Ben Brantley on Criticism

After watching the wonderful Humana Festival panel with Ilana, I too began thinking more critically about criticism and its place in contemporary culture.  I find that when I am looking for arts and entertainment news through a critical lens, my first impulse is to checkout the NYTimes’ artsbeat blog.  I think the articles are generally written thoroughly and thoughtfully about the happenings in the art and entertainment world, and it helps me stay culturally connected in an articulate way.  I found it inspiring that I found this article, titled “Theater Talkback: Second Helpings,” by Ben Brantley after having heard the Humana festival panelists speak.

“Sometimes outraged readers, disagreeing with a review I’ve written, will send me e-mails that begin with a rhetorical question: ‘Did we see the same production?’ My answer is always, ‘No, we didn’t.’”

In the article, Brantley describes revisiting several large-scale productions on Broadway this season, and being pleasantly surprised by his second experience with each show.  He specifically mentions seeing Once, Follies, Other Desert Cities and End of The Rainbow twice, enjoying the many changes made when these productions moved from Regional theaters to the Big White Way.

“Since I have written about all these shows in these pages before, you might think that I am feeling jaded or weary or at least worried that I might not be able to come up with something new to say. Fragments of all those feelings (especially the part about not repeating myself) glimmer in my mind. But mostly, I’m grateful for the chance to become reacquainted with these shows – to see how they’ve changed or I’ve changed, and to assess how a familiar entity responds to a new environment.”

His interactions with these shows is inspiring.  He addresses several elements (actors, script changes, theatre space, costuming) in reviewing these pieces again as objectively as a subjective person can be.

What I find most thrilling about this article is how Brantley examines the reality of what it means to review a show.  Inevitably, we enter the theatre with a backstory and a point of view.  There are millions of factors that affect our viewing of a show.  As Brantley puts it:

“We probably attended different performances and sat in different seats and brought entirely different personal histories to bear on what unfolded before us.”

The more we acknowledge this truth as fact, we can separate the critic’s voice and aesthetic from the work itself.  The end of this article is the best part:

“That’s why no one should read any kind of criticism – and especially theater criticism – as gospel. It’s not the last word. It’s the beginning of a conversation. Seeing shows more than once allows me the critic to continue my part in that conversation, if only in my own head.”

And the conversation is what the theatre is all about.  I’m glad we’re in agreement, Mr. Brantley.

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