Theater Commentary: Yeasayers Beware

The caricature of the theater critic as spoilsport still pops up, pushed by rescuers of the “injured” who enjoy delivering self-congratulatory whippings. No naysayers are allowed –- it hurts business. For once, how about looking at the ways that yeasayers do a disservice to theater and the craft of criticism?

By Bill Marx

Theater Critic George Jean Nathan — free enough to go too far.

Are theater critics the poisonous toads in the theatrical garden of paradise? Ironically, years ago the answer would have been “sometimes,” because coverage of the theater mattered to editors and readers. Sprinkled among the usual contingent of agreeable hacks were serious reviewers that approached the stage with exacting standards, considerable expertise, and a sleek prose style. On occasion, the ferocity and partisan penetration of a Kenneth Tynan, George Bernard Shaw, Eric Bentley, and George Jean Nathan could go awry. But these reviewers had to be free to go too far, because they provided a model of what reviewing at its best should be – passionate, intelligent, independent, entertaining, and evaluative.

For such critics to survive, the theater has to be perceived by the media and the public to be about more than just commerce and trapping tourists: there must be the expectation that the stage is an important part of the culture, that it delivers indispensable experiences and ideas. By separating the wheat from the chaff, reviewers contribute to an essential debate about artistic merit and taste. Disagreements about productions should be welcomed rather than shunned because they generate discussion about something other than box office and marketing.

Those days are long gone. Most of the theater critics in the mainstream media see only the wheat waving in the fields, so there is nothing to debate over, aside from how unappreciated theater is. Think pieces on the stage in newspapers and magazines are less about where theater is falling short of its artistic promise than speculation about how new marketing and advertising techniques will help the box office. Still, the caricature of the theater critic as eternal spoilsport lives, pushed by rescuers of the “injured” who like to deliver self-congratulatory whippings. No naysayers are allowed – it hurts business.

How about looking at the ways the yeasayers do a disservice to theater and the craft of criticism?

Since so much mainstream reviewing is now a blurb-delivery system, it should come as no surprise that critics are as inarticulate about what they like as what they dislike. If a reviewer isn’t able to explain why he isn’t impressed by a show, it follows that he can’t come up with reasons to back up his likes, aside from piling up mountains of adjectives. Articles that castigate theater critics for not being able to write trenchantly about what they relish are rare. AA Gill’s piece in the Times Online on how badly the British stage critics convey their enthusiasm is an exception:

No aspect of the culture is as badly served by its critics as the theatre is. Many of the national press reviewers who haunt the lobbies of the West End, picking up their complimentary programmes and free glasses of screwtop wine, are a moribund, joyless, detached bunch. Where are the voices that ring out as being aesthetically intelligent, passionate, current and, most important, entertaining?

Here are some of them on The Sound of Music, restaged last year: “As I watched, my eyes were often unexpectedly filled with tears, and having felt 51 going on 84 when I entered the theatre, I left with a spring in my step and a soppy smile on my face. Suddenly the world briefly seemed a better, brighter place.” Charles Spencer, The Daily Telegraph.

“Climb every mountain? Sure, and after this show you’ll want to do a little dance, too, on the summit.” Paul Taylor, The Independent.

“Sweet, clever Connie [Fisher, as Maria] knocked ’em flying. Viewers of Britain, you chose well. She’s as natural and unsugared and wholesome as one of those pots of vegan yoghurt. Just listening to her makes you feel healthy.” Quentin Letts, Daily Mail.

Can you imagine Kenneth Tynan or Bernard Levin writing this? Or George Bernard Shaw? Britain has a glittering heritage, not just in theatre itself, but in writing about theatre and criticism. Dickens and GBS; Levin; Tynan, the doorman of modern theatre, and his ever-game equivalent on The Sunday Times, Harold Hobson. But turn to theatre reviews today and the first thing that will strike you is nothing. Nothing at all. Criticism is too often bereft of elan, panache or even the mildest stylistic polish. I once collected reviews from various national critics for the same play and asked the theatrical types around my dinner table if they could tell whose was whose. Nobody could. They had a uniform, dank sogginess.

The lexicon of adjectives used by critics is lick-sticky with thumbing – all the exclamatory clichés of the marquee, plus the thudding repetition of faux sagacious pats of approval, like the rote remarks of a 12-year-old’s ballet teacher who’s given up caring. Tynan wrote: “Critics are consumers of one art, drama, and producers of another, criticism. What counts is not their opinion, but the art with which it is expressed… The best informed man will be a bad critic if his style is bad.” Style aside, they do like a billboard quote: “I laughed till I cried”; “A hit, a palpable hit”; “Should be packing them in a year from now”; “A joyous spectacle that lights up the West End”. But how often have punters come out of some torpid show, ruefully looked up at a poster and read: “If you see nothing else this year, see this”?

When pleased, the Boston theater critics deliver as much cheery puerility as the British reviewers. Here are a couple of recent examples from the non-stop shovelers of puff at the Boston Globe:

“Double Edge Theatre’s production of “The Magician of Avalon” is as ethereal as the legendary tales of Merlin and the Knights of the Round Table that inspired it. At the company’s 105-acre farm amid the beautiful rolling hills of western Massachusetts, “The Magician of Avalon” becomes not only a celebration of the company’s 25th anniversary, but a tribute to the theatrical traditions that have inspired the company over the years.” Terry Byrne

The opening paragraph, in fact the rest of the review, could have been pumped out by the Double Edge publicity department. This is not the language of criticism – it is the soothing babble of advertising

“The final scenes return outside to take us to the island of the dead. As Merlin travels off in a boat, the audience is left with the feeling of being transported, if only briefly, to a legendary place where magic is within reach and where the natural world offers unexpected wonders.”

Maybe at the end of the show the critic was transported into “a legendary place where magic is within reach,” but can she speak for the rest of the audience?

“All this Packer gives us, with the energetic warmth, exquisitely tuned vocal shadings, and great good humor that are her hallmarks. Onstage, Packer seems completely alive — and that radiant vitality, above all, is what gives her Cleopatra an ageless beauty.”

“It’s here that we finally realize how skillfully the production has built toward its tragic end. Hammond has channeled a sprawling epic into a fluidly coherent story, aided by a uniformly excellent cast — particularly Tony Molina’s eerie Soothsayer, Craig Baldwin’s supercilious Caesar, and two fine royal confidants, Christianna Nelson’s lithe Charmian and Walton Wilson’s beautifully rough-hewn Enobarbus. When a final, magical effect transforms the scene once more, we are left as Enobarbus tells us Cleopatra leaves her men: utterly satisfied, yet still hungry for more.” Louise Kennedy

Two paragraphs from a review that could have been penned by the Shakespeare and Company publicist: fluffy adjectives galore, no analysis in sight. How did Hammond and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival turn Antony and Cleopatra into a “fluidly coherent” story? Tina Packer was “completely alive” on stage – but was there any sexual chemistry between Gore and Packer? Something more than “head-over-heels?” Could it be that the play’s chaotic view of war might have something to say to audiences at this time?

Just saw a good piece on the need for critical book reviews in Steven Beattie’s blog.

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.


  1. Ian Thal on August 13, 2007 at 11:06 am

    A critic’s role to to educate the audience on how to view a play– that by the benefit of the critic’s analysis the audience is better able to articulate their own judgement (even if it is at variance with the critic’s judgement.) Part of the joy of theater, film, music, and dance is that after the performance, audience members can have an engaging discussion of what they’ve seen, whether it is over dessert or a blog– and reading good criticism sharpens the audience’s engagement.

  2. ArtsFuse on August 13, 2007 at 11:53 am

    I agree — critics should illuminate, educate, excite, challenge, describe, judge, amuse, and analyze. What they should not do is write advertising copy, which is boring.

    What is there to talk about after Terry Byrne’s review? Either the show will transport you into magical realms for not. (Byrne and Kennedy use the word ‘magical,” one of the tell tale cliches of praise.) I haven’t the slightest idea how Double Edge casts the production’s spell.

    As for Louise Kennedy’s review, it is about creating blurbs and selling tickets, not intelligently discussing Shakespeare’s play.

  3. SturgeonsLaw on August 18, 2007 at 7:11 am

    This post is an interesting beginning, but what I’d really like to see from a critic of your caliber is an honest look at critics’ bodies of work, not easy potshots at a single review apiece. And don’t let Carolyn Clay off the hook. 😉

    I suspect at The Globe, The Herald and The Phoenix there’s always going to be “old guard” syndrome. So where should we be looking? Are there critics that you (and your readers)recommend? (I think blogger Thomas Garvey is always a good read, and the Dig and Bay Windows have new-ish critics who are problematic but promising.)

  4. ArtsFuse on August 18, 2007 at 8:31 am


    I agree that Thomas Garvey is well worth reading, though he is not as enthused about my stuff. Take a look at his recent blog entry on me…I don’t agree with many of his points, but it is far better to have debate rather than happy talk.

    I welcome suggestions for thoughtful bloggers on Boston theater — I am looking around myself for alternatives to the mainstream critics. I checked out the Boston version of the Edge recently and was appalled — the stage reviews were incoherent! You would assume there were editors at the magazine…

    And yes, I plan to have more to say about individual critics, though rather than evaluate careers, I would rather take specific critical issues and use local examples.

    I will take a closer look at the critics at Dig and Bay Windows.


  5. Low-Key Blues on August 20, 2007 at 8:33 pm

    The illumination is all, in coherent and even moving, criticism. As ridiculous as flat-out, reasonless pans are, the blurb-laced gush galls me even more. Perhaps because, as you point out, it reeks of bending over and shilling for one’s longstanding “colleagues” in a publicity department, or even out of affection for 25, or 30 years of service to a theatrical community. But nothing justifies groundless praise. Not from anyone but someone’s mother. So thanks to you, PNG, for standing up and asking Louise to sit down. No comps for her.

  6. Ian Thal on August 23, 2007 at 7:40 am

    I’ve been terribly unimpressed with the theatre critic at The Dig, Jenna Scherer. I will give her credit for the fact that she’s knowledgible and willing to pan a show that doesn’t please jer, but like so many writers at The Dig she seems more excited by a show’s potential to offend an imaginary somebody’s parents than anything else. I ended up taking her to task for placing Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Last Days of Judas Iscariot on her best of 2006 roundup in The Dig’s letters column.

  7. ArtsFuse on August 23, 2007 at 8:48 am

    I have taken a look at The Dig’s Jenna Scherer — she also writes reviews for the Herald — but I can’t find any theater criticism at Bay Windows.
    I can find an arts blog: the articles on theater are advance puff. Somebody point out where the reviews are, please.

  8. SturgeonsLaw on September 2, 2007 at 6:50 am

    I didn’t realize how hard it is to find stuff on the Bay Windows website – or how long it’s been since they ran a theater review. Here is the piece that first made me take notice – they trash the kind of show you’d expect them to rave about. Too bad he shoots himself in the foot by getting pedantic.

    As for the Dig, I’m often disappointed in the shallowness of her response, but I still enjoy her. She’s consistently an entertaining read, and she often gives me a different perspective to ponder – what else do you want from a critic? I just wish they’d turn her loose on more sacred cows instead of picking apart the little companies.

  9. ArtsFuse on September 5, 2007 at 9:12 am

    Yes, you can’t ask more from a critic that that he or she write well and at least off something to think about.
    I will keep an eye on Bay Windows, but it apparently has lost interest in stage reviews. Many newspapers and magazines are rapidly turning their blogs into advertising columns lacking any critical perspective.

    As for Jenna Scherer I want to write about her reviews, but in the larger context of demographic mania — the pressure on the media to produce twentysomething stage criticism and theater that will appeal to twentysomethings.

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