Critics

The theater world and the food world are not dissimilar. Both have their roots in ancient traditions, their devotees are somewhat eclectic, and both contain numerous schools of thought and theory. For every Thomas Keller there’s a Wylie Dufresne; for every John Patrick Shanley there’s a David Lindsay-Abaire. Behind the scenes of a Broadway show or a 4-star restaurant is a similar scramble of workers, producers (owners) and artists (chefs, playwrights) eager to please, cajole, challenge, inform, devastate, enlighten and feed a hard-to-please public.

Enter the critic.

This semester at NYU’s Tisch School of Dramatic Writing, which ends a week from tomorrow (when I leave for Paris) could be subtitled: “Adam Learns The Downside of Criticism When Two of His Favorite Teachers Get Torn Up in the Times.” (The main title, of course, would be “Sex and Cabbage: An Unhappy Marriage.”) We will now explore the complicated relationship between the artist and the critic in the theater world and apply it to the food world.

Lena Smurf and Rosco Pumice (names have been changed in case I’m sharing more than I should) co-teach a class at a very important New York theater institution. This class is called Collaboration and it began in September with five playwrights (me included), five directors, and 20 unbelievably talented NYU grad actors. Thus far we’ve worked on 10-minute plays (I wrote about a repressed Republican college lesbian), a piece of devised theater (our theme was “balls.” Don’t ask.) and the first 10 minutes of a full-length play, which we ran this morning to great success. I really love the class and I really love the spirit in which its taught: everyone here loves theater and we’re here to appreciate not to tear down. It’s the equivalent of taking a cooking class at someone’s house where everyone shares a favorite recipe and even if someone’s didn’t come out that great you can laugh it off and appreciate the effort.

While all this cheerfulness was washing over us Monday mornings at 9 am, another thing was going on. Lena and Rosco were working on a large production of Lena’s play that was to be Rosco’s first as head of this important New York theater institution. When we first met in September, they were holding auditions and doing initial read-throughs. By the time November came around, they were deep into rehearsals, fretting over their choices, their revisions, and–most of all–the terrible threat of a bad review in The New York Times.

Lena is the most adorable teacher. She reminds me of the babysitter you always wanted. She’s upbeat, optimistic, loving and hopeful. Her play is a really interesting, unexpected exploration of a theme with great broad strokes and interesting tiny detail that adds up to something quite unique. We were invited to the first dress rehearsal and I left thinking, “Wow: what a cool piece of theater.”

But Lena and Rosco were sweating. Lena had made the determination that she wasn’t going to read the Times review. When it came out, Rosco would read it first, sit her down and talk her through it.

“If it’s read to me, I’m less likely to visualize the really nasty pieces of text over and over again,” she said.

Rosco then recited a nasty review of something he directed in college, which he’s never forgotten: “Smug, obnoxious, overreaching and desperate…” [Or something along those lines. It was funny how he quoted it verbatim.]

On Thursday night of that week, when the show was to open, I loaded up The New York Times site and refreshed every couple of minutes after midnight, waiting for the review. When it came on, I felt like a parent about to read their hard-working child’s report card. “Please, let her not fail…please let her not fail….”

But fail she did. Pretty badly. As did Rosco. The review was not kind.

“[Lena’s] writing could sorely use some nuanced acting to soften its blunter edges, and it doesn’t get much massaging from [Rosco] and his cast,” it said.

I sighed and grew slightly miffed. I’d seen this play, and sure there were problems, but why isn’t this review at least acknowledging the heart and soul and love that went into it? Shouldn’t this critic meet Lena and Rosco, find out what their intentions were, and then see if they feel like those intentions were fulfilled? Why is this critic so hard to please, so assured of himself, so myopic in his critical vision?

At our next class, Rosco and Lena bravely addressed their experience of being reviewed. Rosco was at the opening night party when someone from publicity whispered the bad news into his ear.

“Thank God I’d been drinking,” he quipped.

After sharing their disappointment for a bit, someone asked what Rosco thought the role of the critic in theater should be.

“There are three types of critics,” he explained. [And this is the speech that inspired this post: I feel like this applies equally well to the food world.]

“The first deals in commerce, basically telling you whether or not you should buy the ticket. Is it worth $40 to see this play? That’s one type of critic,” he began.

“The second is the most loathsome. This is the critic who writes sensationally to sell newspapers. John Simon is the perfect example of this,” said Rosco. “He’s the type of critic who calls an actress fat even though it has nothing to do with the play. I think it’s disgusting.”

“But it’s the third type of critic that can be most beneficial to the theater community. It’s this critic who gets involved, who knows the playwrights, knows the directors, is deeply immeshed in everything and can therefore comment upon it usefully and thoughtfully and really contribute to the form and its evolution.”

I told that last part to my friend Dan the other day and he immediately mentioned Terry Teachout (who has a blog). “He’s been to a few of my friends’ plays,” he said. “He really reaches out and sees newer work and talks to the playwrights about what they’re doing.”

Is there an equivalent of this in the food world? Amanda Hesser took huge flack for pushing her friend Jean-George’s cuisine, but maybe she had the right idea? Who else makes that effort? Robert Sietsema? He eats mostly ethnic food but his scope is large and he constantly has his finger on the pulse of what’s changing, what’s new and what’s going away.

Actually, when I think about it, the answer may be staring me in the face. If there’s one great equalizer, one great community builder that de-centralizes the power of the critic it’s the internet. Specifically: eGullet and Chowhound. Here, the job of the critic is taken to the people and the results are extraordinary. Hundred post threads about the intricacies of the doughnuts at Doughnut Plant are placed aside passionate pleas for the perfect chili recipe. Food luminaries like Anthony Bourdain and Paula Wolfer linger in the shadows and icons like Ruch Reichl make themselves available for questions.

This is a dream that is, in fact, envisioned by Arthur Miller in his autobiography “Timebends.” Bemoaning the power of The New York Times, he writes: “For all intents and purposes the contemporary American repertoire comes out of New York and represents the taste of whoever is writing the New York Times review, only slightly mitigated by other reviews. The Times did not invent the situation, but there it is, a dictatorship as effective as any cultural control mechanism in the world. Indeed, when the Soviets close down a show, it is a committee that makes the decision, rather than one man–at least since Stalin died.”

Calling for reform, Miller attends a meeting held by Clifton Daniel, the Times managing editor, who seeks input on destabilizing its monopoly. Miller writes: “After some wayward discussion, I suggested that since the nub of the issue was the danger of injustice in a single critic carrying all the immense prestige of the Times, perhaps the solution was to send two or three critics to write independent notices, maybe even on occasion asking an informed theatergoer to write his impressions of a show in a paragraph or two.”

Sound familiar?

That’s eGullet, that’s Chowhound. So Miller’s vision (which Daniel rejected–“But who would be speaking for The New York Times?” he responded) arrives via the internet. I’m a part of it, you’re a part of it and the result is a much more textured approach to criticism. Miller writes: “…differing reviews would make very interesting reading and would broaden the public’s awareness of how fictional, rather than a matter of plain fact, all criticism really is, which is to say, how subjective. It was not, I said, that critics knew more than others but that they could write better about the little they did know….”

Meanwhile, Lena and Rosco are fully recovered. Lena’s working on a new play and Rosco’s planning a new season. And though they’ll carry their bruises with them for a long time (maybe, even, forever) they have something that no career critic ever will: the ability to go back out into the world and make something new. Their job is completely active: they are creators of text, much like chefs are creators of food. When you know how to fry an egg, you can always feed yourself. Which is more than you can say for the critic, whose job–by its nature–is merely reactionary. They wait at the table for someone to feed them while everyone else parties in the kitchen. Such is the life of the critic.

12 comments

  1. I also love Lena as a person — but the play really isn’t so good, especially compared to her earlier, weirder stuff which i LOVE. But Isherwood is getting a little meglo for me. He’s smart and he had good taste (sometimes) but he’s SOOOO mean sometimes.

    What’s up with that?

  2. Kudos to “Lena and Roscoe” for an interesting play and an interesting and timely topic. The review was the worst of all reviews: the condescending critical review. Why can’t Isherwood see that he needs to go back to LA? He seems to be jaded in his ideas of what constitutes “good theater”. I think that a great playwright taking risks in her work deserves the work to be treated fairly and not sensationalized in the Times. And kudos to Roscoe for starting off his season with something he knows and knows well. Isherwood seems to hate everything new…

  3. The third type of critic is the type I’ve always tried to be, in my novice bumblings, but I have to wonder how one remains “objective” — the goal of any kind of news no matter what section of the paper it’s in — if you are friends or acquaintances with everybody involved.

    It’s fine to interview the playwright and producers and performers, but in the end the play succeeds or fails on its own. Being educated about each specific process, having historical knowledge, understanding the struggle; all these are good things. But any newspaper writer has to think of his or her readers first. They are the first priority, since they’re the reason the paper exists.

    That said, I don’t think any critic should be malicious. The second type of critic is the kind I am fighting against when I tell people this is going to be my chosen profession.

    Is Ruth Reichl really just an observer? I don’t appreciate the categorization of critics or reviewers as inactive or reactionary, though surely some are. When I started writing for theatre, I had the opportunity to bring new trends to light, call attention to a particularly good show, investigating the inner workings of the local theatre, researching histories, etc. A critic should be involved in a dynamic conversation between all parties, sharing a love of theatre with a larger audience than those inside the industry could otherwise hope to touch.

    Just my few cents. It’s a topic that’s close to home for me.

  4. Hi Adam,

    I’ve always loved this quote by Teddy Roosevelt regarding critics:

    It is not the critic who counts, nor the man who points how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly…who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at best, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

  5. I’ve never been a food critic before, but I used to be a theater critic. In fact, I was trained to be a theater critic in a masters program in much the same way that you are being trained as a playwright.

    I have heard people argue Elise’s point (above) — that critics are simply people who talk about things that other people actually do. (Indeed, George Lucas, shortly after Phantom Menace, bitterly made this point when he came to speak to our class.) There’s a truth in that. But I think I would want to preserve a place for critics as professionals themselves, with their own standards and ethics and responsibilities.

    I think that there ought to be those who hold other professionals in the art or food world accountable, who articulate the viewpoint of an educated audience member, who evaluate how successfully they have met their goals and what they have contributed to the field. Sure, I think this is a power that should be wielded carefully and thoughtfully, and shouldn’t be employed simply to construct witty put-downs (as arguably somebody cruel and funny like Dorothy Parker did).

    But I would refer you to Oscar Wilde’s “Critic As Artist.” He makes a brilliant case for the centrality of the critic’s role in art — in fact, “[w]ithout the critical faculty, there is no artistic creation at all, worthy of the name.”

    I’m also not sure I agree with your instructor, about that third kind of critic that befriends theater professionals. I think I’m with SLOLindsey on that one. While it serves the interests of theater professionals to have critics who have beers with them and talk over the state of theater, I think it might inhibit the critic in fairly evaluating their work. Imagine if you were always writing about your good friends’ restaurants; wouldn’t your food reviews be affected?

    That said, I am sorry for your professors that they had a bad review. The best critics push artists to be better, and their observations are one means by which the whole theater (or food) world can improve. But there are always abuses of the power of criticism, and it does seem unfair that one person’s opinion (in the NYT, for instance) has so much disproportionate power.

  6. I read once that there is no such thing as “bad taste”, only educated or uneducated taste. That makes sense to me, because it acknowledges that taste is certainly subjective, but it also a sensibility to be cultivated. (And I don’t mean by becoming a snob).

    I like to read informed criticism because it can open up my world to my own further explorations, and help me build a context in which to appreciate something new. A cruel or attacking review of any work that is sincerely presented is only half a review, or perhaps no review at all, because it fails to consider the spirit in which the work is offered.

    On the other hand I appreciate a reviewer who is not afraid to criticize a work of art (in whatever media) that is a thinly disguised insult to the audience, as in crassly commercial products that arrive DOA. (dead on arrival). Work must finally stand or fall on its own merits, but I think that the intent of the artist and the critic has to be an acknowledged part of the review.

  7. Well, I knew I was in the right place when I saw this was a food blog by a theater person…in addition to being an amateur gourmet myself, I’m a stage manager and literary manager.

    There’s educated and uneducated critics, and there’s no accounting for taste either. But…in some cases, the wrong education can preconcieve a reviewer to what a given work is “supposed” to be like. I was involved with a revival of “Fool For Love” in 2002 — as the TIMES review pointed out in its introduction, it was the first time the play had been revived off-Broadway since its original production.

    However, after invoking the original production, the reviewer spent a third of his review DISCUSSING the original — and only then discussed our production. While empirically our production was good, the critic wrote, it was different than the original production. Therefore, he didn’t like it.

    When a critic gets too preconcieved about how something is supposed to be, is their opinion truly any good?

  8. Well, I disagree with the idea that critics need to conform to some template of behavior. If they assess a public good (like food, a play, or a food weblog), they should be free to treat it as it exists in the public domain and should not have to dig beyond what normal users/patrons would, especially if they are trying to convey some of what the Everyman experience is. Saying that a critic needs to get involved with chefs or playwrights is a little silly, given that the products of their labor is something that is intended to stand alone.

  9. The idea of multiple critics is a good one – in fact, the Times of London does exactly that. Virtually every week, or within a week or so of each other AA Gill and Giles Coren review the same restaurant. They’ve got completely different personalities (one is pompous and loathsome, the other is wickedly funny; I won’t say which is which – it shouldn’t take you more than a moment to figure out if you read their reviews, which are available at the online site), and virtually always have opposite takes on the same venues. It does, in a weird way, give more balance to the review process, though, because I tend to side with the wickedly funny, I tend to ignore the other…

  10. Shouldn’t critics come to the work they are reviewing as merely educated consumers? Knowing the intentions of the artists skews the vantage point. If I read a restaurant, movie, or theater review, I’m looking for the critic to have had the same type of encournter I’m likely to have in going to enjoy the art, not as an insider.

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