When Artists Attack: Does Criticizing the Critic Ever Work?
By Robert Simonson
The war between a theatre critic and artist is a tale as old as time. Playbill.com offers a history of the two parties battling over their pride and their work.
Usually the bout plays out like a lopsided prize fight: the two combatants meet in the ring; the critic lays on his blows; the artist takes the beating and then silently returns to his corner, nursing his wounds until the next round.
Not this season. Be they producer, playwright or actor, theatre artists fought back this spring with unusual frequency and vehemence. It began on May 1, when The Testament of Mary producer Scott Rudin used the pages of the New York Times to attack that broadsheet's theatre reporter Patrick Healy. The attack, which was published in the Times' Saturday Arts section theatre listings, read, "Let's give a big cuddly shout-out to Pat Healy, infant provocateur and amateur journalist at The New York Times. Keep it up, Pat — one day perhaps you'll learn something about how Broadway works, and maybe even understand it."
A week later, actor Alec Baldwin, unhappy with how his play Orphans had been treated by the Times, took his always-ample fury to the webpages of The Huffington Post, where he published a screed attacking the paper's lead theatre critic, Ben Brantley. "Ben Brantley," he wrote, "who I must state up front is no fan of mine (every John Simon must have his Amanda Plummer, I suppose), is not a good writer." His appraisal of the critic went down from there.
Perhaps Rudin and Baldwin emboldened playwright Neil LaBute to speak up when he didn't find Time Out New York drama critic David Cote's review of his play, Reasons to Be Happy, to his liking. Cote's review was not toothless. "If Neil LaBute were to teach a course on playwriting," the critic wrote, "I bet his lesson plan would look something like this: 'Week 1: Dumbing down characters to pad out dialogue and pump up conflict. Week 2: Stringing together two-person scenes, no matter how monotonous it gets. Week 3: Embracing flat, shallow protagonists whose poor life choices are both predictable and banal. And finally, Week 12: Blasting tracks by Nirvana during changes to simulate tension and edginess.'"
LaBute responded in Time Out's own online comment section, saying [capitalization, his]: "David: actually i have taught writing courses at various universities and workshops and my lesson plan invariably begins by having students read the collected works of George Steiner, who was clever enough to remind us that 'a critic casts a eunuch’s shadow.' some shadows, of course, are more portly than others but their effect on mankind is basically the same. brief and passing. keep enjoying the free tickets while they last. nl"
Typically, producers and artists fume in private over their bad notices. The general wisdom is that lashing back at critics accomplishes nothing. It doesn't reverse public opinion of the lambasted show. If anything, the complaining party comes off looking petulant and childish, their dignity unloaded along with their hurt pride.
Still, logic doesn't always prevail, and the history of theatre is littered with incidents when artists haven't been able to hold their tongues.
In April 1915, the Shuberts, annoyed that their show Taking Chances received a slightly negative review by Alexander Woollcott, then the drama critic at The New York Times, banned the writer from their next opening. That gesture backfired spectacularly. The Times countered by declaring the paper would henceforth not review any Shubert shows. The Times eventually won a court battle that won Woollcott entry into Shubert shows. Far from being vanquished, Woollcott's name was made by the dispute. "They threw me out," he said, "and now I'm basking in the fierce white light that beats upon the thrown."
It should come as no surprise that the drama critics at the powerful The New York Times, whose reviews can make or sink a production, are the most frequent targets of artists' wrath. Producer David Merrick probably berated every Times critic who ever reviewed one of his shows. He went on the "Tonight" show to publicly vilify the paper's 1960s reviewer Howard Taubman and cancelled a preview of a new play, saying there was a "rat in the generator," rather than have the daily's Stanley Kauffmann review it before opening night. He promised that he would stop hiring foreign actors if the Times would fire its English-born critic, Clive Barnes.
During his tenure as the Times' chief drama critic, Frank Rich was on the receiving end of a fierce attack from British playwright David Hare, following Rich's 1989 review of the Broadway bow of Hare's The Secret Rapture. Hare wrote that Rich was "dishonest" and "irresponsible" in his exercising of his power. Ironically, the only critic who suffered from the fight was Jack Kroll, reviewer for Newsweek. Kroll voiced support for Hare and was temporarily removed from his beat by the weekly.
More recently, in 2007, playwright Jon Robin Baitz posted an elaborate takedown of Times critic Charles Isherwood on The Huffington Post. Responding to an essay in which Isherwood implored playwrights to come back to the art form they loved, Baitz wrote, "Mr. Isherwood, as a critic, will never be noted for his generosity of spirit. He is not Harold Clurman. He tends to be waspish, dismissive, cool, and brittle — as a writer."
Baitz' essay was unusual in that it contained a measure of reasoned debate. In most cases, however, artist responses are more like Baldwin's, grounded more in hurt feelings than intellectual jousting. In such instances, Cote sees little profit in the interaction.
"If there’s a legitimate discussion to be had about dramaturgy, playwriting, staging, critical discourse or larger issues in the theater world, then, conceivably, a dialogue could take place. But that hardly ever happens in such a context, much less in the comments section of a review or via tweets. If the specific beef is: 'You didn't like my show and you're trying to hurt me and you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,' then there’s nothing to discuss."
Cote noted that the advent of social media has arguably increased the frequency of artist-critic altercations, because the weapons of retaliation are so much more readily available. In the past, if you wanted to protest your treatment in a review, you had to write a letter to the editor (and hope they printed it), or find a reporter willing to quote your indignation. Today Baldwin can turn to The Huffington Post, and LaBute can retort in the comments section.
Or, like playwright director John Clancy, you can take your beef to Facebook. "Recently," said Clancy, "when Charles Isherwood gave what I read as a deeply patronizing review of Radiohole's Frankenstein, I did a big Facebook rant on it, got a lot of response."
"Social media makes it much easier for someone to reach out and shake your hand," said Cote, "or dump a plate of virtual spaghetti on your head."
The "spaghetti" refers to what may be the most famous and colorful incident of artist rebellion of the modern era — the 1973 occasion when actress Sylvia Miles, stung by an unflattering review by John Simon, dumped a plate of food on the critic's head.
"It's been called every possible food imaginable," recalled Simon. "The nation of China could be nourished by the many things the dish has been called." (For the record, it was steak tartare.)
Simon is perhaps the most attacked critic in theatre history. The acid-tongued writer, who served as New York magazine's drama critic from 1968 to 2005, seemingly raised hackles from the moment he laid pen to paper. In 1967, playwright Edward Albee said, "Mr. Simon's disapproval of my play has been a source of comfort to me over the years." (Throughout his career, Albee has never been shy about letting it be known when he is unhappy with a critic.) In 1970, producer Joe Papp (who lashed out at critics like clockwork, once verbally threatening Clive Barnes), stung by John Simon's bad review of The Black Terror at the Public Theater, complained of the critic in a letter to the magazine, saying, "Why the hell doesn't he grow up?" In 1977, following a famously savage Simon review of Liza Minnelli in The Act, Harvey Sabinson, of the League of New York Theatres and Producers, likened Simon to "a sadistic guard in a Nazi camp."
Even critics haven't liked Simon much. In 1969, the New York Drama Critics Circle voted 10 to 7 to deny Simon membership owing to his unusually harsh reviews. (They reversed their stand the following season.)
None of this seems to have rankled Simon much.
"I don't think so," he said, when asked if he ever finds artist retorts constructive. "I think, as a critic, you're an individual uninfluenced by other opinions. You are confident in your tastes, whether merited or not. You don't really pay that much attention, unless it becomes vehement. I think it gives a measure of satisfaction [to the artist], that their disagreement is given visible form. But whether it makes any difference in the long run, I doubt, to the artist or the critic."
There have been rare occasions where the blowback from an angry artist has led to a civilized debate. One of the most sustained and literary critic-artists feuds arose in 1958 when the pro-realism British critic Kenneth Tynan published an attack in the London Observer on what he called absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco's "anti-theatre." Ionesco responded with a lengthy piece of writing of his own.
"I've reached out to some journalists personally after reading a particularly insightful review of one of my shows," said Clancy. "I think that's important to do. But usually, you just hope they get it and like it and you pull some quotes and move on.
"It can create a dialogue," he continued. "I think, for the most part, artists have become too fragile and precious about their art. Put it out there, find an audience, know that some people will not like it, some people will and as long as you like it and you're taking it seriously and challenging yourself, it all works out. It's important to really listen to criticism, printed up or not. You can learn a lot, your work can get stronger by listening to someone who doesn't like it. If someone says, 'Great. Brilliant. Great,' then it feels good, but you haven't learned anything."
For Cote, most pained responses to critiques spring from a miscomprehension of the critic's role. "This may sound glib, but the artist who doesn’t understand the purpose of criticism doesn’t understand the purpose of art," he stated. "The art exists in dialogue with its audience, with the world — even the most hermetic, abstract, obscurantist stuff. And criticism exists in dialogue with the art and the world. Stanley Kauffmann has a great line in his essay, 'Why Do Critics Persist?': '[O]n the one hand, there is the theater, with good and bad productions and, on the other hand, there is criticism, which ought to be good about both good and bad productions.' In other words, the art can be lousy but the criticism must always be good. Not easy, but that’s my job."
In the best of all possible worlds, added Cote — who is a librettist and playwright, as well as a critic — both sides would pay close attention to one another's work, but otherwise refrain from contact.
"One thing you can say about both critics and artists: They should aspire to total freedom from judgment. Just as a truly independent critic should not worry about being right or wrong, the liberated artist should be indifferent to good or bad reviews. I wish I were that free."
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