Personal ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Personal

Time, maybe, to return to some basics. Recently on this blog there's been some discussion, if it can be called that, about the persona of Ms TN, including not a little libel (that's what it is, folks) and I've found it a bit depressing. A couple of critical (and extremely judicious) reviews - on Joanna Murray-Smith's Ninety and productions of The Lonesome West and The Time Is Not Yet Ripe - have prompted a hail of catcalls from the peanut gallery.

Well, being a critic is not a popularity contest. I've developed a thick hide over the years, and it's not being called names that bothers me. What's depressing is the entrenched belief among so many of the commenters that I must have some reason for the arguments made in my reviews other than those articulated, with care, in the review itself. That there are personal reasons that dictate my responses to a show - I hate women, I want to bed young men, I am consumed with envy, I want to promote my husband's career, personal vendettas - that override any other aesthetic or intellectual or emotional response to a work of art.

On the up-side, these accusations prompted an interesting discussion about the nature of criticism. But I found this swarm of accusations depressing beyond words: it opens up a stunning spiritual vacuum, a deadening triviality. Do these people really think that art itself means so little? I feel rather like the Stalker at the end of Tarkovsky's film: "Nobody believes," he says despairingly. "What's most awful is that no one needs it. No one needs that room. And all my efforts are just in vain."

That's not true, of course. The people who believe keep me going. And of course my reviews are personal, if not in the senses of which I am accused. How else are they to be honest? I have articulated more than once the modus operandi and motivations behind this blog. The problem is that those who accuse me of being less than open about what I do are also unlikely to read those explanations.

Of course I accept that a certain amount of ill-feeling goes with the territory, and regular readers know that I am always up for an argument. And that I'm also happy to question my assumptions, if persuasively persuaded. But I am going to routinely delete comments that personally defame me from now on.

They're not only boring; they deflect Theatre Notes from what it is intended to be. I'd like this blog to be an place where art can be taken seriously, where it can be assumed that theatre matters. I'd like it to be a place where people feel welcome, where difference can exist, where argument is productive and stimulating, where we can all learn, where we can play. Much of the time it is, and I thank from my heart those who have helped to make it so. Those who want to libel me can make their own blogs.

28 comments:

sydney arts journo said...

It's a vicious scene down there in Melbourne.

But I am thankful that there is such a vibrant arts blog scene down there, which you are undoubtedly a very influential part.

The libel and defamation is something I just don't understand and as Geoffrey recently commented on my blog;

What I am tired of reading, not only here but also over at Alison's Croggon's theatrenotes, are comments that are really just, well, nasty personal attacks. I am convinced that the authors of (both) these blogs must just hang their heads in frustration when all their hours of hard work in bothering to blog at all is just met with smear, innuendo and pointless drivel.


The answer it seems, after your post today, is that we do.

Alison Croggon said...

And there I was, smugly thinking that Melbourne was so much nicer than Sydney, Queen of Bitches. But it's not all bad, by any means. Actually, I think the "scene" here is pretty generous and open, notwithstanding the odd squall.

I agree with Geoffrey: it is tiresome and heart deadening.

Geoffrey said...

I find a number of things fascinating about the missiles directed at you Alison.

1. They are mostly written by people who post as Anonymous.

2. They are mostly in response to a review that notes aspects of a production that might be perceived as 'negative'.

3. They fail to connect with a single idea ... the very seed of creativity and they then fail to argue the value or integrity of such an idea or ideas.

It saddens me greatly to imagine how you must feel when you log on to your blog. A blog, it seems neccessary to point out, which has been going since 2004 (that's four years for the mathematically-challenged ... count them, FOUR years) and in that time, I have agreed, disagreed, pondered, wondered ...

More importantly, or perhaps crrritcally, it has inspired me to read more, research, learn and expand my horizons. With my cups of tea in hand over the years, I remain grateful that you bother. I greatly enjoy your writing, your intelligence, your insight, wit, style and consideration.

Please don't be derailed by the few who seek to ridicule, libel and defame you. You are a veritable source, to me anyway, of such immense creative energy and articulation, that is far more important to the many of us who value your blog than the few of those who don't, can't, and probably never will.

Hopefully for those creative souls who 'hate' you for your less than glowing reports of their work, the day will come (as it did for me) when they embrace the wisdom of others as fuel their search for their own creative development and learning.

That, to me, is the great worth and value of blogs such as yours. It reminds me often that "great" is not necessarily the work we do now, but rather with MORE knowledge and greater understanding, it is about the work that is to come as we grow and change.

Anonymous said...

Chin up, Croggers!

Melbourne, man.

Alison Croggon said...

Thank you, Geoffrey, that's extremely generous of you. And encouraging.

Never fear, I am still here. And I confess that there is something expiatory in addressing these things head on, that permits me to then concentrate on what matters to me. Ie, it has a therapeutic worth. Hoping I won't need further therapy...

Alison Croggon said...

PS And my chin is risen, e'en as the sun - thanks, Melbourne, man.

George Hunka said...

Having been the subject of campaigns of disinformation, outright attack and personal abuse myself (as well as one or two attempts to "blackball" me, apparently, though I'm not sure that's true) for some of the reviews and other things I've written at Superfluities Redux (which will be FIVE years old come 1 October), I feel your pain and anger, Alison. Unfortunately they come through email too. But yes -- that comments moderation can be a wonderful thing.

On the other hand, as Geoffrey said, your generosity even in some of your negative reviews is clearly appreciated. As critics, we put ourselves out there just as much as the artists we review. It takes a thick skin on both sides.

Anyway, forward again into the breach! Or the abyss ...

st genesius said...

I suppose Alison, that to those who get pleasure from attacking others anonymously, you are a soft target, as you are a writer and partner to a writer yourself as well as a critic, and thus will always be accused of having a personal agenda. But to me what makes you particularly impressive is not simply your thoughtful and courteous reviews, but the courage you display as a creative artist yourself putting yourself in the firing line this way. One of the complaints often heard about critics (I confess to them myself when on the receiving end of a negative review) is that they don't have the guts to get out there and expose themselves on a stage or in print, so take pleasure in tearing down others who do. That certainly isn't true in your case. Carry one please.

Alison Croggon said...

Yes, in your case I've seen some real nastiness, George. But that's more than defamation, that's harassment!

And thanks, St Genesius. I can't exactly claim that I'm not used to it. Intentionally or not - and mostly it's not intentional, although I admit to being a bit of a stirrer at times - I've always had the capacity to make people very cross. There's stuff that goes with sticking your neck out that I'm happy to take on the chin (as it were). But fair's fair - I don't defame other people, in fact, I'm very careful not to, and they shouldn't defame me.

And this kind of insidious defamation is something that up with which I will not put! Not on the blog, anyway. People can say what they like elsewhere, and no doubt will.

Jonathan Shaw said...

In my opinion, deleting the defamatory is a necessary step towards having a decent conversation. The attackers tend to draw attention away from decent conversation -- it's a bit like having a mob of noisy and nasty drunks pull up beside your tent in a national park, except in this case it's not a national park, but your own living room.

Geoffrey said...

"We have to distrust each other. It is our only defence against betrayal." – Tennessee Williams

Tristan Sinclair said...

Keep up the excellent blogging Alison. I often disagree with your opinion but always appreciate the effort you put into the blog and time you spend discussing/defending your reviews in the comments section.

Obviously one of the most exciting things about blogs is the dialogue created between author and reader and it’s a shame that at times the comments get a little *too* personal- whoever is to blame. I guess if it's gonna happen it will be over something as close to home a Joanna Murray-Smith play (something I bet every theatre-goer in Melbourne will have a strong opinion about on artistic and personal levels.)

Anyway, I don’t really have anything groundbreaking to add- just felt compelled to join the masses letting you know your blog is appreciated.

Alison Croggon said...

...but what a way to live, Geoffrey!

I totally agree with you, Jonathan - it just gets loud and boorish, and that's not enjoyable. And hi Tristan, and many thanks - long live disagreement, I say! If we all agreed, life would be exceedingly dull.

Btw, just so you know, I haven't gone quiet because I am sobbing over the blog, but because other duties call...

JBranch said...

Whatever the reasons for harassment, defamation, and the like, I'm pretty sure it's not limited to the world of Melbourne theater or to arts criticism. A couple of days ago, on a business blog run by The New York Times, I read an informal post on Steve Jobs and was briefly astonished to see how many of the comments ridiculed or attacked the writer instead of addressing the subject. I think this tendency is not in any sense caused by technology (though technology facilitates it); instead, it has something to do with a blurring between the private and the public (hotheads need not fume to themselves now but can post comments, just as people who are used to talking during films in their living room now do so in public theaters), and with a some sort of potential for intolerance in Western individualism, and maybe even with a misunderstood cultural encouragement to "express your feelings" instead of "bottling them up." But I don't really know.

In any case, I second George's approval of comments moderation. You need not give a floor to speakers (i.e., commenters) who don't meet your standards of conduct.

JBranch said...

Oops--forgot to click the "email follow-ups to..." thing.

culturist said...

Hey Alison ... I'm writing from rainy Brooklyn. Stumbled across your blog and am glad I did. Thought you might like to see a conversation we've been having about the nature of criticism on my blog for WNYC radio in New York:

http://blogs.wnyc.org/culturist/2008/07/01/critiquing-the-critics/

Alison Croggon said...

I think, John, it's simply the temptations of anonymity. I'm reluctant to take away the ability for people to post here anonymously, because there are some wonderful commentators who, for whatever reasons of their own, prefer to post sans identity; but I admit, at times it's tempting.

Hi Culturist - many thanks for pointing me to that really interesting post. I confess that I have problems with equating criticism with art, although I'm all for the art of criticism - as you rightly point out, there's the art criticism of Frank O'Hara (who is one of my favourite poets) and also John Ashbery, among many other examples. I don't, for a number of complicated reasons, believe that criticism equates to the work of art it's criticising; I think of it rather, as another poet, Eugenio Montale called it, as a "secondary art", responsive to a primary work. Although I quite understand how the boundaries blur and shift. For example, works of art are themselves, among other things, critical acts, responding to and changing the traditions they emerge from. And I wholly agree that there's room for more art in the act of critical response.

Casey B said...

I think I know what you mean by "secondary art" - but I don't much like the term, for the whiff of the perjorative that accompanies it. Surely we can come up with something better? I mean, of course all criticism is secondary in the sense of derivation, but it'd be nice to find a term that, I don't know, acknowledged the possibility of transcendence.

For instance, Anthony Lane's New Yorker review of "Revenge Of The Sith" is funny, smart, concise and well-observed. Certainly, it does not equate to the work of art it's criticising, because in order to equate to that work of art you'd have to smash your head against the keyboard repeatedly for two hours. I'd hate having to label critiques like Lane's (or Kael's, or... fill in your favourite critics from your favourite fields) as "secondary", for fear of the meaning being misunderstood. Often the impulses that drive these critical pieces are the primary ones, the desire for challenging, worthwhile art, and it is the work being criticised that is secondary in all senses.

I immediately think, too, of that famous old Eugene Field line describing American actor Creston Clarke in Lear: "Mr. Clarke played the King all evening as though under constant fear that someone else was about to play the Ace." Was Creston actually that bad, or was his fate sealed the moment Eugene came up with that line? I'm not sure. I'm not even sure what that's got to do with my argument. I just had to quote that line again. I should be ashamed of myself. I'm going back to bed.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Casey B. - that's one enviously brilliant line. My personal favourite is Dorothy Parker on AA Milne's The House at Pooh Corner, which ends, after she bounces through Pooh's hums, with the lines "At this point, Tonstant Weader fwowed up". Or the review (it might have been a Milne play - she hated Milne with a vengeance and if you've read the plays you know why) where she shot herself.

I don't think there's anything pejorative in acknowledging the fact that criticism is responsive. I wholly agree with what you say, and yet, at the same time, there seems to me a very great difference between making a work of criticism and attempting to make a work of art. Internally, perhaps, if not externally. Both of course have to pay attention, in the widest senses of that word. But maybe I think that a critic has certain responsibilities that an artist doesn't (the necessity to talk about the work he/she is responding to, for instance) that are necessarily limiting. Maybe I just think, without any solid ECG evidence, that making art accesses a different part of the brain.

The quote from Montale is actually the name of his book of criticism, The Secondary Art. He was a fine critic. I don't think he felt it was dismissive, the emphasis is equally on "art". But maybe there's another term.

Alison Croggon said...

PS I just looked up Lane's review. (Link here. What a classic. The odd thing is that I have absolutely no memory of it, aside from an image of an armless Anakin twisting frantically beside a lake of lava. None at all. But I know we faithfully, and idiotically, went to the cinema to see all three prequels. My clearest memory of Revenge of the Sith is of the lights going up and seeing to my dismay that our seats were covered in popcorn because my daughter had spent the whole movie attempting to throw it into her mouth, a la Elaine in Seinfeld.

George Hunka said...

There's a terrific story about Robert Benchley, the theatre reviewer for Vanity Fair in the teens and twenties. (He shared an office with Dorothy Parker and Robert Sherwood; small world.)

He was in the theatre to review an absolutely awful play by Jean Bart called "The Squall," which was about a gypsy girl who enters the household of a Hungarian family of farmers, spreading various kinds of mischief. Benchley sat patiently -- if reluctantly -- through the first act. When the actress playing the gypsy girl said, "Me Luna. Me good girl. Me stay," Benchley rose from his seat and loudly announced as he left, "Me Bobby. Me bad boy. Me go home."

JBranch said...

Another critical response that's pretty well known, this time from the dance world (I quote from http://prism.palatine.ac.uk/resources/view/95, which is quoting another web page):

'In 1957, with 7 New Dances, [Paul] Taylor inaugurated the post-modern revolution several years before that avant-garde movement actually emerged at Judson Church in 1962 ... Among those pared-down 7 New Dances was one where Taylor stood behind a woman sitting on the floor. Neither moved, nor even blinked, for the four-minute duration of the piece. In another dance, Taylor struck a series of unconnected poses, each based on everyday posture. The score for this 20-minute dance was an ongoing recording of the voice on the telephone which updates itself every ten seconds: 'When you hear the tone, the time will be... Overnight, Taylor became notorious. Seven New Dances received what has become the most infamous dance review in history. Louis Horst, who was Martha Graham's musical mentor, 'wrote' a review which consisted of nothing but the name and place of the performance followed by four inches of blank white space.'
Part One - A Choreographer for All Seasons, by Allen Roberston 10 April 2003

theatre enthusiast said...

Well, since we're sharing our favourite Algonquin Round Table critics' quips, let me include a classic: Dorothy Parker's one line review of the theatrical version of Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Diaries (later of course turned into the musical "Cabaret") but at the time called "I am a Camera." Parker's review: Me No Leica.

Alison Croggon said...

Or there's the mainly forgotten Australian film made in the '70s, Pure Shit, which was reviewed somewhere with the single line: "It is."

There's no denying the pleasures of schadenfreude, for those not involved in making the work, anyway...And certainly, those deadly quips are what are best remembered. For decades, sometimes... (Has anybody seen that wonderful Vincent Price movie where he plays a hammy actor who murders his critics one by one in the manner of different Shakespeare plays?)

On the other hand, there are critics who think that polishing their stilettos is the whole of their art, and a belief (quite common in newspapers) that being "critical" consists wholly of being negative - ie, that a positive response is per se less "critical", and that to do her job properly a crrritic has to find something wrong with everything. But that seems rather to be striking a pose of easy superiority, like those adolescents who sneer at everything because that immediately places them above the common herd, and seems to me as much a mistake as thinking that criticism is about being nice.

Chris Boyd said...

How about Ben Butler's review of Aerosmith's Just Press Play: "Just press eject."

Can I quote myself here? LOL. A particularly banal play about the break-up of a relationship was dissed by yours truly as running the emotional gamut from 'ex' to 'why?'

Troubador said...

There was a review on Pitchfork a couple of years ago of the album "Shine On" by Aussie band Jet. Have a read. It's in a class of its own:

www.pitchforkmedia.com/article/record_review/38853-jet-shine-on

st genesius said...

Having just read the London reviews for Andrew Upton's "Riflemind" I don't think you ever again need worry about sounding harsh. Those Brits know how to do harsh...or is that just honest...?

Alison Croggon said...

Too true, St Genesius! Well, I won't talk about my abortive career as a poetry reviewer, except to point out that I don't get asked to review poetry any more, and that the fuss over my more "controversial" reviews has often deeply perplexed those from more bracing cultures of critique...