The Death (and Life) of American Theatre Criticism

In continuation of many retrospective blogposts (which include this one), I want to start off my saying that lately, I have been re-assessing my love (and place) in the theatre — mainly, where criticism is concerned. This past year has given me both positives, as well as negatives, and it was those negative times that made me question whether criticism was right for me. I am now in a more positive place, and see that, of course, I still do want to be a theatre critic.

Luckily for me, I realized this when, amongst old reviews I’d done for my Intro to Theatre class, I stumbled upon an oral essay by theater critic — and my former World Theatre professor — Jonathan Kalb. He’d given a copy to me when I’d professed my ambitions, and the essay — which was originally lectured to students at Barnard College and New York University in the Fall of 2002 — was meant as a piece of advice to young, aspiring critics like myself. So for those looking to go into the field, I’ve included some worthy snippets of that lecture here, and hope you feel inspired, too.

The Death (and Life) of American Theater Criticism: Advice to the Young Critic

by Jonathan Kalb


Our culture holds only one value more dear than money and youth: self-invention. Don’t waste time waiting for any established critic to drop dead so you can slip into the vacancy. Chances are, there will never be a vacancy because the publication will bury the theater column with the critic. Or else it will hire the editor’s brother-in-law from Topeka. Very few editors today can make distinctions between good and bad theater criticism; they need you to stick their noses in the plate.


Since the standard assumption today is that it isn’t, everyone who disagrees has a shining chance to surprise people. Bear in mind, however, that most readers don’t care nearly as much as you do, to begin with, about the difference between, say, the “liveliness” of TV and the “liveliness” of theater. This is where having an original artistic sensibility becomes crucial. If your critical writing doesn’t swell with articulate enthusiasm for what is indispensable about a certain kind of theater, then it stands no chance of seeming indispensable itself.

Any art so vulnerable that it needs euphemized reviews to survive ought to be put out of its misery, just as any country that needs to outlaw flag-burning ought to think again about what loyalty means. The bigger question is, as John Donatich , the publisher of Basic Books, recently put it: “How do we battle the gravitation toward happy consensus that paralyzes our national debate?” Or again Wilde says it well: “A critic cannot be fair in the ordinary sense of the word. It is only about things that do not interest one that one can give a really unbiased opinion, which is no doubt the reason why an unbiased opinion is always absolutely valueless.”


One needn’t be a revolutionary. Even small gestures like broaching a subject beyond the crimped purview of pop culture, or clearly explaining an unfamiliar or slightly complex idea, can stretch the envelope noticeably. I see criticism as a form of resistance in an age when the agents of power (big media and politicians) have co-opted the language of rebellion to the point where counterrebellion is often indistinguishable from rebellion. There is a tiny but tremendously important opportunity in the fact that some arts — theater, dance, poetry — aren’t usually considered worthy of commodification by the mass media, and my work tries to wedge that window open. Utopian ardor doesn’t make me any paragon of honesty, of course. Often enough, I get my fingers jammed in the sash or grow infuriated when there’s nothing but cotton candy outside the window for weeks on end, and then I’m as capable of venom and compromise as everyone else.


You can’t avoid having power as a critic, but you should give it up as a goal. The sooner you do this, the happier you’ll be. For most people, theater criticism isn’t a profession, it’s a calling, and the long-term satisfaction is in moving minds, not tickets. The fact that most of the approbation and opprobrium that one is subject to as a critic has to do with the movement of tickets can be distracting and confusing, but you must never take that personally. Both the praise and the blame are about advertising, not art or ideas. In any case, producers and publicists today know perfectly well that unfavorable reviews are far better than no reviews. In fact, they’re often as good as favorable ones because so many people don’t really read but rather skim headers and headlines on the way to the listings and personal ads. Simply getting an event covered is the real PR coup nowadays, even in the anxiety-producing New York Times. I mention all this to lift a potential burden off you before it ever settles in.

As Richard Gilman once said succinctly: “The critic cannot give his loyalty to men and institutions since he owes to it something a great deal more permanent. He owes it, of course, to truth and to dramatic art.”


Journalistic criticism is bridge-building — bringing unfamiliar ideas to a general audience, connecting demanding art to a reluctant public, reaching across the borders of established institutions, professions, and disciplines. No one can cross a bridge that isn’t anchored securely on both banks, however. The world has quite enough academics who don’t write lucidly enough to hold a general audience, thank you very much, and quite enough journalists who don’t know enough to offer anything but stagnant opinions. The rarity are those in the middle — real ambassadors who can play to both sides. So sharpen your writing, work on it at every opportunity, but also keep yourself informed about at least some of what is written for more specialized audiences — and not just in theater. Journalism is seductive, the more so for intelligent and ambitious writers, who can easily wake up decades into their careers and discover they have squandered their best ideas without having done justice to them. The only protection is to keep one piling in a deeper pool, so to speak.


Here’s a practical test you might apply: pick up any newspaper or magazine review and read it with an eye to whether or not it could be transferred to the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times without jarring anyone’s sensibilities. If the answer is yes, then you have discovered a stylist in critic’s clothing. A stylist is someone who thinks the world is all attitude, and that any hip point of view and mode of expression ought to apply equally to clothing, jewelry, kitchenware, food, bands, clubs, and, oh yes, dramatic masterpieces. Reflexive feeling is all, reflection is nil, and most of the time the first-person pronoun is a sort of verbal shill, avoiding responsibility while seeming to accept it (“this is just my opinion”). To place masterpieces in such a person’s hands is like leaving a national forest in the care of a theme park owner. A stylist is a caretaker of recycled culture, a blind monster that feeds on itself. A critic is an independent human being with open eyes, who knows what and where to eat.


Obviously, this will come easier to those of you who happen to be women, but not being female is no excuse for never thinking about it. The majority of theatre critics have always been men, and even today, when some of our best theater writers are women (Erika Munk, Alisa Solomon, Elinor Fuchs, Una Chaudhuri), there is only one female lead critic (Linda Winer, at Newsday) at a major newspaper in the New York area. More women need to get involved in this field, and more men need to tap their repressed female sympathies. I say this not just for the sake of parity but because I suspect out male critics (perhaps myself included) have not always totally understood the work of innovative female artists, especially playwrights. Let me sidestep the nettled question of how to define “female artistic sensibility” and simply state that I believe there is one, and that I see it in Maria Irene Fornes, Joan Schenkar, Erin Cressida Wilson, the experimental Beth Henley of Impossible Marriage, and elsewhere. Critical justice has not been done to these authors, and if this is a disgrace, it is also an opening.


There is a time in your life when you should see everything, and for most of you, it is now. You must fill up your imaginations with the richest possible array of theatre art so that you needn’t ever rely on anyone else’s assessment of excellence, astonishment, mendacity, or mediocrity. Money is an issue, I realize, but there are many ways around expensive tickets, from ushering, to arranging group outings, to internships at theaters and theatrical organizations. Access aside, however, once you have acquired a solid grounding, it’s also essential to recognize when to start being discriminating. Many a fine critic has been destroyed by the strain of constantly seeiking new ways to describe the same old inadequacies, or by the intellectual palsy born of a sustained diet of histrionic junk food. Don’t be a casualty. Know when and how to save up your two cents until you can afford pearls.


The lack of an active give-and-take between critics and their readers in America has everything to do with the editorial prejudice against theater I described before. Since even the most famous critics get far less mail than they would ever admit, respectful responses to them, even disagreements, have a much greater chance of being printed than similar letters to other journalists. So the next time you find yourself grumbling with dismay that a theater event you loved or hated isn’t the subject of lively public interest, don’t suffer in silence. Reach for your keyboard, and let ‘em have it. And remember to address the letter to the editor, not the critic, or it will get stuffed in a drawer.

I’ll definitely try to keep all these tips in mind, as I climb the ladder towards being a full-fledged Theater Critic! Hope this has been beneficial to all of you looking to do the same! For those interested, Professor Kalb, along with the Hunter College Theater Department,also heads a website/forum for students to post their own reviews on productions they’ve seen, called hotreview.org. Check it out!


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