Thursday, March 07, 2013

Criticism And Reviewing - "I'm Versus You. Completely Versus."

Refined Or Philistine? Critic or Reviewer?
(Seth Numrich in the Lincoln Center production of Golden Boy)
The critical community rallied to separate camps this past week after former New Yorker critic John Lahr took a swipe at the general state of the profession.

Lahr wrote an essay, The Illumination Business; Why Critics Should Look At and After the Theater, for the Winter 2013 Issue of Nieman Reports which included several other essays about criticism and reviewing.

Building off of  two distinct examples of what he considers lazy, inaccurate opinion-making, Lahr builds a platform upon which he can lament the rise of reviewing over criticism.

Stop me if you've heard this one. No, really. Stop me.

Many critics took umbrage with the piece. Charles McNulty, the theater critic for the Los Angeles Times, took to Twitter to respond to what he considered to be an unfair attack on the authors of the two reviews Lahr chose to single out for criticism.  McNulty later compiled these tweets on his Facebook page.

In a rally not so much to the defense of Lahr personally, but more to the point of the Nieman essay, theater blogger George Hunka characterized McNulty's twitter flurry as an ad hominem attack that chooses to avoid Lahr's overall thesis:

George's post has, to this point, drawn 14 comments, most of them continuing to defend the targets of Lahr's  attack, if not attacking  Lahr's critical acumen.  

With every comment it would appear that Hunka's point strengthens. However,  Lahr's essay is just too weirdly constructed and lazily evidenced to be defended. Yes, even though it seems to be stating the truth.  

Now, I do believe that there are distinctions between reviewing and criticism, and, of course, there are arguments to be made about the state of theater criticism. Hunka himself has written a follow-up post entitled "A Modest Proposal" which examines some of the hurdles the art of criticism is having in the internet age. 

However, everybody should avoid the boring way in which Lahr chooses to engage these problems. 

Kenneth Tynan, one of the critics Lahr holds up in his pantheon of great writers for the theater, would never have turned in such a shoddy piece of work.   

I know, the blogosphere may not yet have yielded a Kenneth Tynan, or a Richard Gilman, but it certainly can provide  a corrective to lazy thinking and writing on the part of establishment writers.

For instance, I may not have the skill or talent to write criticism like Robert Brustein or Walter Kerr, but I can actually read the reviews which Lahr chooses to illustrate, or (I'm sorry,) "illuminate", his points. Furthermore, I can read Lahr's own reviews as well.

Scott Brown, theater critic for New York Magazine, comes in for harsh criticism as Exhibit A in Lahr's piece.  Of course, Brown is not named, and the review which Lahr references is not hyperlinked on the Nieman site. (This type of online editorial policy, should be annoying to any readers with functioning brain cells, but I digress.)  

Here is a link to the review in question, you can peruse it if like. In it, Brown is reviewing a  lauded revival of Clifford Odets' Golden Boy.

Lahr is offended, greatly, by Scott Brown's opening passage about how Odets, for a couple of generations of theatergoers, was more of an intellectual acknowledgement, rather than an actual theatrical presence. 

Lahr provides an overly defensive defense of the Odets legacy, citing royalties and, strangely, focusing mostly on Odets' successes prior to the 1960's.   This is his proof not only of Scott Brown's ignorance, but also of Scott Brown's joy in his own ignorance?  

If that isn't enough, the rest of Brown's actual review provides a little more confusion for Lahr's argument.   Brown goes on to consider how Bart Sher, the director of Golden Boy, was able to succeed in pulling off the revival.  Brown says the secret is that Sher focuses on the street lyricism of Odets' dialogue:

In fact, Sher backseats “concept” entirely, tucks it into the shadows with Michael Yeargan’s ghostly suggestion of a set, and instead amps up the sound of Odets, the musical palookaspeak that might represent his greatest contribution to the American Voice on stage and screen....
This is a Golden Boy that’s as much sung as performed, and Sher has assembled one hell of a tabernacle choir to sing it. Even better, he’s managed to keep everyone in the same mighty key. 

Please hold on to that image of a symphony and a conductor for a moment.  

You see,  if you do a little Googling, you will find that this is the way that Lahr himself chose to characterize the very same Lincoln Center production of Golden Boy"This distinguished, symphonic production has finally put Odets in the pantheon, where he belongs." This, of course, right after he points out that, "for decades Odets has languished in the discussion of the American theater."

Notice, Odets was not in the pantheon, by Lahr's own estimation.  In fact, while recapping the year in drama for the New Yorker,  Lahr recalls his own observations about the late 20th century fortunes of Odets among the theater-going public:

When I began as Senior Critic, in 1992, the second show I reviewed was Clifford Odets’s “Awake and Sing,” in Chicago. Odets seemed to me a woefully overlooked major writer. 

To go even further, in a long "Critic at Large" piece about the playwright of Golden Boy, Lahr writes, "Odets didn’t lose his talent; he lost the attention of his audience."

As for the second major example that Lahr gives, a 2003 (almost ten years old!) New York Times review of The Retreat from Moscow, well, I could go back through my collections of Gilman, Tynan and Brustein that are on my shelf, and cite numerous examples of those critics working in their overall opinion in their opening paragraphs.  

I won't bother though.  It seems that type of rigorous effort won't get me in Nieman Reports, or land me a job writing at The New Yorker.  

There will, of course, be those who think I am unfairly nitpicking Mr. Lahr's essay in order to willfully ignore his larger point. I can assure you that these questions concern me enough to have recently compelled me to read and dissect 20 professional reviews and 69 Amazon customer reviews of a recent bestseller in order to try and decipher  differences between criticism and reviewing. You can read the results here.

That's not the type of thing Harvard publishes, I know, it's just what bloggers sometimes do. 

We're such hacks.

Links to sources referenced in this post:

John Lahr's original column in Nieman Reports
Charles McNulty's Response on Facebook
George Hunka's Defense of Lahr's Thesis
George Hunka's Follow Up: "A Modest Proposal"
Scott Brown's Review of Golden Boy
John Lahr's Review of Golden Boy (Subscription required)
John Lahr's Critic at Large Piece about Clifford Odets
John Lahr's 2012 Year End Wrap Up
2003 New York Times Review of The Retreat From Moscow (Subscription required)


George Hunka said...

Thanks for going through this carefully, Art, and for pulling this together. And one must have nits to pick; or, what's a blogosphere for?

I would also point to Terry Teachout's essay about Kenneth Tynan, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal a few days ago:

It seems to be that Teachout, too, is falling prey to ad hominem arguments and shoddy evalution. As the first literary manager of the National Theater, Tynan laid the groundwork for its mission and reputation, and his work is hardly "forgotten" (at least no more than that of any literary manager who served as such 50 years ago). What Tynan's sexual proclivities have to do with his criticism I can't imagine, any more than I want to imagine what Teachout's sexual proclivities have to do with his. And he gives away the game somewhat when he calls Tynan a "superficial thinker" (because he didn't care for Inge and Ionesco?), pointlessly labels him a "moral idiot" and, finally, says that "In order to be a great critic, it's not enough to be clever -- it also helps to be right." Apparently Mr. Tynan was not right, and Mr. Teachout is. But of course criticism is not a science, and there's no right and wrong.

Teachout's essay has been getting a little drubbed on Facebook too, here and there. But it does seem that comments like McNulty's and Teachout's are more the rule than the exception.

Thomas Garvey said...

Thanks for writing all this up, Art, but . . . hmmm. . . I know I totally crash the whole academic-tea-party tone that George longs to re-instate in criticism, but haven't you just proved that, well, John Lahr kind of sucks? I mean that piece was ridiculously self-contradictory on its face - anyone could see that - and was only typical of what Lahr often publishes in the New Yorker. (And Hilton Als is just as wacky, just wacky in a way that appeals to a different demographic.)

I'm afraid what I see in George Hunka's piece is a form of nostalgia grasping at straws for justification. I mean I guess I sympathize with the nostalgia, but . . . I keep wondering if it isn't at least partly misplaced. Do I really long to see a renewed tradition of writing like Tynan's - or Brustein's? Not really! When I read some of Tynan's stuff I just laugh, it's so haughtily nuts, and as for Brustein - well, as I've pointed out, Brustein was so wrong about so many playwrights it's almost embarrassing to list them all. (I still remember his pan of "Arcadia"!) And as for George himself - well, I mean you can never have too many references to Schopenhauer in a blog post, I agree (!), but did such melancholy erudition ever really clog the pages of the Times, or the New Republic? Somehow I don't think so.

Forgive my impatience, but as someone who actually does churn out long-form criticism on a regular basis, I can only smile at people who stand around bemoaning its lack, and wishing someone would pay them to produce it. It's a volunteer effort from now on, guys, that's just the way it is. If you really love criticism, start doing it - and yes, brace yourself for all the flack that supposed theatre-lovers throw your way (and that only subsides to a dull resentment as your controversial calls turn out to be true over the long haul). I mean I wish the world were a better place - but it's not. Time perhaps to paint an accurate portrait of John Lahr and his age, as well as the failings of our own.

John Branch said...

I apologize for going more or less off-topic, but my suggestion for resolving these impasses is…to drop them and consider something else. My idea of the moment is for New York theater bloggers to notice that two Lanford Wilson plays are currently running (at Signature and Roundabout). Whether or not y'all have seen them, this isn't a bad time to consider the reputation of someone more recent than Odets, namely Wilson.