Last Sunday afternoon this theater critic found himself on a grade school blacktop playing kickball. I’m 40; my next oldest teammate was 10. There were a couple of Kindergarteners in there, too. When I say I played kickball, I mean I was running and jumping and catching and kicking for a couple of hours. Hours. It’s normal to do that when you’re ten years old, or five or six. It is not normal to do that when you’re forty. It’s wrong to be that active at my age. My evidence is that afterward it hurts.
So I draw the conclusion that every activity is appropriate to a certain age. Some, like bathing or brushing one’s teeth, are omniappropriate. Some, like analyzing a text for theme, or running a business in a fair and respectable manner, are the province of maturity. And others, like changing the rules in the middle of the game, or gossiping about the members of a club to which one wishes he belonged: these are kids’ stuff.
Grown-ups shouldn’t ape the bad practices of children. We are supposed to have grown out of them.
I was not surprised when the grade-schoolers wanted to go six-on-one against me, regardless of the fact that I hadn’t played kickball in thirty years and didn’t know the rules, and besides smoke a pack a day more than they do and therefore can’t be expected to run without wheezing and falling down. That’s what people who haven’t been fully socialized will do: they will manipulate a situation to their own benefit, regardless of the injury this inflicts on their comrades. In children, we forgive and even cherish this Rousseauian savagery. On the blacktop I found it charming.
But when a grown man recently published, on his own theater review blog, a press release he had written to include the words “wildly funny,” “highly clever,” and “intelligent writing, phenomenal performances, and outrageous energy,” words purporting to describe a play he himself had written, produced and directed: this was surprising because the man insists that he’s not a child. When in a fit of pique this same man banned an established critic from covering any more plays at his fledgling company, for the crime of having reviewed his play in less than glowing terms: this was a little bit surprising in an adult.
But that’s L.A., one might say. And according to my experience in this city of sycophants and petty tyrants (often one and the same entity), one wouldn’t be entirely wrong.
From the faraway haze of 1967, the out-of-favor historian Arnold Toynbee wrote in a bitter snarl against time and tide that “Los Angeles may swell physically to the size of a sub-continent, but the tropical luxuriance of its physical growth may never succeed in making a city of it. In order to become a city, it would have also to evolve at least the rudiments of a soul.”
I am not in sympathy with many of Toynbee’s conclusions, but in my investigations of the Los Angeles arts scene close to fifty years later I have surely witnessed the answering of many telephones in hushed audiences, and heard the catcalls of the crowd when internationally revered dance companies took stage in nothing more scandalous than leotards. I have seen many citizens behave rudely and cheaply, who have most outrageously of all defended their unacceptable behavior as congruous with a new order of public comportment. Well, Toynbee and I share at least a longing for a period of civility that may have gone, if it ever existed.
What’s even more par for the Los Angeles course is the attempted corruption of critics at the hands of a creeping number of public relations firms. Editors at outlets of arts criticism are being told by PR people who ought to know better that critiques of certain shows are unwelcome, and that no press seats will be on offer to some of the biggest venues in town – none on offer for purposes of criticism, that is. If a critic wants to write a promotional piece and publish it ahead of time, essentially folding herself into the public relations machinery, afterward she may be welcome to “enjoy” the show at the whim of the host institution – and then again she may be told that no seats are in fact available for the show she has promoted. (Whether the show is or isn’t enjoyable doesn’t enter the cynical calculations of some institutions in 2013, and likely never did.)
There still are good and honorable press liaisons, many of them, who understand criticism as its own institution hallowed by the custom of centuries, a self-appointed but not unregulated fraternity devoted to the furtherance of art via its open discussion. Noble promoters, in the interest of a fair and accurate study of the arts, still invite even those critics who have established themselves as unlikely to write a good review of bad work. This is healthy and tends to the good of the industry.
But the real benefit of this new order of sycophantism falls upon reviewers unworthy of the name “critic.” Especially in the field of theater, a crop of fawning, greasy, and easily amused pseudo-journalists has sprung up, ready to approve of almost any lame and halting thing that crouches on a stage. These advocates and boosters kill the thing they purport to love by praising its faults and excusing its transgressions. Some of these corrupted angels have been heard to say that they simply like to see themselves quoted on posters. Some of them, on blogsites cleverly named to camouflage themselves as newspapers, are paid according to the number of hits their reviews attract – and anyone can tell you that a positive review builds bigger numbers than a critique. And so the art on display is denied placement in context among more and less successful attempts; denied fair discussion of its virtues and areas of weakness; in fact, the art itself becomes a mere component of business, no more nor less important than its own promotional process.
Why this degradation is being allowed at a time when the theater is undergoing a withdrawal of public interest unique in modern times remains a hotly-debated question. (For those who will respond that the 99-seat theater community is “flourishing,” an argument I’ve heard recently, I humbly ask how many people are making a living at it, or even getting a per-performance car fare.) The more rules are changed to fit the fattest cats in the game, the less sacred becomes the game itself.
So when, forced not only to pitch but to cover the bases myself as a team of one, I resorted to throwing the kickball directly at the base runners to get my outs, I was not surprised that the children cried foul while rubbing their bruises. These were the same children who had blithely corrupted the game to gain an advantage in it, and cheaters always shout loudest of unfair treatment. Without any further encouragement from me, the kids reverted to more equal teams, and we played a more fair and respectable game. And my team won, because I am bigger than they.
Those kids will grow into a broader understanding of the rules of civic life, or they will not, according to our teaching. And as child development experts know, a great deal of that teaching is indirect. It is from our actions that children learn to be adults. What will we do with the adults who have not learned these lessons? As Arthur Miller had John Proctor say, we’re in fairly poor shape when “the little crazy children are jangling the keys to the kingdom.”
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.