July 4, 2009
I frequently pick up Charles Ludlam's brilliant book Scourge of Human Folly for a quick recharging of my aesthetic batteries. It's like the Holy Bible, you can just randomly open it to any page and just dive in. Ludlam, founder and artistic director of New York's Ridiculous Theatrical Company until his death in 1987, was best known for his play The Mystery of Irma Vep.
In the book, Ludlam reaches back to Goethe for the three basic principles of criticism, on which they and I soundly agree:
1. What was the artist trying to do?
2. Did he succeed in doing it?
3. Was it worth doing?
There really can be no other valid criteria. It's that simple. Unfortunately, most critics (and I mean critics of anything, not just theatre) ignore these three points and instead make the basis of their review hinge upon whether or not they liked it.
And that's the problem with most critics and reviewers in this world: obviously, I don't know them personally, and in most cases I am not familiar enough with their backlog of work. Therefore, for a critic to simply say they didn't like it tells me nothing. It contains no information and serves no purpose, save perhaps for making the reviewer feel better, having vented.
Too many reviews out there lack even a fundamental description of the play itself. I see reviewers say "I thought the sets were amateurish" without telling us why they think so. To someone who thinks Cats is the apex of mankind's achievement in theatre, sets on a production of something deliberately primitive and Becketty might strike him as "amateurish."
I see reviewers say "Flappy Janeway's second-act monologue was too corny for my tastes" without telling us why they thought it was corny, and even more importantly, exactly how they define "corny." To someone who thinks naturalistic acting is the only kind of acting there is, they are likely to give a bad review when confronted with something for which they have no frame of reference.
Take the films of David Lynch, for example. One person may love his films, and another may despise them, and neither may understand them on the terms that Lynch himself intended. For my own plays, it's a safe bet that if you don't like David Lynch's work, you probably won't like mine. There's a line of demarcation between those who think Twin Peaks is merely ironic and funny, and those like me who take it deadly seriously; between those who cannot abide Inland Empire because they find its style pretentious and convoluted, and those like me who worship it precisely for those reasons.
To quote Ludlam: "Ultimately, the artist decides what the art will be. Whether or not the critics like it will only affect the economics of it. As anybody who has watched my career can tell, I don't really try to please anybody but myself."
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jeffrey Scott Holland is the Artistic Director for Catclaw Theatre Company, author of Weird Kentucky on Sterling Press, and painter whose works have been exhibited worldwide. Visit him on the web at jshla.com