Monday, August 24, 2009

Looking for Long Form Criticism? - Somebody Needs to Write It

George Hunka writes about the lack of distribution of essay length critical writing for the theatre.

One reason perhaps is that these essays aren't being written, at least not by the younger generation of writers, be they critics, practitioners or both. After the recent panel discussion, an editor told me that the younger writers from whom she tried to commission this kind of criticism are simply not interested in writing it. Reviews – those 300-to-600 word nuggets of evaluative judgmental prose resulting in a thumbs-up/thumbs-down one-to-five star review – yes, there's a lot of those about, and people who want to write them (for there is a market, apparently). If these same artists who so frequently observe the lack of this long-form criticism don't really want to write it, though, it's unlikely they really want to read it either.


Thomas Garvey said...

Sure, bring on the long-form criticism, just as long as it's more readable than George Hunka's.

isaac butler said...

I don't mean to go all contrarian here, but it seems to me that the various people who lament the death of essay-length criticism about theatre (George, Michael Feingold, at times me) never actually articulate what the value of essay-length criticisms of plays is supposed to be. Particularly w/r/t contemporary plays. I think that'd be a helpful first step.

Of all the problems plaguing theatre, I'd put the lack of long-form critical essays on contemporary work near the bottom of the pile.

George Hunka said...

I would have thought the value of this critical work (especially with regard to contemporary drama) was clear: that it examines the roles that theatre and drama play not only within the culture in which it is produced, but also within the consciousness of those who witness it. These two questions are not exclusive, but inter-related, and the complexity of this relation demands more extensive examination. The focused critical or explicative scrutiny that the long-form essay provides is fundamental to any considered dialogue about theatre's role within a culture. Without it -- as I think I implied with my comparison of Muller and Wilson -- theatre and drama continue to be relegated to merely another form of "entertainment," which is admittedly a very loaded term. Indeed, to me, "all the problems plaguing theatre," from its funding to the sparsity of social and work benefits for those who work within it to the departure of some of its best talents to film and television, may arise from this marginalization of the art's importance to a national culture, of which the neglect of a more incisive critical discourse is a symptom.

A symptom, too, of the anti-intellectualism which my essay also discusses. If, instead, discussion of trends in American theatre and drama can be adequately contained within reviews scarcely longer than those in Fodor restaurant guides (and within words of only one or two syllables) -- well, that's another question entirely.

Bill Marx said...

I would add to George's explanation of the theater's need for essay-length criticism that meaningful evaluation demands that a critic provide the reasons behind his or her judgments. How else are readers to evaluate a critic? How else is a meaningful discussion of ideas to take place?

Everyone has an opinion, a reaction pro or con. Criticism demands that a reviewer articulate how he or she came to their conclusions. The effort to make this reasoning clear is part of the homage critics pay to the importance of the arts in our lives and culture.

Consumer guide criticism reduces the arts to the lowest common denominator and that, in the long run, is unhealthy for theater or any of the arts.

Thomas Garvey said...

I'm afraid I'm always bored by this idea of criticism as a branch of phenomenology, and I'm not really sure I see its value - except to other phenomenologists. And I worry that a new emphasis on Hunka's brand of intellectual onanism can only marginalize the art form further. This doesn't mean I'm opposed to long-form criticism; in my small way, I try to write it myself. But I am opposed to long-form critical theory disguised as public discourse, which I think is a very different thing. Or more precisely a bad thing. The great works of long-form criticism, like Sontag's On Photography, or the articles and monographs of Erich Auerbach or Northrop Frye, are easily interpreted and never abstruse; they attempt to explicate the works they consider, rather than build a parallel work of ever-more-recondite signification. It may be that this form is lost forever; or it may be that there simply is no reason for it to exist, because the new, "innovative" forms of theatre Hunka is talking about aren't actually so innovative after all.

isaac butler said...


It seems to me then that the lack of long from criticism is just a symptom of a larger problem (theatre's relative unimportance to the culture at large) and you're confusing treating the symptom with treating the disease.

Having the theatre equivalent to "Art Forum" or "A Public Space" or "The Believer" isn't going to solve anything. If we had the theatre equivalent of "The Believer" it would be an indication that the larger problem was solved.

Now this is not to say that writing about theatre can't help make it important again. I think, in particular, writing that seeks to introduce new viewers to theatre, to demystify it and decode it a bit and help better arm people to view it and have opinions on it and discuss it would be extremely beneficial. Stuff written more in the style of FREAKONOMICS or THE TIPPING POINT or Douglas Wolk's READING COMICS rather than THEATRE OF REVOLT or anything published by Routledge, or anything written by Esslin. Judging from your own writing on the subject, and from the writers you hold up as positive exemplars, I'm pretty sure that's not the kind of criticism you have in mind, and you'd probably think it was pretty lightweight.

George Hunka said...

I'm surprised you bring up Esslin, Isaac, since his "Theatre of the Absurd" was central to bringing the work of those writers to the attention of the general-interest American reader -- indeed, it stands comparison to "The Rest Is Noise" in the attempt to popularize these writers and put them into a larger context, as did Bentley's "Playwright as Thinker" or Brustein's "Theatre of Revolt" (all of which remain in print). Are we now suggesting that Esslin's, Bentley's and Brustein's prose are beyond the ken of the general-interest reader? In which case times (and the possibilities for a more demanding explicative approach to drama and theatre) are very sad indeed.

And I'm afraid you'll need to clarify your second paragraph for me, which seems to contradict itself from the first sentence to the second.

George Hunka said...

And Thomas, your disagreements are noted, and you're welcome to your opinion. All I can suggest is that if you don't like that kind of criticism, intellectual onanism or not, don't read it. As the journals and books I mention prove, that kind of criticism is hardly "lost forever," and if there were no reason for it to exist, it wouldn't. The question is its role in the cultural place of American or international theatre, and of the media in which it appears, and not its disappearance.

Thomas Garvey said...

Interestingly enough, I find myself gearing up for yet another series on The Hub Review, this time about the links between the pop torture aesthetics of Quentin Tarantino and the torture culture of Dick Cheney. This following the third of my (probably) five-part series on Emily Glassberg Sands, and earlier series on Rachel Corrie and the role of the academic regional theatre. So maybe "long-form" criticism isn't dead after all.

isaac butler said...

Hey George,

I added Esslin because I actually think we're quite a few steps backwards from where we were when Theatre of the Absurd was published.

The two sentences you reference don't contradict each other, it's the difference between symptom and illness again. Sorry if that was unclear, let me try to spell it out a bit more:

If you are sick, you can treat just the symptoms or you can treat the underlying cause. If you do the latter, the former will go away. If you just treat the symptoms, you may very well still end up stuck with the disease.

In other words... If a bunch of philanthropists decided to spend a lot of money on publishing long-form criticism of theater, other than it making it easier for academics to get tenure, very little about theater in america would change. We need to get to the root of the problem you articulate- theatre's unimportance to our society.

George Hunka said...

I don't think throwing any more money at anything is a solution, really. This is not only an economic issue (though economics certainly enters into it, as it does any social question; theatre is not alone on that score).

Nor is it a question of theatre's importance or unimportance (and it's worth thinking about what that word "importance" means, especially when it comes to society), which isn't what I was driving at really. What does the theatre we have now, the theatre we have already -- Broadway, the Fringe, "indie" theatre (that awful, linguistically ugly phrase) -- indicate about our culture? And especially how we think and talk about both, both among ourselves and to others? That was really the context of my argument.

Thomas Garvey said...

I would, however, just like to re-iterate my opinion: George Hunka, you are a bad critic. Not only do I not want to read your writing, I want you to actually stop writing.

Art said...


A question, though. Your examples of the books of Brustein and Bentley can be put up against the examples of Kerr and company, (critic/essayists of considerable prose talent and knowledge of theatre history,) who are now out of print.

Couldn't I use the argument that the Academy does more to support the continued existence of Bentley, Brustein, etc.

The problem, of course, is that keeping up with the modernization of writing and essay forms would neccisitate a critic engaged with the popular culture. (Note: I am not saying that such critic would be an advocate of the popular culture.)

Such a critic always has to be willing to call bullshit, and to elaborate on the nakedness of certain emperors. And, of course, they have to penetrate the routine expectations of the average theatregoer. (I am sure many critics working today assume they would have seen the genius of Beckett from the very beginning, but I doubt that very much.)

Reading your whole post, I never got the feeling that you were suggesting more than a kind of ambassador/lobbyist from the avante-garde movement. Not a bad idea, but certainly not a figure that would be able to convincingly bring theatre into the larger culture.

Salon, Slate, The Huffington Post, none of these produce articles or essays about theatre aside from once a year, joking about the TONY awards or talking about how out of touch theatre is.

If such criticism were to appear, it would most likely be there, no? That is why I found your post compelling. I posted the quote above because I think it is true. The people who could write it don't want to even read it. But I think there is an aspect to this you left out.

Such engagement of the larger culture risks a shunning of such a writer by the academy, no? Where is such a writer to take refuge? at Superfluities?

Somebody attempting what you are suggesting would, I am sure, eventually be hated by everybody on the extremes.

Scott Walters said...

As someone who wrote his dissertation about Brustein, and who has a particular appreciation for the Partisan Review critics like Lionel Trilling, I'd like to contribute to this discussion.

I agree with George -- we need long-form criticism; but we might disagree about the audience, and that might address Isaac's point. There need to be critics who write to the practitioners and arts leaders primarily, and the general reader secondarily. The conversation about the theatre is, overall, intellectually shallow -- much of it makes People Magazine look like the New York Review of Books. The result is an increasingly shallow theatre scene.

The problem, however, is that theatre practitioners themselves don't feel a need (and aren't taught) that it is their job to stay up to date in their field, and to struggle with the major questions that inform it. Without such reading, the theatre will remain a superficial irrelevancy.

George and I don't agree about what plays and playwrights should be valued. But that doesn't mean we can't have a useful and enriching discussion through our writing (and like the Partisan Review authors did in every issue) that addresses the major questions of the theatre and the arts. These cannot be tweeted.