Reviewing theatre is more an art than a science, says Howard Kissel. So is reading the reviews.
Allegedly during the 1970s in France there was a movie critic who never actually saw the films he reviewed. He waited until all his colleagues had written their reviews. Knowing their personalities, their tastes, and-this being France in the '70s-their theories, he wrote a review based on what those who had seen it had said about the film in question.
First, let's acknowledge what a brilliant way this critic devised to avoid what is often the most difficult part of reviewing a film or a play: actually sitting through it. This has been an occupational hazard for centuries. The 18th century English wit Sydney Smith observed, "Never read a book before you review it-it prejudices one so."
Was this ingenious but roundabout (and doubtless apocryphal) form of reviewing reliable? In a certain way, it doesn't matter. Criticism is often a form of intellectual gamesmanship, and this was simply an extreme case of it. Many reviews are written with an eye to scoring intellectual points rather than simply informing the reader whether or not he'll have a good time. In fact, many reviewers do not like to see themselves as consumer advisers. They are writing about an art form and want their observations to be treated seriously, not simply as a matter of thumbs-up or thumbs-down.
That being said, it must be acknowledged that the French critic had mastered the art-if it can be called that-of reading reviews. Admittedly, he had the benefit of knowing the reviewers personally, and he could thereby gauge the extent to which the way they wrote resembled the way they spoke. If there was a disparity between their written and spoken opinions-if, for example, their tone became more formal or stilted-he might reasonably suspect that they were hedging their bets.
The average reader does not have this advantage. The closest he can come is to compare his own responses to plays or films with those of a particular reviewer over a period of some time. If the two are in synch most of the time, then the reviewer is very likely someone whose judgment he can trust. The highest compliment I was paid during my years as a reviewer was when I was at <i>Women's Wear Daily</i>, and had more space to write than I have had at other publications; a reader told me he felt I described what I was seeing accurately enough that, whether or not I liked the play or film, he got a sense of how he would respond to it.
Another way of gauging the reliability of a reviewer is to see how he or she handles a classic play that you know fairly well-say, a classic by Shakespeare or Shaw, or even Rodgers and Hammerstein. This way you can judge the accuracy of a critic's responses by a yardstick you are sure of. In other words, when you go to the doctor knowledgeable about your symptoms you have a stronger sense about his diagnoses. The same is true of a review-the more you bring to the table, the better you can judge the reviewer.
Another thing worth remembering is that it's much easier to write a negative review than a positive one. When you see something you hate, the bile flows freely. When you see something you love, you want to do it justice, which requires far more thought and care.
The trickiest reviews to read are those of avant-garde theatre. No reviewer wants to be seen as old-fashioned, or unable to appreciate "the latest thing." As a result, anything that presents itself as daring and adventurous is likely to be greeted with nearly universal approval, if not outright praise. When you read a review in which something is proclaimed as "pushing the envelope" (whatever that means) or "cutting-edge," remember what the great French poet Paul Valery said well before World War II: "Everything changes except the avant-garde."
For some reviewers, it is not enough merely to appreciate the avant-garde fare they are served. Sometimes they become more aggressive-they "discover" talent. Many years ago, a press agent confided to me his irritation with the drama critics of the early '70s, each of whom had latched onto a new writer he considered the next Miller or Williams. The reviewers, he said, were respectful of one another's turfs-to the point that often they did not even review the work of one of their rivals' "discoveries," lest they be seen as hindering the development of a talent someone else was nurturing.
Reviewing, it must be remembered, is hardly a precise profession. Critics do not have the technological assistance or mounds of statistics that weather forecasters or stockbrokers do. Still, they're no less reliable. (N.B. Whenever reviewers use litotes-or double negatives-they're hedging their bets.) Reviewers, like their readers, are fallible human beings.
And whether or not their ultimate judgments are sound, they ought also make their prose lively. It doesn't help the theatre when readers are sent to shows that are boring, but it's even less help if their writing is mundane. Whether praising or panning a show, the critic's basic job description is to make the art itself sound exciting.
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