They can’t handle the truth?

An article in Playbill, by way of ArtsJournal, announces the stepping-down of Margo Jefferson as the Times’s second-string theatre critic. “Producers and artists widely objected to what they perceived as the patronizing, professorial tone of her reviews, which often began with lofty pronouncements on the theatre and concluded with prescriptive advice for the playwright,” Playbill says. But is widespread objection a good enough reason for ousting a critic?

I went back and read twenty or so of her archived reviews to get a better impression of what the artists and producers are complaining about. I expected them to be scathing and impenetrable; yet I found that Jefferson’s writing is more thoughtful than vindictive, more constructive than elitist. What Playbill called “lofty pronouncements on the theatre” seemed more to be hints of idealism for what the theatre could be, and how the reviewed show helped to fulfill or alter these ideas. Many of the reviews do end with a few remarks specifically aimed at the director or designer, almost as if to say “Here’s what was good about your piece, here’s what worked, and here’s the impression I got, but you could stand to work a little harder on this part.” The “professorial tone” does come through a bit here, almost as if she was commenting on an undergraduate’s essay.

But is this necessarily an undesirable thing? When reading those reviews, even though most of the shows are long closed, I found myself wanting to see them firsthand so I could compare notes with Jefferson. Should that character have been drawn more clearly? Are those lines really too overpowered by visual imagery? Was that guy really miscast?

This criticism of a critic raises some interesting issues about its function in this tricky arts environment, a world just as governed by commerciality as it is by artistry. Are these reviews published so that potential audiences know what they’re in for when they buy a sixty-five dollar ticket? Or to offer feedback and finely-tuned advice to the artists themselves, offering suggestions they can actually work with? Certainly, the arts can use all the support and encouragement they can get as far as enticing and exciting their audiences. But criticism that pushes for artistic idealism and integrity is just as necessary to making good, lasting theatre. If there isn’t room for constructive criticism in the newspapers, then where can it go? Relegating it to theatre and arts journals risks alienating anyone but the artists themselves and hides the process from the audience, making them pure consumers, oblivious to the discussion and evolution of what they see. And the Times is the standard for journalistic writing and criticism. Do we have to choose? Or can we ever have the best of both critical worlds?

What do you think? Comment. Comment. Comment!

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