Flogging the critical horse ~ theatre notes

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Flogging the critical horse

So George Hunka is asked along to a show at Playwrights Horizons in New York, and his invitation stipulates that he is asked to blog his thoughts, positive or negative. The show gets on his wick so badly he leaves at interval. He then, as requested, blogs his displeasure. And the shit hits the fan.

Not from the aggrieved theatre company, which quite properly has nothing to say, but - perhaps surprisingly - from his fellow bloggers. Some, like Matt Freeman, are discomforted by his leaving at interval. (This question has already been debated on this blog, after a controversial walkout of my own. At the time, Age dance critic Hilary Crampton picked up on TN's walkout and defended the critic's right to express outrage and "take strong action", claiming that "in claiming democratic rights to freedom of speech, artists must also allow critics the freedom to comment on their public presentations".)

But Matt was simply, rather mildly, asking a question. Not so Leonard Jacobs, a critic and editor at Back Stage and blogger at the Clyde Fitch Report, who went ballistic. His beef is that the show to which George was invited was a preview. (Unlike here, where we have maybe three or four days of previews, NY previews go for weeks; this particular show doesn't officially "open" until later in September.) In a series of increasingly inflammatory posts, Leonard accuses George - and then, when it was revealed that a number of bloggers had been invited under the same conditions, Playwrights Horizons - of appalling dereliction of professional ethical standards. Mixed up with this is a fuzzy objection to bloggers getting free tickets, which seems to be regarded as a form of payola: as he elegantly puts it, "just because there's a pimp doesn't mean you have to fuck everyone".

Well, here's my 2c worth. TN doesn't review previews. I saw a Malthouse show in preview a while back because I was going overseas and it was the only performance I could attend (for the record, I thought the show was poor) and that was on the understanding that I did not blog it. So I didn't. But in this case, where comment has been specifically invited by the theatre, I don't see any problem.

Elsewhere, bloggers who pay for preview tickets now regularly blog about shows that haven't officially "opened" for print. The Guardian theatre page often rounds up these responses. In the strange case of the recent RSC production of King Lear, which was officially in "preview" during its entire Stratford season, the only critical responses for weeks were from bloggers. In this case, there is a clear line drawn before "official" and "bloggy" reviews. Here in Melbourne, where the performing arts culture seems to be miles ahead in its acceptance of bloggers into the general discourse, the line is a little fuzzier.

TN has uncontroversially operated as a freelance reviewer from the start, requesting and receiving free tickets like any other critic. Perhaps it's an Australian thing: along with with my fellow bloggers Chris Boyd, Nicholas Pickard, Richard Watts and Matt Clayfield, I operate on a nexus between print and online publication, reviewing for both, and perhaps this makes us seem marginally more legit. Though I think it's more that many people here have been starving for some decent public conversation about theatre.

More germanely, the upset seems to be about George's "destructive" negative reaction (positive reviews on another blog seem to have attracted no controversy at all), a perennial issue in theatre reviewing. As he quite rightly asks, if his response had been rapturous acclaim, would anyone have been bothered? I expect not. In a general sense, it still seems to be considered impolite for a critic to criticise, along the lines that "if you can't say anything good, don't say anything at all".

As far as I'm concerned, this is the death of dialogue: such an attitude has pretty well killed off critical discourse in Australian poetry, where people regularly refuse to write about books they don't like. To take a local whipping horse, Age theatre critic Cameron Woodhead: I might disagree - and often - with what he has to say, but I'll defend to the death his right to say it. And conversely, my right to take issue with what he says.

Apropos of this question, I was buttonholed at a Melbourne Writers Festival dinner last week by historian Ross McMullin, who wanted to grill me about my reviews of Hannie Rayson. McMullin is the biographer of Elliot Pompey, the real-life model for a couple of characters in The Glass Soldier, and is also a friend of Hannie's. This very pleasant man was clearly one of those for whom my reputation as bitch critic had gloriously preceded me.

Given my record with Hannie's plays (four strikes out of four, as I recall), he suggested that I should not review them at all. He seemed to think that having an aesthetic viewpoint in itself represented some kind of conflict of interest.

When I asked if he was suggesting that I had a personal animus towards Hannie which then informed my reviews - which I would strenuously deny since, whatever else I am as a critic, I seriously attempt to be at once honest and fair - he said no, he wasn't suggesting that. I then said that I always went to the theatre hoping that it would be good, and that if it ever happened that I enjoyed a play by Hannie Rayson, I would have no hesitation in saying so. And launched into my impassioned spiel on the necessity for frank and honest discourse yada yada. I'm not sure I convinced McMullin, though he did allow that he himself had been known to review books negatively, and that it was legitimate to do so.

Finally, to leave the last word with George, it's a question of respect - for audiences, for readers, and for theatre practitioners.

Artists are not children to be coddled and protected from criticism when they, or their producing organization, invite it from whatever source, and critics are not paternalistic playground monitors, to pat artists on the head when they do well or scold them when they do poorly. Artists are fully-grown mature adults, well aware that they conduct their professional lives in the public arena. Criticism, whether it's from a reviewer or from a friend over drinks after a show, is the risk one takes, consciously, when one chooses the profession.

Readers of both blogs and newspaper reviews, similarly, are not children. ...they are fully capable of reading, fairly and critically, the reviews we write and decide on the basis of that whether they want to see the show or not. They are aware that these are opinions, nothing more and nothing less. And the more familiar they are with an individual critic's prejudices and interests, the more they are fairly able to judge whether the play itself holds any interest for them or not. People who have been reading "Superfluities" for the past few years, as well as the reviews I've written for other publications, are well-aware of my own, and my fairness when it comes to reviewing shows which don't conform to the aesthetics I hold for my own creative work.

Yay to that. The alternative is a bland, boring, defensive culture that actively seeks to eradicate difference. I've lived in a culture like that, and believe me, it's no fun at all.


Anonymous said...

Hi Alison,

even though I have strong reservations about anyone reviewing a show they walked out of, I don't think George Hunka did anything wrong or unethical. And having engaged with a couple of US bloggers and tried to defend the ethics of George's review, I now feel I'm in some sort of Twilight Zone that I desperately need to escape (I was defending a theatre critic for God's sake!)

One of the arguments used against George - not an argument at all in fact - was that he did something no other critic would do.

I found myself Googling the George Jean Nathan Award website. Nathan was a contemporary of Eugene O'Neill and many refer to him as the founder of modern American theatre criticism. The award donated by his estate is the most prestigious award for critics in America and some of its winners include Walter Kerr, Harold Clurman and Robert Brustein.

The website has a short biography of Nathan and I found this quote on it:

"Nathan established the standard to which all responsible drama critics adhere: the critic owes allegiance to his or her own principles, not to the theatre as an institution."

I believe that George Hunka behaved ethically and in allegiance to his principles. I believe a great number of his critics have condemned him out of their allegiance to the theatre as an institution.

On this occasion I have to say that I'm on the side of the two Georges.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Abe - I quite understand your quandary (how terrible for a playwright to defend a crrritic! but admirably high-minded). That's a pretty astute analysis, I think. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Forgive me for posting anonymously, Alison. I don't want Fitch to know who I am or where I live. He's mad enough to come over and fuck my pets. (All those bizarrely hyperbolic comments likening Hunka's actions to slaughtering Jews... it's appalling.)

I think you're out of your mind hot linking to the psychopath, too. But then you've always been a brave soul.

Reviewing on a blog *is* different to reviewing for MSM. For reasons that Aaron argues in a comment on Fitch's blog. Hunka's reviews on the New York Times web site were not just different stylistically, they were different precisely because they were on nytimes.com not blogspot.

His review of the play is soooo gentle and honest. It's baffling that his account of what he did (leave) and why soooo did not deserve this tirade... days and days... post after post after post.

I can't fathom the motives.

Leonard Jacobs said...

A few thoughts.

1) I'm not into fucking anyone's pets. And I'm being accused of hyperbole? If it is appalling to use strong parallels and comparisons, it is equally appalling to post anonymously in response. Cowardice is a terrible element of the current American character.

2) Another key figure in the evolution of modern American criticism is William Winter. Don't forget, too, that Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman wrote theatre criticism as well. Nathan is one of many standards we look to, but we also have to bear in mind that the eras in which those men wrote were very different from ours, and involve concerns and questions they never had to face. (There is still the problem in American theatre criticism of a lack of women and people of color.)

3) As a result, the fact that "Nathan established the standard to which all responsible drama critics adhere: the critic owes allegiance to his or her own principles, not to the theatre as an institution" is true but also incomplete, a fine nostrum from a fine era that is, in part, at least, long gone. George Jean Nathan did not have to deal with alternative media sources and all the permutations of their development.

4) My objections to what happened are not fuzzy -- they are quite clear. If some people weren't busy being apologists, that would be even clearer.

5) A blogger's review IS the same as a MSM review if the blogger has been invited by the theatre and given professional comps. To argue otherwise is to endorse the idea of "separate but equal," which I am, again -- and I'm going to keep saying this -- completely opposed to. If the critic-blogger is good enough, if the critic-blogger is considered valuable, influential, significant and professional enough to be givne professional comps, why is the blogger-critic thus exempt from acting in a professional manner, including exhibiting all appropriate ethics and expectations?

Alison Croggon said...

Leonard, fyi I trained as a journalist on a daily metropolitan broadsheet newspaper here, the Herald, and worked there for five years. I freelanced for a number of years, working for many other mastheads, before leaving journalism. And now I review theatre for the national daily paper. I have had a thorough old-fashioned training and a lot of experience in all kinds of reporting. And I reckon George did nothing at all unethical.

Chris Boyd - another msm critic/blogger - says succintly that it's a beat up. Too right. We call it getting out the mixmaster around here. It sounds like shrill panic about bloggers.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Alison, Leonard. Your fury should be directed at the company, not the blogger. Rightly or wrongly, the company decided to court this kind of attention. George Hunka's post certainly wasn't the only formal response. I've seen three reviews at least.

PH would certainly have been within its rights to ask bloggers not to review the production formally. But they didn't.

A couple of points. 1. I don't review previews. I know how much can be turned around between the final preview and the first night. (Fugly ducking to swan overnight. It happens.) But then nor will I review a second night performance out of courtesy to the cast. (The attentive will note that I have made exceptions to this rule where the show is a return season or touring and, so, is well run-in.)

2. When I am not reviewing for print, I'll take what I'm given. (Bloggers can't be choosers.) Preview, matinee, limited view, whatever. That said, I haven't -- to date -- ever accepted tickets on the strict condition that I write something. (Funnily enough, one major company used to invite me to its shows on the condition that I not write about them!)

Perhaps it's a laziness thing, but if I'm "off duty" (professionally speaking) and go to a show -- and hate it -- nine times out of ten I will choose not to write about it.

As for critical rules of thumb, I rather like the distinction AB Walkley made between the audience member asking "Was I pleased?" and the critic asking "Was I right to be pleased?"

By that criterion, George Hunka's response was pretty unexceptionable. He also went further, as he should. To ask: did it work? And why/why not?

One final point, I don't really understand your unwillingness to accept the massively different role (and 'placement') of the non-mainstream media.

Sure, they are not beyond the codes of ethics and rule of law and so on, but we go to the non-MSM for something fresh, vital, free-thinking, unmediated and, very occasionally, genuinely provocative... all the reasons why Superfluities (and, indeed, this blog) are essential reading.

Anonymous said...

BTW, Leonard, the paper for which I review theatre and ballet has five performing arts reviewers. Four of whom are women.

Scott Walters said...

For the record, and in response to George's question: yes, I would have been as outraged if George had left at intermission and posted a glowing review. You just don't do that. If you've been comped to see a play, and to write about it, you see the whole play. George Jean Nathan would have seen that as a principle. If I am a sports reporter, I sit through the whole ballgame no matter how much of a blowout it is. Sometimes there are comebacks. Same with theatre. If you are a private citizen, you have the right to leave; if you are being comped to see and write, you behave professionally. And that is the center of my objection.