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.


7 thoughts on “Critical Case Study #2: Cognitive Dissonance (and room for growth)

  1. Might wanna do a google search about Mr. Rottenberg before giving his opinions any credit or attention. I think most of us have avowed to ignore him from here on out.
    Otherwise, interesting stuff!

    • Thank you for your comment, dear reader. I was aware that Dan Rottenberg is thinking about raping women, but ultimately decided his comments parallel Wendy Rosenfield’s too closely for me not to call them out.

  2. Thanks for writing this. It reminds me of a conversation I had with former Inquirer critic Clifford Ridley years ago. In discussing the impact of his reviews, he said (and I’m paraphrasing): “If I have any impact at all, I suppose that when I write a very favorable review, some of my readers might choose to go see that play.” I quickly pointed out to him that if some percentage of his readers respected his opinion enough to make that decision, the opposite was also true; that when he wrote a decidedly unfavorable review, the same set of readers would choose NOT to go see that play. To which he responded “I doubt that.” That interaction made me realize how much in denial these critics can be. They can’t abide the breadth of harm they can do, so they simply deny it altogether. Apparently, they can only have a positive influence.

  3. Ugh, my original post was deleted by WordPress, so here’s a second pass:
    A.) This is a real misreading of my piece. I believe the whole purpose of a review is to involve audiences in a conversation about a particular work. However, to imagine that somehow critics act as pr for theaters is to have no understanding of our work. Criticism–at its best–is pr for theater itself. And yes, Seth, if we slash and burn a show we hate, maybe people won’t see it. But all we have are our words, and if we truly think a production is terrible, we are paid to say so. If we think a show is flawless, we are also duty-bound to let the superlatives flow. Some people might go or not go based on a review. For the most part, I tend to read reviews after I’ve seen something, because I’m interested in the critic’s perspective, not their consumer guidance. But either way, if I send a reader who trusts my taste to a show that betrays that taste, guess how much longer they’ll remain a reader?

    B.) Obviously, I’m no fan of “critical generosity,” but nonetheless, shortly after I took issue with Jill Dolan’s and Polly Carl’s essays, I thought I’d try a private experiment, and handed in a review written in that spirit. I tried to parse out the production’s intentions while avoiding negative critique–it was the sort of show that made this easy, a middle-of-the-road production, some good, some not so good, but overall a fairly positive experience. Anyway, I almost never receive comments on my reviews, but this time, there were three, and they all said the same thing: Where’s the critique of this show, and why didn’t the Inquirer hire someone who’s not afraid to say what they think? Anyway, I guess that reaction proved my initial response correct. The concept of critical generosity runs counter to editorial and journalistic credibility.

    C.) There’s a very wide gulf between saying critics don’t need to “be nice,” and saying critics don’t need to acknowledge the world in which they live. Though we’ve framed our questions the same way, it’s hardly evidence of cognitive dissonance.

    By the way, I’m totally cool with someone critiquing the critics. If we dish it out, we ought to be able to take it. I just wish that those who seem to care so deeply about these issues would take them up in the comments section of our reviews. After all, that’s what they’re there for, and it would be nice to engage in ongoing conversations about the work and reviews directly, rather than have to come across an anonymous blog post by accident.

    • Thank you for your response, Ms. Rosenfield. I would like to clarify that I also believe critics are PR for theatre itself, and therefore are PR for every piece of theatre they see, much of which happens to come from individual institutions. Thus your responsibility to the form of theatre carries through to your treatment of every piece you see. The cognitive dissonance I cite in these cases (and I thank you for giving me the opportunity to make that more clear) is that Mr. Rottenberg sees his duty to the readers and you see your challenge to individual institutions as separate from your collective participation in the preservation of the form. You proudly and admirably assume your responsibility of calling theatre out, and Mr. Rottenberg proudly defends his position that his readers’ needs are tantamount, but you don’t seem to recognize the fact that, as the person people turn to in order to decide what theatre is, you’ve trained them to see theatre as good or bad, valuable or valueless (which may account for the negative comments you got on your critically generous review–the novelty baffled them), and thus contributed to that polarizing characterization of art in general. It’s not about avoiding being negative; it’s about being thoughtfully, constructively negative. Perhaps the miscommunication between critics and artists stems from what we view as constructive, communicative criticism and what we view as dismissive, destructive criticism.

    • I couldn’t disagree more. As a reviewer (and I use the term in lieu of the US American-preferred ‘critic’ for good reason) I am wholly aware of the potential for help or harm to a show my words represent. This is especially true on the fringe, the arena where I concentrate my work. A ‘kind’ approach is entirely what’s wanting throughout theatre, but especially on the fringe and yet the critical press seems vastly hell-bent on destroying what is observes. I received my early education in theatre in the US, and this is where I generated my first impressions of critics, and they were not good. Moving to the UK I found a different approach to assessment of live performance, one which echoes a social context which is generally less dismissive of theatrical art than is our own. And it was in London that I fell in love with reviews and reviewing, with help from Matt Trueman, Lynn Gardner, Paul Levy, and Donald Hutera.

      Returning once more to the United States I find things in a dismal state indeed. Obviously it’s not our job to please performers, but here in the US it seems to be the job of critics to tell potential audiences why they shouldn’t attend the theatre. But one hopes for a considered approach, rather than a catty and one-dimensional attempt to appear clever by tearing someone else down.

      Before I left the US, I thought these tactics were just the way things were done – that it was a sort of universal practice to fail to ruminate on performance, to describe the plot or talk about what will happen in great detail, and to make sweeping, unsupported assertions about the value of the experience as though they were objective truths. In fact, none of these are the standard, the world round, where theatre critics are required to have experience of the genres of theatre they review, either academic, practical, or as a frequenter of, for example, interactive performance.

      You (and here I refer collectively to the US American critical press) have a reverential attitude towards the theatre which is, I imagine in large part, the reason for the vast sea of deadly theatre washing over this nation (and, it follows, for the general attitude of distrust and disinterest among the US public regarding theatrical performances). You want every performance to be Tennessee Williams or Andrew Lloyd Webber, even as our industry is suffocating. You apply the rules you’d apply to Chekov or Pinter to everything else you see and, when shows don’t fit your cracked and broken mould, you make pronouncement as if you had any more right than qualification to do so. Are negative reviews of shows ever warranted? Perhaps. It may be better to publicly say nothing at all about a poorly developed work, especially one from a young or less established company, instead offering feedback directly to the company privately. But this sort of thing, this simplistic “slash and burn” approach you yourself admit taking to your work is rare. Much more common in the UK is the considered approach offering, when necessary, constructive criticism – that is, not simply describing something as terrible, but offering consideration and reflection on how things might be improved. I can show you dozens of examples of this type of response, and there are certain things all of those reviews have certain things in common:

      They take into account the feelings in the room.
      They experience the show as it was meant to be experienced.
      They ensure they are positioned to be able to view the show as the majority of the audience would (i.e. not too close or too far away)
      They have experience with the genre and (evidently) a love of live performance.

      These assessments were not written by critics, but by reviewers. And while this distinction may seem semantic to you, I assure you there is a world of difference. The critic aims to find fault. The reviewer gives an accurate account. The critic proceeds from a position of exploit; the reviewer from a place of openness. The critic wants to criticise, and the reviewer seeks to review. Reviewers talk about what’s good or worthy while critics focus on what they perceive as failure. You realise that if critics like you succeed, eventually you’ll have criticised yourself out of a job, don’t you?

      When assessing the experience potential audience members might have at a performance, you disregard the evident joy the packed room around you are experiencing and imagine yourself to be a more capable critic than the fifty-thousand Elvis fans around you. If the work is participatory, you refuse to take part and then proclaim that the audience participation doesn’t work. You walk in expecting not to like the show and then feel vindicated when you don’t, walking out of the space baffled as to why everyone else seems to be having such a good time. You (and those like you) do a disservice to the audience (both current and potential), the performers (even those you laud), and your own profession.

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