No Hand Clapping – by Jason Rohrer

by Jason Rohrer

The wonderful Italian curse, “God is a dog,” is used by Catholics to acknowledge an imperfect Creation. It’s funny if you think God is essentially sane and just. If you don’t believe in God, it’s still funny. But if you thought it was true, it wouldn’t be amusing at all.

The same analysis can be applied to a sentiment attributed to a theoretical English critic by Rebecca West and remembered recently in the New York Times. She dismisses turn-of-the-century criticism as “a chorus of weak cheers…. a mild kindliness that neither heats to enthusiasm nor reverses to anger” and argues that “a convention of pleasantness” in critics makes them defend the promotion of mediocre work by saying it’s “a pity to waste fierceness on things that do not matter.” While nature has not yet produced a critic who would deny the importance of his own words, West is essentially correct in that critics who don’t critique are merely parasites.

Art desires audience. An audience desires good art. So does a critic. But while a paying crowd merely has to experience catharsis, or at least in good faith try, the legitimate critic also must analyze this experience through the lens of an education presumably more extensive than the layman’s, in the ultimate pursuit of furthering the art. Again: his primary desire is to improve the form. It is not to hear himself speak, not to pursue vendetta, and not to sell tickets.

Some critics forget all of these rules, but all forget this last because sometimes we fall in love. Yes, even we jaded killers of joy once in a while glimpse a beauty that draws all our breath into phrases like “not to be missed” or “a must-see” or this stylistic sin I am humiliated to have committed: “I will see it again and I urge anyone who values a living theater to do the same.” Wow; bad writing always sounds plagiarized. (Sea Glass Theatre’s Kvetch runs through October 16, by the way, and deserves a better phrasemaker than I.)

Some advocacy critics go further, giving good reviews to bad work in a perversion of logic: if we’re indiscriminate with our support, it follows (no it doesn’t) that more people will come to more shows. We note the low rates of asses in seats, and we think, “I could do something about that!”

We can. We can insightfully praise the good and constructively destroy the bad. If we know so much, and we certainly act as if we do, then we can tell Catherine Trieschmann that she has not written any drama, stakes or even debatability into How the World Began, a polemic as glossy and vapid as the Orange County you’d have to visit to see it. We can tell Tony Torrisi that he has directed Rabbit Hole into a ditch by playing a song about crying while an actor weeps. They’re grown-ups. They can take criticism at face value, and they ought to, because this is not savagery. This is how we better the discipline: more people will see more shows only when those shows get better.

Mr. Critic assumes a lot about his influence, huh? Well, among other skill sets, the job requires confidence, not only that I know what I’m talking about but that I will be heard and appreciated.

God is not a dog, so life and art can get better. But telling a non-retarded adult he’s done a good job when he hasn’t is the act of a dog, a demented Saint Bernard who smothers the lost traveler he should lead home.

Filed Under: Featuredjason rohrerPonderings


Jason Rohrer About the Author: Jason Rohrer was educated in California, New York, Russia and Bulgaria. He reviews film and performing arts for, contributes to American Theatre Magazine, and co-hosts the podcast Jason and Todd Talk through Lousy Films. He tweets as @RohrerVacui.

RSSComments (10)

Leave a Reply | Trackback URL

  1. Michael says:

    Welcome, Jason. Looking forward to reading more.

    And, Colin, stop complaining about uncomfortable seats. There ARE theaters in town that have very comfortable seating. Hint: a few of them are in Pasadena.

    • I was talking about my lousy seat that I’m sitting in while writing this freakin’ comment!

      I love your seats, Michael. Both you and Brian have tremendous seats. And the chairs in your theatre aren’t bad either.

  2. Jason Rohrer Jason Rohrer says:

    If I can follow that introduction, Colin, even I will be impressed. Thanks to you, Enci and Bitter Lemons for your hospitality and general excellence.

  3. Chris says:

    That last line is fantastic. Good job!

  4. Chester Ross says:

    Dear Jason,

    In your column, you state, “We can insightfully praise the good and constructively destroy the bad. If we know so much, and we certainly act as if we do, then we can tell Catherine Trieschmann that she has not written any drama, stakes or even debatability into How the World Began, a polemic as glossy and vapid as the Orange County you’d have to visit to see it.”

    You have a right to your opinion, Jason, but yours is no more valid than that of a critic who sees a production with different eyes from yours.

    Just because a critic doesn’t “constructively destroy” a show that you hate doesn’t make you right and him and her wrong.

    Please don’t go on the attack simply because a glowing review has been written about a show that you find fault with…and don’t accuse the critic of not doing his or her job right.

    Chester Ross

    PS: I happen to agree with the 93% of reviews who find Catherine Trieschmann’s the opposite of “glossy” and “vapid.” You, dear sir, are in the minority in your opinion.

  5. Er, I’ll let Jason defend his own position, Chester, but just so we’re getting our facts straight, the LemonMeter on “How the World Began” is sitting at a pretty mediocre 75% Bittersweet at the moment:

    Carry on.

  6. Jason Rohrer Jason Rohrer says:

    Dear Mr Ross,

    The pain in your tone strikes me as unnecessary. If you think I’m attacking you personally, please understand that I’ve never before heard your name.

    And please don’t draw conclusions about my motivations, especially when I’ve written them down for you; such behavior makes you look as if your agenda overpowers your reason. Clearly, either you liked this show well enough to be offended by my views, or you have a personal relationship with a critic you feel I have, however tangentially, insulted. Be assured: my expressed opinion of that show is based on my own experience, not on the work of any critic so starved for quality drama as to mistake Catherine Treischmann for a playwright.

    The greatest jeopardy she places over her protagonist is loss of health insurance, a doom less than Sophoclean in its resonance. Half the nation currently has no health insurance, pregnant women too, and even that character undercuts this fate by mentioning that unemployment “might not” cover medical costs, which obviously implies that it might, thus potentially reducing the jeopardy to zero. Such a failure of artistry, sir, goes beyond opinion to fact.


    Jason Rohrer

    PS: Your post script reveals your error in conflating “the minority opinion” with “the wrong opinion”. Apparently you think it a stinging riposte to place me in the former category. Alas, when the majority is wrong, there’s no place I’d rather be than in the minority.

  7. Chester Ross says:

    I’m sorry to see the average score has gone down for How The World Began. At the same time, I set no store by Charles McNulty’s opinion of any show he reviews. Having witnessed his pitiful performance at the so-called LA Times Theatre Forum this past summer, I have little to no respect for him, his ability to critique, or the publication he works for. With the OC Register, StageSceneLA, Don Shirley, the OC Weekly, and Backstage ALL weighing in on the plus side, and “Alan Smithee” hiding behind anonymity at Stage And Screen, it remains obvious that Jason’s opinion is in the minority. Sorry Jason, it doesn’t mean it’s bad criticism just because you don’t agree with it.

  8. Jason Rohrer Jason Rohrer says:

    Sorry, Chester, repeating yourself doesn’t make you less wrong.

    • Wait, Chester, let me get this straight, you have more faith in Steven Stanley’s ability to critique over Charles McNulty’s? I just want to get that on record.

      Personally, I like Steven more than I like Charles – haven’t met Charles but my opinion of him is low due to the reasons you state – but as a professional critic…

      Sorry, just trying to wrap my head around this one. Please assist if you might…