of a philosopher aesthete, when their work was intended to expand upon, refresh and continue an ages-old (but supposedly ever-fresh!) conversation regarding the contours and the purposes of art.  The names Aristotle, Arnold, Pater, Wilde, even maybe Schopenhauer, Breton come to mind.

Thankfully, though, those people are all dead and need trouble us with their incomprehensible thoughts no more!  They are buried with their pretensions and their ostentatious and lice-ridden powdered wigs (if they didn’t wear them, I’m sure they wanted to, and may have simply collected them for sport.  I prefer the more subtle and noble toupee).  Their work sits, happily neglected, in the ever-shrinking, dimly lit “Literary Criticism” aisle of a defunct Borders warehouse somewhere in New Jersey or Bosnia.  These days, a critic is no longer a dandy-prat aesthete, but a firm, hardened, no-nonsense, well-muscled, tightly (though tastefully) uniformed, mirrored-glasses-wearing police patrolman of culture and thought (who shaves frequently, but whose manliness is such that he has a perpetual five o’clock shadow which is both strangely alluring and decidedly intimidating).  It is this patrolman’s job to clearly and forcefully articulate what is right and what is wrong.  That is all!  But what a job!

Which is why the conversation in the comments section here between Messrs. Thielman and Zinoman (critics both), confused me greatly.  It prompted me to respond.  Here was my response:

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 loath to alter them as it requires far too much cognitive effort.)

Sincerely,
Dean Thropwelle

I hope you agree!

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Related to the post below regarding Mr. Isherwood’s questionable throwing-up-of-his-hands at the work of Mr. Rapp, I have been reading some of the commentary on the development at various blogs (mostly here and here).  A particular comment caught my eye–another in the noble brotherhood of critics, Mr. Sam Thielman, wrote the following, obviously feeling Mr. Isherwood’s considerable pain: “…pans are really unpleasant to write, barring the crafting of a zinger or two. Nobody wants to damage a career or a life.”

I sympathize (profoundly!) with Mr. Thielman’s critical burden—to zing or not to zing when destroying an unruly playwright’s work?—and I am heartened by his clear commitment to devastation by the implied “but” at the end of the quoted phrase.  It is as if he were saying: It may be hard to destroy a “creative” enterprise, I may be complicit in the destruction of someone’s “career”…BUT (I hear him say), despite these pangs of conscience, or perhaps because of them, it is my job, when I encounter something I do not or cannot understand, to beat it to a bloody pulp!  Particularly if I can do so in a zingy way!  (“People whine that theater critics are too mean; that they’re privileged; that they’re mercurial and unfair. That’s all fine; it comes with the territory and we welcome it. We only start to worry when readers begin complaining that we’re boring.”  Indeed, Mr. Thielman, critics are not mean enough!!  If they are “mean” with anything, it is with displaying cold reason and wit, with their all-too-spare articulations of Objective Aesthetic Value!!  This is why Mr. Isherwood remains a champion—he is never afraid to treat his opinion, however ill-(in)formed, as an iron Law—a singular instance of Objective Aesthetic Value!)

Well I say Here Here to that sentiment!  A critic, when putting conscience aside to skewer or demean a playwright’s life in the zingeriest of terms, is just doing his job, after all: teaching us the true and correct way to see a work of art while preventing us from being bored by the incessant drudgery of life.  What noble work!  What a worthy endeavor!  If in fact a life, a work of art, or a career is a casualty along the way, so much the better!  In the long road-trip of life, it is the critical roadkill which makes the journey interesting, which piques our interest, which provides some modicum of entertainment on our slow, ghastly inexorable march to our inevitable (and inevitably) insipid, gasping, red-eyed, convulsive, lonely and bitter end.  What could give us more pleasure, considering the pain of the human condition, than watching something (that’s not us!) flare painfully up and out under the brutal gaze of a critical eye?  Very little, I can tell you!  The future of the theatre intimately depends on the critic’s boot in the playwright’s face!  If some writers are hurt along the way, they should grow up!  Or learn to take anti-depressants like the rest of us!  Who cares about their silly careers, anyway?  Nobody!  Not where the future of Theatre and Culture is at stake!

I imagine Mr. Thielman is a Critic-to-Watch.  While his conscience may give him trouble on occasion, I suspect it doesn’t give him too much trouble.  What indeed are the petty consolations of conscience compared to the alleviation of boredom which a well-crafted zinger can provide?  Fight on fight on, Mr. Sam Thielman!

(For what it’s worth, my wife does not enjoy Mr. Thielman’s writing.  She says it reads too young.  I told her it was just the effect of the Variety Burbank-industry-slang-speak.  She was much more forgiving.)

I hope you agree!

It appears that Mr. Isherwood will no longer be reviewing the work of playwright Mr. Adam Rapp.  You can read the news here: http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/07/theater-talkback-for-one-critic-its-a-rapp/ .  Despite the relief some of us may feel for Mr. Isherwood, I wonder that he made the right choice?  Here’s my response (which corrects some mis-placed parenthetical shenanigans).

While I’m sure that you’re relieved by your choice, Mr. Isherwood (and I am relieved on your behalf as you no longer need to sit or sleep through the work of a playwright who is clearly wrong far too often), I wonder that you should give up so easily.  Our theater is at the vanguard of a struggle for proper culture.  It is important that art be made to bend to the critical consensus, not vice versa!  It may be true that most criticism is merely a form of infotainment–it gives us pleasure to see something eviscerated.  But how much more pleasure when something truly deserving of evisceration (such as a work of theater or an unruly playwright’s career) is eviscerated with carefree style!  I may not agree with you .1% of the time (usually when you enjoy something, but I know that sometimes the witchcraft of a spectacle–and sometimes [rarely] of language–can be overpowering), but I continue to have faith in your poison pen.  Of the Grey Lady’s Critics, you are certainly the Greytest!  (If you do open a yogurt shop, though, I’ll have you know my wife and I are big fans of cultured dairy products and would frequent your enterprise, well, frequently.  Hint: I enjoy plain yogurt.)

(I regret suggesting that it was a wrong idea for Mr. Isherwood to review Mr. Rapp’s plays–see below.  I hope it’s clear that my concern is principally for the preservation of Mr. Isherwood’s critical palate.)

What do you think?  I hope you agree with me!

Here is another comment to a review by Mr. Isherwood of Mr. Adam Rapp’s new play Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling (you may find the original review here (http://theater.nytimes.com/2011/10/04/theater/reviews/dreams-of-flying-dreams-of-falling-at-classic-stage-review.html?ref=theater):

Once again, Mr. Isherwood, you are my hero! When I saw the picture of Ms. Lahti above, I too thought, “Good! Mr. Rapp is finally writing about socialites! This should be exciting! I imagine it will be quite an edifying evening, and perhaps I can finally learn how to set a place at a table correctly.” But your review, Mr. Isherwood, doesn’t make the play out to be like that sort of thing at all. Let me be clear: I don’t want to see anything challenging or extraordinary on a New York stage…ever! Leave that to some outer borough nonsense place, like Chicago. Or Brooklyn. Or London. I’ve witnessed some of Mr. Rapp’s plays before, and their emotional rather than linear structures have always thrown me for a loop! (That’s why I don’t listen to music anymore–too much emotion, too little didacticism.) Why can’t all plays be as neat and tidy as life really is? I hope more playwrights get the message–the theater is not for emotion or experience, but for teaching. If you’re not going to teach me something I feel I already know, what business do you have expressing yourself? It’s certainly not the place for exploring anything ugly. (Why can’t anyone write like Moliere these days?) Consensus: that’s the nature of reality, and that should be the nature of theater. Nothing untoward!! Frankly, though, I don’t know why the Times sends you, Mr. Isherwood, to see Mr. Rapp’s work: history shows you’ve never really liked it. And you probably never really will. Good! I, too, have had enough of these untidy plays! I, too, when in a theater, begin to hate anything that arouses in me an emotion–be it fear or pity. I’m quite suspicious of my emotional life and am content just to think, “that’s a nice way of phrasing that argument,” or, “isn’t that witty!” while in the stalls. Leave the emotions to the psychiatrists (and their patients). Thank you once again, Mr. Isherwood, for being a reasonable voice for true and correct theater!

I hope you agree!

Here is my comment on Mr. Isherwood’s review of the evening of short plays called Motherhood Out Loud (you can read the review here: http://theater.nytimes.com/2011/10/05/theater/reviews/motherhood-out-loud-review.html?ref=theater)

Once again, Mr. Isherwood, you are correct! Motherhood is a distinctly over-rated enterprise–not being a mother, I feel (with you) that I can say that with total objectivity. It is certainly no topic for any real theatrical enterprise–since it is so common, it cannot help but be cliché! But leave it to artists to think that the common can be universal rather than merely trite! The real villain here, though, as you indicate at the end, is children–it is the culture of childhood (with its sippy cups and diapers) which ruins perfectly good people and turns them into perfectly awful mothers (my wife and I happily avoided this fate–snip snip!). And it is the base evolutionary obsession with procreation which leads to the sort of cult of fecundity to which mothers (and theaters, in this case) fall prey. As a proud sterile man, I am tired of all the obvious representations of fertility onstage, tired of the sort of sexual rambunctiousness which could lead to depictions of such worn out idioms as “childhood” and “motherhood”! There really is no excuse to perpetuate this sort of nonsense any more. I much prefer plays which have a preoccupation with the fading dignity of real manliness, which see the world in a kind of cold blue light of once-removed reason and wit. I have a feeling you would agree. You are fighting the good fight, Mr. Isherwood, and with your acumen and authority so rigid and unquestionable (and so true!), I hope you will keep up the good work: keep destroying incorrect theater! Onward, soldier!

I hope you agree!

I sometimes comment on articles and reviews over at the NYTimes.  Here is a comment I made to an article by my favorite arbiter of taste, Mr. Charles Isherwood.  The article was on Direct Address.  (Mr. Isherwood does not enjoy it.  Nor do I!)  You can read the article here:

http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/21/theater-talkback-stop-talking-to-me/

Here is my comment:

Here here, Mr. Isherwood! When I attend the theater, the last thing I want is for the play, the writer, or the actors to talk to me! People talk to me all the time, every day. But when I go to the theater, I expect to be able to relax, get comfortable, maybe take a nice nap, and be left alone!

The audacity of writers who feel they can use just any narrative technique when they write a play! What is the theater coming to? There are clear rules on how this sort of thing is properly done. Deviation is disgrace–and the desire for deviation represents the deviation of desire! Speaking of which, I’m surprised Mr. Isherwood gave a pass to Wilder and Williams–the former is much too surreal, and the latter is much too erotically sensationalist to be taken seriously (and really, who talks like a character in a Williams play?) but perhaps Mr. Isherwood was just being kind. Well! Kindness is not what is called for–from strangers or from critics! We need more discipline! And while I applaud Mr. Isherwood for articulating the rules our more unruly artists should naturally follow, I fear he is unwilling to go further. We need more rules in the arts! Not less!

But regardless: bravo, Mr. Isherwood, bravo! Please keep directing your shining and piercing critical gaze (and wit!) into the dark corners of theatrical practice. You are doing us all a great service in sweeping out the muck with your penetrating insights. Your light is a beacon to all right-thinking patrons of the theater. What this broken world needs now more than ever is more theater critics (like you)!

Gratefully yours,
Dean Thropwelle

P.S.: I am afraid you are quite incorrect regarding Chekhov. But you are correct in your implication that no serious contenders for the title of greatest modern playwright (a coveted and important title, I am sure!) have arisen since the turn of the 20th Century. Our culture is in a state of collapse! Where are the playwrights who will pick up the sputtering torch of drama clearly dropped in the 19th Century?

I hope you agree!

Welcome to my blog: Dean Thropwelle on Theatre and Culture.  I’m Dean Thropwelle.  I hope you enjoy your time with me and my opinions on Theatre and Culture.  I will probably not be writing very frequently as my life is very busy and involved.  My wife and I consider ourselves true lovers of culture: we frequent museums, galleries, theatres, movie houses, restaurants, and concert halls on a nearly nightly basis.  We really get around!  I hope to report on our adventures in Culture to you.

A quick word about me: I have a passion for Theatre.  I am also passionate about Culture.  I love my wife.  We have a pet goldfish.  His name is Charles (#4).

Welcome!