When Artists Attack: Does Criticizing the Critic Ever Work?

By Robert Simonson
15 Jul 2013

Jon Robin Baitz
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

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."