By Bill Marx
Few critics proclaimed that the emperor was naked as a jaybird with as much savvy panache.
Theater and film critic John Simon died at the age of 94 on November 24. Reportedly, he had a stroke while sitting through a dinner theater production. It is an honorable way for a reviewer to go — exiting the stage with fork in one hand, pen in the other.
Considerations of his career are already appearing, among them American Theatre‘s predictable exercise in scolding, “The Tragedy of John Simon.” He is being condemned for his “hit” jobs: the misogynistic and homophobic barbs that earned Simon his reputation as the imperious vampire of Broadway. (Vulture lists some cringe-inducing examples.) He must not be absolved of those stupid, dangerous sentiments, many of which he penned as the theater critic for his longtime employer, New York Magazine. The truth is, sometimes reviewers overstay their welcome and opine for too long. They burn out. Most of the finest stage critics took up the demanding craft for a relatively short period — George Bernard Shaw was the reviewer for The Saturday Review for only 4 years, Eric Bentley and Kenneth Tynan critiqued for well under a decade. Critics shape a defensive persona and it tends to congeal over time — initially iconoclastic perspectives eventually grow stale, becoming smugly automatic. Reviewers turn into wooden ‘characters’ on the page. Simon became enamoured by his theatrical projection, reveling (far too uncritically, ironically) in the biting critical personality he concocted in the mid-’60s. Keeping the invigorating battle humming — ‘Simon versus the philistines’ — eventually tipped him into demeaning caricature.
So you read Simon as you would any good critic; appreciate the wheat and discard the chaff. There is no denying that, at his best, he was an intelligent, erudite critic, fearless, independent, and knowledgeable, his prose cutting and slashing. He was aptly waspish and amusingly acidic when dealing with the sub-par; few proclaimed that the emperor was naked as a jaybird with as much savvy panache. He hewed to an elemental truth that most stage critics, then and now, betray — that most of what they see is mediocre. As director John O’Brien writes in his preface to On Theater: Criticism 1974-2003, the “most appalling revelation of all is the degree of accuracy with which, gun blazing, outrage unbound, whatever “‘Simon said’ turned out to be right.” Yes, he had a deadly eye for the meretricious, but I would also recommend Simon’s volume Singularites: Essays on the Theatre, 1964-1973, in which he writes about his enthusiasms — the theater that he didn’t see enough of.
Early in his career, Simon articulated, with considerable persuasive power, what accomplished arts criticism should be. One of my favorites of his formulations — besides his admiring essay on film critic James Agee in his first book, 1963’s Acid Test, is “A Critical Credo” from his second, 1967’s Private Screenings. (I have given the piece to my students at Boston University in the past.) Here a salient paragraph:
Without criticism there would be no dialogue, and it is staggering to contemplate what would have been the history — if any — of government, education, philosophy, psychiatry, and any other important discipline of learning or aspect of life without dialectics, without the chance of both sides being heard and hearing each other. Without criticism, the artist hears no serious answer; we must, on solid empirical evidence, consider failure or success with the mass of one’s contemporaries as nothing more than a snort from the crowd, to be interpreted however one pleases. It is not important that the critical answer be that of an infallible oracle — what oracle was ever that? — it matters merely that a critical answer be the best of what a sensitive, experienced, eloquent, and honest mind and sensibility is capable. Thereby a powerful issue is joined: the keen yet bloodless struggle for human fulfillment, which it was once permissible to call the pursuit of truth and beauty.
The notion that evaluation centers on the “struggle for human fulfillment, which it was once permissible to call the pursuit of truth and beauty” suggests that, as film critic Andrew Sarris once quipped, Simon was “the greatest critic of the 19th century.” For me, the issue to be joined — what’s at stake in making a ‘professional’ aesthetic judgment — changes. The hallowed ideal of struggling for human fulfillment is giving way, under the apocalyptic pressure of climate change, to another fundamental issue for criticism (and the arts) to grapple with: Are we creating a world worth living in? The no doubt furious battle over that kind of engaged (but far from politely liberal) criticism will be growing over the coming decades. Still, the 19th was not a bad century when it came to spawning first-rate critics, aside from the fact that its dialectics were so tragically narrow — white male reviewers ruled the roost.
The health of a culture depends on the depth and breadth of its public dialogue about the arts. Thus Simon’s call for “both sides being heard and hearing each other” becomes more of a vital clarion call now than it was in the ’60s. In those days, numerous arts critics populated the mainstream media world and their “keen yet bloodless struggle” made an impact on a general readership. At least the arts were seen as worth arguing about — the editorial powers-that-be assumed that they played an important role in challenging society’s understanding of itself and its future. The vitality of that dialogue has dissipated as the arts have become a willing part of (or would that be a reflection of?) an increasingly corporatized economy: there is no longer a perceived duty to provide serious answers, so major newspapers and magazines are doing away with reviewers. And no one seems to care all that much.
When criticism lives on in our consumer-driven culture, it is as a ghostly simulacrum of itself — homogenized, marginalized, and toothless, its language that of marketing or political campaigns. It no longer serves as a model (among others) for articulating the value of the arts. And that is not good for art or artists. Simon reminds us that to be serious rather than merely obedient, criticism should be passionate, uncompromising, and provocative. And that a variety of sides must be heard from.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.