Anyone leafing through the London Review of Books will see the bylines of published novelists or non-fiction authors. So why don't we read Stoppard on Hare? Ravenhill on Prebble? Churchill on Butterworth? You would enjoy a whole new level of technical perception and aesthetic empathy, not more middle-of-the-road consumer reporting which is virtually indistinguishable from telly or film reviewing. Of course, this raises a perennial question: must theatre critics have firsthand knowledge of the craft?Wicked Stage Rob follows up at the spiffy TCGBlog:
Of course, the biggest objection to reviewing a field you work in is, as Cote succinctly concludes, “politics.” Another way to put that is: Theatre is a small world and you shouldn’t poop where you eat. With the advent of social media, it can be an even smaller world, as Alexis Soloski, a critic for Village Voice, noted in a blog post last year that tracked her evolving views. She says she used to think there was “no reason theatremakers and critics shouldn’t fraternise. We went to the same parties. We took the same drugs. We even dated one another. And most of my journalist colleagues were also aspiring actors, directors, playwrights or dramaturges; for models, we looked to Shaw or Tynan. We knew the heartache and toil that went into theatrical productions, even bad ones: surely, we were uniquely qualified to critique them.”The Alexis Soloski piece he quotes is here. The thing is, back in November, Isaac and I went around on this very subject. I said this then and still stand by it:
In an e-mail exchange a while back, Isaac posed the whole "why don't playwrights review plays" question and my response was that it had a lot to do with profit motive: a review from a playwright couldn't be trusted because either they were trying to curry favor with the theatre or they were trying to drag down a rival. Since most reviews are primarily a tool for generating sales (as you can see, I may not have the best feelings about the state of criticism in this country right now), who would want a rival doing the reviewing?Since doing this blog, I've had my integrity questioned on more than one occasion. I know Isaac has, too, a lot more, even. And it keeps me from writing reviews, from talking about the work. I don't want to talk smack about my friends, even if I didn't like their work, for fear that A) they'll take it personally and B) that it might, somehow, hurt their career (not that this blog is all that, but it is Google-able). I'm happy to talk about things I like, but things I don't...I keep to myself a bit.
When I was in grad school, one of my teachers made a big deal to my class about how hard the life of the playwright is, how much work it is, and how, really, no one else can fully understand it. His point was that, as playwrights, we were all in the same foxhole, all in this together. That made quite the impression on me. I've been in one playwrights' group or another since 1997. I love the company of playwrights and it feels like writing a review is somehow a betrayal of that. I know that's just me; I'm certain there are other playwrights who don't share that same feeling. But that's how I feel.
There's a part in this, too, about the feeling of scarcity. We exist in a field that's perpetually starving and it can feel like you're taking food from someone else if you write a bad review. You're hurting their play, hurting their career and, the assumption is, angling to help your own. We don't have a culture of confidence and safety, where I can say my piece about your work and it won't matter because you have your resources and audience and I have mine. It just feels...personal.
I'm not saying this is healthy or good for the field. In fact, I think it's patently bad and connected to a whole host of pathologies that stunt our field and our artists. Absolutely artists should be able to speak about each other's work critically and honestly, in print or wherever. Of course having the perspective of someone who's been in the rehearsal room recently (or even currently) would shape criticism to the better, give a fuller view. If we want theatre criticism to rise above consumer reporting, we need practicing artists to tell us what they think of the art. However we can encourage that, let's! I'm just saying that it might take some convincing to get playwrights in the right head-space. Myself included.
A few years back, in David's own magazine, I received a pretty rotten review, written by another young playwright. We weren't friends, but we knew a lot of the same folks. His criticism was actually pretty spot-on, if snarkier than I would have liked. Still, I nursed a grudge against that guy for years. Years! I would see his name in press releases and e-mail blasts and give it a dirty look. Finally, at some event or other, we wound up at a bar, next to each other. I'd had a couple of beers, so I didn't mind turning to him and saying, "I owe you a pop in the nose!" At first, he was, of course, confused and mildly concerned (I'm not really the "pop in the nose" kind of fella), but when I mentioned the review, he covered his face with his hands and let out a moan. It was the only review he ever wrote, he felt terrible about all that time and tried to retract it. I told him that I was kidding about the pop in the nose (only sorta) and that his review was actually pretty right. We hugged it out, and kept drinking. A nice ending to the tale, but there is why playwrights don't do more criticism: the way things are right now, it doesn't do anybody much good.