NO HAND CLAPPING
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.
About the Author: Jason Rohrer was educated in California, New York, Russia and Bulgaria. He reviews film and performing arts for stageandcinema.com, contributes to American Theatre Magazine, and co-hosts the podcast Jason and Todd Talk through Lousy Films. He tweets as @RohrerVacui.