Tuesday, December 01, 2009

What Standards, Intellectually, Should We Hold Critics To?

Don Hall takes in a production of The Mystery of Irma Vep, and it prompts some questions about its current incarnations as compared to its origins. He concludes this way:

There are those that will say that I'm taking a silly piece of theater, played for the laughs, too seriously.

Chris Jones, of the Chicago Tribune, wrote: "Despite all those portentous doctoral dissertations on the subversiveness of the Theatre of the Ridiculous, this is not dramatic profundity. Not any more. There is really one criteria upon which 'Irma Vep' now need be judged. Is it funny? Oh, yes. You will laugh your face off."

On the other hand, the origins of the play and the period in history that it came from are, I think, too important to simply dismiss. All those portentous doctoral dissertations, Chris? Gosh, and one would think that after eight years of a dumbed down government, theater critics would've kept a touch of intellectual integrity...

On a slightly similar note, Tom Garvey recently pointed out, as politely as he could, that Ed Siegel, the former lead drama critic for our own Boston Globe, had trouble identifying characters and dramatic elements in the ART's production of Punchdrunk's Sleep No More. This is Tom in the comments section:

This only makes hapless Ed's review all the more ridiculous - he was actually talking to someone from Rebecca, not Macbeth; he'd wandered into the "Hitchcock" side of Sleep No More without knowing it (or perceiving it). In that a central concern of "hypertheatre" is mimicking the interpenetrations of "hypertext," this is rather a large critical gaffe.

Then again, none of the Boston critics pondering Sleep No More seems to have considered its hyper-textual aspects - although btw, Siegel may have missed a secondary piece of hyper-script in the performance he witnessed. While he was wondering about whether or not poor Poornima Kirby was going to take her clothes off, she was whispering to him a tale that sounds a lot like a scene from Büchner's Woyzeck. Not that Ed should have recognized that, after all he's only a professional drama critic . . .

(Emphasis Mine in Both Quotes.)

Of course, Tom and Don are talking about slightly different things. Siegel seems to not be able to tell the players without a program, and Jones seems to be thumbing his nose at pretentious academia.


Thomas Garvey said...

Ah, who's more ignorant - Ed Siegel, the Globe's lone mensch, or Don Hall, the angry white asshole of Chicago?

I've already dealt with Ed, of course - but I did want to add in his "defense" that nobody else in the local press did any better with Sleep No More. His "perspective," as it was labeled, was self-targeting because the actual content of the piece was evident in his writing, despite his inability to perceive it himself. I couldn't have done the same hatchet job on the other critics because they were so taken with the false idea that the show was some form of "Write Your Own Macbeth!" that they didn't even get into its content. As I noted, this technique of providing a false, pop front for the middlebrow critics (as well as the audience) may be the ART's new M.O.

As for Don Hall - there's something poignant about the gap between his political awareness and his artistic awareness. He can sense that slicking up, and smoothing down, the gayness of Irma Vep is a kind of violation of Ludlam's original vision. But what could that vision be?? If you read the opening of his review, it's obvious that Hall has no idea; Ludlam's whole metaphor sails right over his head (much as Dylan Thomas did earlier this year). Of course this matches up nicely with the psychological profile that emerged in his clashes with me this summer - he insisted that Quentin Tarantino wasn't homophobic, and that he personally wasn't homophobic, all while calling me an aging queen and a douchebag and pussy and whatnot, all homophobic or gynophobic slurs. What's the insecure-hetero equivalent "getting your panties in a bunch" - "getting your jock in a bunch"? I'm not sure what the term would be, but it's obvious Don Hall is once again in some kind of bunch.

Scott Walters said...

As portentous or pretentious as academia might or might not be, the working theatre (and not just critics, but every other artist as well) could use a good dose of thinking beyond the superficial, not to mention having a working knowledge of the art form they consider themselves a part of. When your grasp of theatre history extends to the boundaries of your undergrad anthology, and your understanding of critical thinking and theory is defined by whether you laughed or not, well, we're in deep shit. Which we are.