When Artists Attack: Does Criticizing the Critic Ever Work?

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15 Jul 2013

Scott Rudin's ad in the Times
Scott Rudin's ad in the Times

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.'"

Neil LaBute
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

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."


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