Critical Case Study #2: Cognitive Dissonance (and room for growth)

I have to say, dear reader, I did not anticipate this kind of reception.

It’s been some time since you’ve heard from me. When last I wrote–when I started this blog–I had a fire under my ass, a fire sparked by the now-infamous Zinman review and fed by the frustration and fatigued that had been smoldering for months. Since then, the flames of that fire have cooled–but just as I began to settle back into my usual critical fatigue, you found me.

I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the support, the criticism, and the conversation that’s been generated around this blog. It inspires me to know that so many people saw what I wrote while I was seeing read and thought that, within it, there was something worthwhile. I doubt (or rather I hope) that I’ll never be that angry again, but seeing the surge of discussions about the role of the theatre critic, I feel less angry but no less passionate, and am truly excited to write more.


About two weeks ago, Wendy Rosenfield (another theatre critic prominent in Philadelphia) wrote an article about, aptly enough, the role of the theatre critic. In it, she focuses on criticism as calling out, as initiating and participating in conversation about how specific productions and specific plays contribute to the larger social and political conditions of the culture in which they’re performed:

Some critics don’t concern themselves with diversity or context, sticking to the subject before them. This is its own form of injustice as well as an abandonment of the critic’s role; to see exclusionary practices and not comment on them is to perpetuate them, but also, to pretend a show exists in a cultural vacuum does a disservice to the role of art.

Rosenfield’s article itself is sort of a review of reviewers, and one I find satisfying in many ways. Critics should inspire conversation, and should challenge the form they participate in. When critics ask “why this play, why now,” (as Rosenfield puts it) they compel audiences and artists alike to reconsider and recontextualize a play within the current socio-politico-economic-historical climate of the city they’re in, the country they’re in, the world they’re in. Plays cannot be performed in a “cultural vacuum;” what makes a play resonant in its original era of production refracts over time, and each time a play is remounted, it should be located within the climate of its remounting. That is what allows a play–and theatre–to transcend temporality: its ability to resonate with something primal, human, timeless.

And yet, dear reader, there’s something odd about this article. It’s not the sentiment: criticism is vital to the continued invigoration of art. It’s the strident dismissal of the critic’s participation in attracting a theatre audience–or, as Rosenfield puts it, “You want butts in seats? Not my problem.” Certainly critics should not be bound to promote specific institutions; to be so would be slavish, self-congratulatory, completely against the critic’s responsibility to challenge the form. But to reject the critic’s role in involving audiences in the conversation of the play outright–well, frankly, it rings false.

I’m drawn to one of the comments on Rosenfield’s article, made by longtime Philadelphia theatre critic Dan Rottenberg. “Where is it written that critics are obligated to ‘advocate for the kind of theatre that reflects our surroundings?'” he asks. “To me, the test is to apply Wendy’s rule to some other forms of criticism. Are political columnists obliged to serve the cause of good government? Are business columnists obligated to improve the economy? Are sportswriters obligated to serve the cause of sport?” Strange as these questions are (what else political columnists would feel obligated to serve–apolitical government? fascist dictatorship?), I’m drawn to them, dear reader, because Rosenfield herself asked almost exactly the same questions almost two months ago.

Jill Dolan–The Feminist Spectator–published an article in early January discussing the backlash Polly Carl, director of HowlRound, received after asking critics, casual and professional, to be “nicer,” drawing from the concept of “critical generosity” that Dolan had outlined previously.  This particular article takes a feminist approach to criticism, particularly regarding the gendered implications of the word “nice;” ultimately Dolan asks our critics for “kindness and [sic] rigor,” for critics to “take care [sic]” with the work they review.

In the comments, Rosenfield asks (and answers) almost the exact same questions as Rottenberg:

Do political analysts have a responsibility to be critically generous with politicians? Do sports analysts need to be gentle to the athletes whose performances they critique? No, they don’t; they have to know what they’re talking about, use that knowledge to analyze what they’ve seen, put it in some sort of context, and, in the best case, this analysis will generate discussion in the public sphere.

Rosenfield and Rottenberg are essentially asking what kind of impact criticism has for any specific field on a larger scale. Right now, Rosenfield’s answer is one of issuing challenges and inspiring investigation–but there’s a distinct cognitive dissonance between assuming the responsibility of invigorating a form, yet refusing to acknowledge how integral your participation is to the preservation of that form.

The reason that sports analysts and political commentators and business columnists don’t feel “obliged” to work kindly and generously toward the betterment of their field is that they work within fields in which their criticism inspires growth, and thus their criticism works towards that inherently. Political criticism, business criticism, athletic criticism–all of these things both inspire audiences to become more involved in that particular field and challenge active participants of that field to reconsider, revise, resolve.

The reason that Rosenfield and Rottenberg, as critics of theatre specifically and art more broadly, should feel “obliged” to work kindly and generously toward the betterment of your field, is because their criticisms and others like them are wielded as weapons to dismiss a form constantly struggling to justify its worth.

Very few people refuse to watch a football game because a sports analyst offered a scathing critique of its racial politics. It is basically impossible not to participate in the economy–there’s always going to be some product you can’t make on your own. And, if anything, I would argue that the abundance of political criticism has only made people more politically aware, if not active. But every day, people find reasons to label theatre as useless, indulgent, wasteful, antiquated, worthless. Dismissive criticism breeds dismissive audiences; dismissive audience breed to dismissive donors; dismissive audiences and dismissive donors lead to death–not to mention unemployed theatre critics.

Rosenfield, Rottenberg, and countless others like them are members of the PR department of every piece of theatre out there. Right now, that is how they are perceived, and that is how their jobs are constructed Their reviews are among the first things the average person turns to in order to decide what’s worth seeing–in this cultural climate, their criticisms are currency. From Rosenfield’s scoffing, I assume that’s not the way they want their work to be perceived; I can’t imagine anyone wants to see their work as a piece of consumer fodder. But, rather than thrusting that designation away, I urge them to embrace it–and use it as a means of changing the way audiences talk about theatre. I can’t put it better than Dolan herself:

I believe that we need to take care with the work we see and engage, to honor the impulse that produced it; to see it in a broad context of social relevance and meaning; to consider it through a variety of aesthetic and taste traditions; and whether or not we “like” it, not to dismiss it out of hand, even when we see its flaws and failures. That’s what I mean by critical generosity.  Word count and daily deadlines shouldn’t excuse derogatory dismissal.

Critics should create conversations, rather than making their work cut and dried. Invite audiences in; don’t let them feel comfortable staying home. Their role in art is important: they help people remember art exists, and play an invaluable role in convincing people to consider it. When they write criticism that draws lines in the sand and polarizes art into “good” and “bad,” they simply aren’t filling that role.

Right now, thoughtful, well-meaning critics killing theatre, which is struggling (valiantly) to thrive without their support. But those critics have every tool available to nurse theatre back to life.