10/28/2011 04:19 pm ET | Updated Dec 28, 2011

The Critical Condition

Everyone might be a critic, but not everyone gets to use that official title. Indeed, there are relatively few people whose critical writings adorn the digital and physical archive at the library. This is what goes through my head as I scroll through microfilm, feeling very scholarly. The images in front of me show reviews from 1929, and I have idealistic expectations. In those days, I think to myself, people were respectful, and perhaps even adoring.

What I see instead is a line written by St. John Ervine which says:

"Nine years ago, when I first visited this theatre and saw better plays in it than were presented on Tuesday, I was told that it had originally been a stable. There were moments on Tuesday night when I deviously wished that it could be restored to its original purpose."

Ouch. Though this insult is over 80 years old, it makes me stop to think: what is the use of "being mean" as reviewers and critics? What does it mean that our words will be remembered, preserved forever with our names attached to them in the Internet ether and/or in boxes in a library?

I would like to start with the matter of terminology. There are many different people who have weighed-in on the subject of the distinction between "reviewer" and "critic." One of the most popular is John Gassner's concept, which says that the reviewer is someone who is writing for a public who wants to know if a play is entertaining. A critic, on the other hand, is ostensibly someone who wants to look at the play from a more scholarly angle, and who is therefore concerned with matters of artistic form over pure entertainment.

According to these definitions, I have worn both of these hats, and yet I hesitate to call myself a "critic" when I go to review plays. I think that part of the reason for this has to do with the negative connotation of criticism. The fact that we have to put the word "constructive" in front of criticism should already tell us this much.

Indeed, a quick look at Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary illuminates the cause of my ambivalence, as its three definitions are:

1(a): one who expresses a reasoned opinion on any matter especially involving a judgment of its value, truth, righteousness, beauty, or technique;
1(b): one who engages often professionally in the analysis, evaluation, or appreciation of works of art or artistic performances;
2: one given to harsh or captious judgment

I find it incredibly ironic that the first of these definitions could possibly share a word with the last. In my mind the critic is either someone who is open to a ("reasoned") opinion or someone who comes in with a predisposition to anger or dismissal towards a work. Reviewer, on the other hand, is definite in the same dictionary as "one that reviews; especially: a writer of critical reviews." There is that ambiguous word "critical" again, yet even with its addition, the primary neutrality of the reviewer is still evident.

I am always rather surprised when people seem to believe that part of being asked to review a show is to find fault with it in some manner. This is certainly not how I look at it. Perhaps this comes from having a teaching goal in mind, but my aim is always to praise the good aspects of a production, and make what I hope are useful suggestions about what did not work. As someone who has been involved in various aspects of shows, I also know how beautifully difficult it is to make honest theater.

This is what I think as I read the terrible and flat-out mean reviews from years past and today. This Mr. Ervine, a man writing in 1929, makes me wince in 2011 as I realize that this is part of the artistic heritage of what I do. I am meant to laugh at these lines, and others that tear this play to shreds. I love to laugh, don't get me wrong. But I can't help wondering what Ervine's point is. You see, he never once says why he didn't like the play. This irresponsibility is now on microfilm for everyone at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts to see. We have a responsibility to the productions we see to give them honest feedback, not just snarky comments that relieve our frustrations after a bad night in the theater.

Oh, but I wouldn't worry too much about Mr. Ervine's victim. The short play he is referring to is called Before Breakfast, and it really isn't Eugene O'Neill's best work.

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