My Cassandra-ish warnings about the decline of authoritative theatre criticism and the pro-blogger backlash notwithstanding, here’s another nail in the coffin of theatre critics: let playwrights review. I don’t mean bitter, failed dramatists (as most reviewers are assumed to be), but working playwrights with a professional knowledge of the scene and what it takes to write, revise, rehearse and produce a show.
Anyone leafing through the London Review of Books will see the bylines of published novelists or non-fiction authors. So why don’t we read Stoppard on Hare? Ravenhill on Prebble? Churchill on Butterworth? You would enjoy a whole new level of technical perception and aesthetic empathy. Of course, this raises a perennial question: must theatre critics have firsthand knowledge of the craft?
There’s no easy answer, but I can honestly say that here in New York I’d rather have had experimental playwright Mac Wellman’s thoughts about the avant-garde company Radiohole’s recent show, Whatever, Heaven Allows than the fatuous cocktail chatter that Ben Brantley passed off as a review last month. Brantley, the chief theatre critic for the New York Times, had never before reviewed these daring makers of multimedia devised theatre. He didn’t disclose the salient fact in his coy, condescending notice, which fails to place Radiohole in the context of New York’s experimental scene. Now, Wellman may have friends in common with Radiohole, but as a reader, I’d be willing to take that risk with the expectation that Wellman knows what the hell he’s talking about. That’s not to say that your average critic can’t be insightful. We read plays in addition to seeing them realised, and can judge them as literary objects as well as blueprints for action. But the artist who reviews fellow artists has a chance to occupy that vital public role of critic-advocate.
Not to undermine my own argument, but artists often do review. For instance, Michael Feingold of the Village Voice has translated several works by Bertolt Brecht and has plays of his own. Bloggers or freelancers review when they’re not making it themselves. I myself am an emerging playwright and opera librettist. But perhaps the main reason playwrights don’t review their peers is simple: politics. Whether you live in England, America or someplace else, resources are too scanty to be an artist with a perceived conflict of interest. Even if your only true interest is increased excellence.