If you follow my site, other theatre blogs, Larry Stark's Theatremirror or articles linked through Artsjournal, you can't escape the overwhelming amount of column and inkspace being devoted to the idea of just how theatre criticism contributes to theatre, how it could be better, and how it is bad.
Arts and Politics blogger Isaac Butler, a director from NYC, has a post on theatre reviewing that is good read. Butler takes on "snark" which was the subject of a very small back and forth between me and Bill Marx , the critic for WBUR, last year.
From what I can tell, Marx insists that snark is really a passionate, intelligent and entertaining critical argument. Butler disagrees as he states here:
The first problem is, of course, snark as embodied by John Simon, the Dale Peck of theater writing. Terry once wrote something along the lines of how easy it is to write a cruel review and say witty things that are mean and degrade people’s work. And it is very, very easy. Any blogger who writes with passion can tell you how simple it is to say something smart and insulting. This practice, however, does nothing to engage the issues at hand, nothing to expand the conversation, nothing (in other words) to improve the form of drama. All it does is show off the writer’s pithiness. It is not designed to help the audience with further understanding of anything, it is designed to make the reader think the writer is smart. .
My own analogy would present John Simon and Dale Peck as the Arts And Letters answer to Conservative Talk Radio. The last few sentences in Butler's passage above make the illustration for me.
John Simon, recently fired by New York magazine, has an incredible reputation as a snarky critic. By coincidence, as I was looking in the remainders section of my local bookstore the other night I found and old book of theatre reviews and essays by John Simon. Having just read of Simon's dismissal from New York that day, I was interested to page through the collection of his theatre writings from the 60's and 70's. The first thing that struck me was how in the 1960's the same concerns we have about the death of theatre was gripping critics and pundits over 40 years ago.
The second thing that interested, or should I say disinterested me, was the overall Negative tone of the volume. He did have a very good essay about The Wild Duck which displayed his obvious acuity. However, most of it did seem a little too,.. just, ...well...snarky towards theatre in general. Surprisingly though, I found his essay about the aesthetics of the attractiveness of actors and actresses, (something he is notorious for pointing out,) kind of fair.
I didn't buy the book, I actually bought Doubt; A Parable, which my wife and I read last night. All the hype it has been getting finally made me cave on my usual practice of waiting to see a local production before reading the script of the latest hits.