The Rule of Thumb: Why Liking Theater Isn’t Enough

Photo Credit: kinikkin reims. Licensed CC-BY-N C-ND.
Photo Credit: kinikkin reims.
Licensed CC-BY-NC-ND.

Tim Treanor’s essay “Criticism in the Crosshairs,” spends about well over half of its 7000 words developing an unspoken premise: namely, that it is the critic’s sworn duty to “like” a play and convey this “like” to an audience. It lies invisibly in his choice of section headings. Plays that I didn’t like but you might. Plays I liked but you might not. Plays I don’t understand but I like. Plays everyone will like.

Considering the contemporary audience for the theater, he writes:

We write for the bottom-liner, the weekend planner, the wordbox scanner–we write for the audience, and not the playwright or the theater artist or the custodian of the box office. We must tell them what they want to know, or they will find it elsewhere.

When there were multiple voices writing about the arts in a diversified media, one could easily say with cavalier tones that readers did not have to like one’s criticism–they could always read the other paper. But in most cities today, there is no other paper. Newspaper arts coverage has shrunk so badly that options are limited. The alleged messiah of information, the Holy Savior that is the Internet, might indeed offer lots of voices, but then so does a lunchroom at work. Sorting through their relevance is often an exercise in madness–and I say this as the publisher of an internet-based magazine.

But, pedagogically, allow me to accept Mr. Treanor’s axiom as truth. Let us pretend there is an “elsewhere” as Mr. Treanor suggests, to which readers will turn if critics do not give them what they want. Let us pretend that the layman has more than the sketchiest map of it, and actual directions to find one’s way around. The axiom still begs a larger question: Just what exactly is it that these people–the bottom-liners and wordbox scanners–want to know?

In my more cynical moments, I highly doubt critics are even interested in that question at all. I doubt they are interested in people, weekend planners or otherwise, except as fodder. Howard Sherman proves this cynicism is well-deserved with his latest tommyrot about how to “save” arts journalism. The answer? Give us money! If that money goes to the very worst writing about the arts, no problem. In Mr. Sherman’s world content means nothing. People merely provide attention for advertisers–because of course journalism must exist on an advertising-based model–I mean, we’ve always done it that way, right? Therefore the more we can sell people to advertisers, the safer the arts are! As long as hordes of mindless consumer drones keep clicking and liking articles, even if they are vacuous drivel, then arts journalism is fine! Just keep the money flowing for unintelligent garbage and hackwork and voila! There is no crisis in the arts! Just use lots of exclamation points! And listicles!

Nevertheless the problem remains. If one does believe in people, which I do, and one accepts that criticism means giving people what they want, which I don’t, then one must return to the question: what do they want to know?

I have read a plethora of criticism over the years, in books, in papers, on bathroom walls, and online. Almost all of it has confirmed John Simon’s observation that critics can be divided into academics, fans, lackeys and hacks: academics have their impenetrable argot, fans their uncritical adoration, lackeys their greased palms, and hacks their minimal knowledge and thoughtless opinions. Mr. Sherman obviously wishes there were more lackeys. Mr. Treanor probably wishes there were more hacks. Myself I wish they would all stop writing.

Given the dominance of those four types of reviewer, I doubt that any contemporary critics have the faintest notion what people want to know in Mr. Treanor’s sense. Critics–and playwrights…and actors…and artistic directors…and…and…–seem to believe that people read reviews purely to find out whether or not to attend a show, as though somehow the critic’s job is to provide a Zagat Guide of Theatrical Spectacle. Most of them fail to consider that reading a review in order to “know,” that is, to learn something is even possible or desirable. They also fail to respect that people make their decisions about things complexly. Many of those decisions are made well before a critic writes a review of any sort, and many of those decisions will not change regardless of what one hears or reads from a critic’s pen or mouth.

For instance, as a reader of film criticism I can honestly say I could not care less whether or not someone “likes” a film. I have multiple reasons for going to the cinema that have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with whether even I myself like or will like a film. I may go because I have a crush on Helen Mirren that I have entertained for thirty years. I may go because the cinematographer is Roger Deakins or Michael Ballhaus. I may go because I got free tickets. I may go because I know it’s going to suck and I need a good laugh. I may go because I wish to spend time with my wife outside of the house. I may even go because I am simply bored.

Now, one can say I don’t look to reviews for that information, but in truth I do. If a review tells me simply factual things, such as the DP was Ellen Kuras, he has described something that immediately gains my interest, even if the sentence is “Why is Ellen Kuras photographing this garbage?” If he writes that the script is adapted from a story by Maupassant or Charlotte Perkins Gilman, that will also gain my interest.

So when Mr. Treanor writes,

The second leg of Gunderson’s thesis is that we give critical opinion, not fact. This is, of course, correct. The reporter covering a neighborhood fire, or sitting in at a City Council meeting, reports on the facts, without interpretation. The house burned, or it did not; Council Member Bowser voted this way, or that. But theater critics are all interpretation, and everything we say reflects not only what happens on the stage but our own prejudices, beliefs and predilections.

I’m not buying it.

Obviously critics interpret and evaluate. But there’s the rub. Interpretations and evaluations ought to be based on factual matters instead of emotional prejudice. As currently seen in any issue of The Stranger, or any given posting at Drama in the Hood, uncritical inferences are the rule of thumb. Their critics skip over description or formal analysis and immediately launch into evaluation. But on what basis? The temperature of the theater? The connection to the first time one saw a play? The texture of their dinner? The hotness of their date? Such glib evaluations bury the real duty of criticism beneath layers of complete hogwash.

If critics delude themselves into thinking that is their role to provide “likes” based on these uncritical inferences, it’s small wonder they are lost to the essence of criticism which, to me, is to answer Edwin Denby’s question, “Did an event of artistic significance take place, and if so what flavor did it have?” What is significant to each reader (Was it well-acted? How did the playwright represent my life on stage? Is there a brand new type of compositional model involved? Did Tom Cruise really lick his armpit?) is unique, but the operative word remains “artistic.” That is where the discussion belongs, and remains the only question that any reader truly must ask.

Complaints about how critics treat new work are numerous, yet the same people who complain about a critic not “liking” new work also miss the same point the critic misses. What any work truly needs, and a new work even moreso, is someone to survey it for the purpose of divining just what the hell is going on. The work may be ahead of its time–a fancy way of saying that it grapples so directly with a not-yet-obvious reality that people may be confused. Describing it clearly is crucial; liking it is not. Yet in reducing criticism to “likes” critics will often crush a new work because its material or its form is unfamiliar. Critics lambasted Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane as “anti-jazz,” yet now one could hardly imagine jazz to sound otherwise. But what if Monk and Trane had read a thoughtless review and quit? This danger is always present.

Why then this dogged insistence on “liking” work, repeated over and over and over again as our ostensible raison d’être? Worrying about liking something renders critics dumb. It also dilutes criticism itself, turning it away from its basic function.


In his essay “Reading,” W.H. Auden dealt summarily with the function of a critic:

What is the function of a critic? So far as I am concerned, he can do me one or more of the following services:

1) Introduce me to authors or works of which I was hitherto unaware.
2) Convince me that I have undervalued an author or a work because I had not read them carefully enough.
3) Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which I could never have seen for myself because I do not know enough and never shall.
4) Give a “reading” of a work which increases my understanding of it.
5) Throw light upon the process of artistic “Making.”
6) Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.

One can hardly add to that list. And yet I must.

Auden was writing about a well-studied, resilient subject of criticism–namely, literature–at a time when critical writing about literature was, perhaps, at its zenith not only in terms of excellence but also in terms of public reach. The theater of today, of right here, right now in Seattle, does not have that tradition. It also does not have that audience. Thus I must consider other questions whenever I sit down to discuss a play with my readers.

  1. Can this play and production argue sufficiently that theater itself is even relevant to our social life beyond frivolous entertainment?
  2. Can this play and production provide me with something that can match in effectiveness a novel by William Vollmann or Octavia Butler, a film by Lars von Trier or Abbas Kiarostami, an epic poem by Derek Walcott or Louise Glück, a radio play by Katie Hims or Elfriede Jelinek, a composed work by John Luther Adams or Anthony Braxton, or a powerful game like The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess or Beyond: Two Souls?
  3. In reading this review, can one get a sense that the play or production–or the critic herself–argues for a world of meaning beyond the stage?
  4. Can this play and production tell me something about the life I live as a Seattleite, that honors me as a thoughtful, emotional, intelligent human being?

At this point in my personal history as a critic and a reader, these questions are imperative. Yet such questions would never have occured to Auden. In his world, he could assume that readers found literature valuable and necessary, that any serious literature could match the power of film or stage or painting, that the essence of the art relied upon truthful exploration of social and psychological life. While he may have asked the last question in a limited sense, he nevertheless believed that the condition for any literature began with honoring a reader’s thoughts, emotions and intelligence.

Theater practitioners of the 21st Century in Seattle cannot and must not assume their art has a similar status. It does not. It is very much open to question whether or not anything on our stages can match the effectiveness of the other arts. Brokeology does not argue that it is relevant to social life more than a volume of J.T. Kemp poems, or a graphic novel by Kyle Baker. Taming of the Shrew in a trailer park does not provide me with something that matches the effectiveness of a short story by Cris Mazza or a film by Joanna Hogg. Ernest Shackleton Loves Me does not give me the sense that there is a world of meaning beyond the stage–or even on it. Girl You Know It’s True does not honor me as a thoughtful, emotional, intelligent human being.

These questions remain vital to me. I ask them of every production I review. Not, as some suggested, because there is competition for people’s attention–there has always been competition for their attention. I ask these questions because I care about Seattle theater. Part of that care is a stewardship: I must prove the much-ballyhooed vitality of Seattle theater to the public. Not the Almond Roca-munching crowd that fills the seats of Equity theaters around the city, because they are dying and irrelevant–I mean prove it to a public that cannot be bothered with nonsense. A thinking public who can understand technology, science, literature, and cinema and who consider these part of their everyday lives, yet consider theater some kind of esoteric art fag shit. This public awaits. This public is far greater than the diminishing public that still goes to shows at the Rep to discuss the period furniture on stage, or to Annex to gossip about their friend’s next role. But I cannot reach this public so long as theater artists continue to indulge themselves in the safe, the timid, the patronizing, the vapid–and, consequently, neither can the artists.

I have to prove that theater has something genuine to offer them beyond stupid escapism, because they can escape in far better ways than another insulting, empty musical. I must prove that theater can examine and model social meaning in ways that individualized entertainments cannot even approach. Prove that a dramatic event fills a hole in people’s lives they did not even know they had. Prove that theater is worth thinking about at all.

Whether I like a particular work in the process is not important. I do not particularly like J.T. Kemp. I am of two minds about Joanna Hogg. But it is irrelevant. Their work has real power. I learn from work I don’t like, even more than from work I do, and learning is one of the reasons I engage with art. Liking it is not the point. These non-theatrical artists’ works are events of artistic significance, as the late Mr. Denby inquired, and they are certainly worth thinking about.

I return to Auden:

The one thing I most emphatically do not ask of a critic is that he tell me what I ought to approve or condemn. I have no objection to his telling me what works and authors he likes and dislikes; indeed, it is useful to know this for, from his expressed preferences about works which I have read, I learn how likely I am to agree or disagree with his verdicts on works which I have not. But let him not dare to lay down the law to me. The responsibility for what I choose to read is mine, and nobody else on earth can do it for me.

So obvious. Yet so ignored. Auden does say he has no objection to hearing about a critic’s preferences, and that it is “useful.” But he does not consider it important. Neither do I. I am not interested in convincing readers of my taste, just as I am not interested in them convincing me of theirs.

Returning to the question of what do people want to know by reading a review, I think they want to answer a truly modern question–namely, “Why should I care?” Indeed why should this review or any review be important to them? That question has many answers, but none of them are “Because I liked it.” I am unlikely to convince someone that she should care about what I like simply because I like it. I have a much better chance to convince her that it speaks to her life and that it is important. Talking about what I like is not essential; talking about what matters, is.

At a time when its status is greatly endangered, and the art it serves equally so, theater criticism must, I think, pare away what is inessential. The first thing on that list ought to be the formerly hallowed duty of the critic to serve as a public relations mouthpiece. Critics need to free themselves from this chimera. So do intelligent readers. The last thing that real arts journalism can afford is another gaggle of fans, hacks and lackeys–whether one “likes” them on Facebook or not.

Categories Theater

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net

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