Theater Commentary: Critics, Be Good or Be Irresponsible?

By Bill Marx

The war over critics-as-bullies is over, but some diehards keep fighting the same old battles to the point of arthritic absurdity, like Lee Marvin and Toshirô Mifune as old and forgotten American and Japanese veterans of WWII slugging it out in the 1968 movie Hell in the Pacific.The latest retread salvo comes in The New York Times’ “Reading Room: Conversations about Great Books,” where Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman laments that theater critics won’t use their power for good and send the public running to productions.

Playwright Marsha Norman
Playwright Marsha Norman wants critics to use their power for good rather than evil …

Don’t critics realize that they should be advocates, argues Norman, rather than judges? Given all their influence (which they nefariously deny), reviewers shouldn’t pan plays — that turns audiences to television. Besides, their negative reviews hurt theater artists. Norman says she stopped writing for years after receiving some bad reviews. Her suggestion about how to right this wrong: critics should report audience reactions along with their opinions of productions. Alas, the vast majority of the responses to the column online at the NYT agree with this sublimely silly idea.

Here is how Norman puts her wish for advocacy criticism in the column.

“So how can critics serve their readers – and the theater – better? They need to accept their responsibility to report how the audience responded. And not in a dismissive way, but in a way that reflects the standards of ordinary journalism. I’d like to see sentences like “On the night I was there hating it, the other 1,600 people were cheering in the aisles. Go figure.” Or “On the night I loved it, half of the audience was asleep. Check it out.” If the critics are writing for the audience, then the reader needs to know what else was going on besides what was in the critic’s mind.”

The objections to this are obvious. First off, opening nights are often “papered” with friends of the backers of the productions, members of the cast, etc. These audiences can be depended on to emit copious laughs and to weep tears on cue. Also, I have noticed over the years that audiences automatically give a standing ovation at the end of a show. Moreover, some audiences are more alive that others – a play can go over big one night and be greeted with yawns another evening. And how does a critic accurately report an audience’s reaction to a tragedy or a melodrama – head count how many people in the audience are emotionally shaken? Just think of the useless bickering that would go on between critic and spectators about how audience response to a production was characterized in print. Finally, how would Norman react if the critic wrote, “I loved it, but most of the audience was out for the count. You may not want to check it out.”

Bill Marx

The bottom line for Norman is that the critic should serve, if at all possible, as a publicist. But, by not taking theater seriously enough to evaluate it as an art, stage reviewers will lose whatever credibility they have left. And that isn’t much.

The irony is that The Wall Street Journal has already come up with an effective way to present audience reaction and suck in advertising dollars: alongside its critic’s review the newspaper prints a Zagat-run poll of audience members. The critic has his or her say; the audience gets to weigh in on various aspects of the Broadway production. Given the logic of Norman’s argument, The Wall Street Journal would be even more helpful to theater if it ditched the critic and just kept the poll. I would like some hard evidence that a no-holds-barred consumer guide approach keeps audiences from heading over to television and film. Perhaps mean critics should not be blamed for driving audiences away from theater. It could be that the best of TV – The Wire, The Sopranos, and In Treatment — is more compelling, artful and ambitious than most of what is produced on stage today.

Norman goes on to ask that newspapers include “box scores of critical response.” But why should publications do that when the Web makes it easy to check out the wide-range of opinons among theater reviewers and bloggers? As the circulation of newspapers declines so does their clout – more and more arts pages are doing without theater critics, or reviewers keep their jobs by embracing the idea that they are salesmen – if they can’t say anything nice they don’t say much at all, which only accelerates reader boredom and flight. As arts coverage moves online the opportunities for meaningful discussion about theater productions — without whining about the voodoo of critical power — will grow, and that is all for the good.

For now, Norman wants theater critics to be afraid, be very afraid. But when reviewers fear that their judgments will be detrimental to theater companies the anxiety tends to lower rather than raise the standards of discussion. Critics worried that the theater will disappear will assume that it is their “first duty” to tailor their judgments (and reports of audience reactions) to sell tickets and support companies. That belief will, in many cases, end up shaping the substance of their reviews, encouraging irrational exuberance over insightful analysis.

Eric Bentley Theater critic Eric Bentley

Superior reviewers such as George Bernard Shaw and Eric Bentley took it for granted that theater would be around: in their criticism they recognized quality productions and exposed aesthetic frauds, at times hitting the mark, sometimes not. For them, the critical imperative is to separate, with care, theatrical excellence from mediocrity — it is what helps keep the theater alive artistically. Because of its artistic potential, because something more than finances is at stake, the stage deserves to be held to high standards, not patronized. Reviewers don’t have a responsibility to sustain bad theater – it will always survive, as will bad movies, books, music, and visual art. The critical duty is to recognize the first rate and to point out when the emperor has no clothes, not report what percentage of the audience does or does not see glad rags.


  1. Ian Thal on March 9, 2008 at 9:16 pm

    When I read the comments of someone like Marsha Norman on the role of a critic, I feel like I must be some relic of a bygone era. The role of the critic– at least when I started reading the arts sections of newspapers and magazines was not to do publicity but to make the case that not only were the arts of value, but they were worth doing well, to provide a vocabulary with which the public could talk about the arts, question the status quo, and expand horizons.

    And yes, sometimes that means saying that some work isn’t worthy of so much attention.

  2. Akos Szilvasi on March 10, 2008 at 1:37 pm

    I very much agree with Mr Marx and wish to add that I hesitate to see theater productions ever since his regular reviews disappeared from WBUR. I am not aware of anything but sales pitches and flat descriptions of the shows.

    Akos Szilvasi

  3. Art on March 11, 2008 at 8:12 am

    “Finally, how would Norman react if the critic wrote, ‘I loved it, but most of the audience was out for the count. You may not want to check it out.'”

    This, I feel, is where the proponents of “telling how the audience reacted,” are truly put on the ropes.

    You are right to point out how the argument seems to be almost anachronistic. In a little bit of a defense to those who seem to still be fighting,(like the Japanese soldiers emerging from the woods in the Phillipines in the 1970’s,) they are, I believe, smarting from the battle scars of a legitimate theatrical skirmish.

    Marsha Norman, Christopher Durang, and, to a certain extent, Theresa Rebeck are all artists who were ground zero during the pitched debate over the consolidation and power of the New York Times Theatre critic. (Specifically Frank Rich’s tenure.)

    Critics such as those you mention in the article were, also to some extent, allies with some of these playwrights over the issue of the power of the Times to close a show.

    Robert Brustein may have tipped into obsession over the issue, but not without scoring some good points.

    It does seem to be a bygone era though. Isherwood seems the goat of some of these dramatists, but more because he is giving raves to shows other than theirs.

    While I certainly don’t think it is a requirement to include the atmosphere of the audience at performance, I think that deliberately eschewing it can sometimes take an arrow out of the reviewers/critics quiver.

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