As theaters and local entertainment resume, what kind of press will they be met with?
By Bob Abelman
It is safe to say William Shakespeare had no critics in the late 1500s and early 1600s. Sure, there were supporters, sponsors, detractors and promoters, but there were no professional theater critics scuttling out of the Globe to meet a deadline for the morning edition. Newspapers and a large, literate audience to read them did not surface in earnest until the late 1700s.
And even then, those who chose the theater as a profession – as artists and critics – were not deemed particularly newsworthy. In London, theater critic was an occupation pursued only by what has been described in one historical text as “managerial toadies who were puffing their own wares, opportunistic knockers (or) unclassified eccentrics.”
In the United States at that time, theater criticism was described as “fly-by-night news-sheets and scurrilous pamphlets popping up everywhere, mingling blind-item theatrical gossip with detailed analysis, often willfully and malevolently inaccurate, of plays and performances.”
As a Cleveland critic myself for the past 20 years, I know first-hand that this perception of the profession has changed very little.
The rise of modern criticism
Western arts journalism evolved largely in the coffee houses of London and saloons of the United States in the aftermath of the industrial revolution in the mid-1800s. The growth of cities, rail transportation and leisure time by an increasingly large privileged class gave way to the development and support of arts institutions and museums. And the growth of newspapers and magazines led to the well-educated and highly opinionated arts journalists they employed.
“Comprehension without critical evaluation is impossible,” said Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, an 18th and 19th century philosopher.
Also, arts criticism grew exponentially when artists began to make works that were not sponsored by the church or state, whose commissions demanded ideological and often stylistic conformity. Artists had become freelance free-spirited producers for a market that was not always there. Finding, informing and intriguing a market required objective evaluation from a credible source, which reinforced and bolstered the role of the critic.
The role of the critic
“We read critics for the perceptions, for what they tell us that we didn’t fully grasp when we saw the work,” noted Pauline Kael, the late film critic who wrote for The New Yorker.
Andrew Sullivan, former editor of The New Republic and columnist for The Sunday Times in London, suggested that “Many readers were bemused by Marcel Proust and James Joyce until (American literary critic) Edmund Wilson wrote about them. When Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting For Godot’ opened, the audience was puzzled until (English drama critic) Harold Hobson’s famous review came out. … If they had not been there, our artistic world – our inner lives – would have been more anemic.”
Without the “consciousness that only a critical infrastructure can supply,” wrote American novelist and essayist Cynthia Ozick in an article in Harper’s Magazine, “readers and writers are doomed to talk at cross-purposes, or at random; it takes a corps of influential critics to unite individual reactions into a common discussion. Indeed, superior criticism not only unifies and interprets a literary culture but has the power to imagine it into being.”
And so, over time, the critic has earned a certain sovereignty over art history, or at least great influence in creating the canon of art by naming modern movements and their influential artists, and evaluating their works. In the early 20th century, the professional arts critics’ opinions were revered and often feared by their respective industries. They not only helped inform audience opinions, they also dictated sales, kept the arts the topic of discussion, and – for critics the likes of George Bernard Shaw (theater), Clement Greenberg (fine art), H.T. Parker (music), Carl Van Vechten (dance), James Agee (film) and Northrop Frye (literature) — shaped the arts themselves.
“At best, the critic is an artist whose point of departure is another artist’s work,” wrote the late theater critic Harold Clurman.
Just a few decades ago, in the most arts-centric cities in the country with access to the most powerful publications in the world, critics were an elite corps of taste-makers, culture shapers and standard bearers. In 1973, Newsweek ran a special issue on “The Arts in America” and writer Arthur Cooper heralded in “the era of the critic as superstar.” Critics often molded the arts by pushing artists to raise the bar on the quality of their work or the amount of creative risk being taken.
Of course, sometimes the artists pushed back.
In Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” it is no coincidence that he makes the profession of critic the most grievous insult among the many exchanged between the two main characters in his avant-garde play. Similar slights have appeared in many other works, including Ken Ludwig’s 2011 whodunit comedy “The Game’s Afoot,” where a theater critic is stabbed to death in the opening act, and in M. Night Shyamalan’s 2006 film “Lady in the Water,” where a film critic is unceremoniously eaten by evil forces.
In the same year as that Newsweek special issue, in a New York City restaurant, actress Sylvia Miles dumped a plateful of food on New York magazine critic John Simon’s head after he wrote unflattering comments in his review of her off-Broadway performance in “Nellie Toole and Co.” Simon, ever the stickler for minute details, wrote that the plate consisted of a fine pâté, steak tartare, brie and a mediocre potato salad.
Cleveland has not been exempt from such bad behavior, even though the market is smaller than New York and the critics are less powerful. In 2006, then-theater critic Tony Brown wrote a negative review of the Cleveland Play House’s production of “Rabbit Hole” for the city’s only and the state’s largest daily newspaper, The Plain Dealer. During a nasty curtain speech at a subsequent production, then-artistic director Michael Bloom called out the critic in the crowd. When Bloom walked out of the theater after the speech, Brown was close behind. The two met in the lobby and the artistic director took a swipe at the critic but missed, much to the chagrin of the season ticket holders who were hoping for a better fight.
“If Attila the Hun were alive today, he’d be a drama critic,” said playwright Edward Albee.
The disappearing critic
Print journalism has been in a state of crisis and decline over the past 15 years, reeling from a digital revolution that has seen decreased subscriptions, diminished advertising and which spearheaded the move to less profitable online platforms. The New Yorker reported that more than one in five newspapers in the United States have shuttered, and the number of journalists working for papers has been cut in half.
As collateral damage, the ranks of the arts critic has similarly dwindled. The roll call of the fallen reads like a high profile who’s who, including the chief film critic and longtime theater critic at Variety, two veteran film critics at Newsday and The Village Voice’s full-time film critic, who was laid off before the storied New York alt-weekly eventually shut down in 2018 after a 63-year run (it returned online and in print quarterly this year). Ruth Reichl was one of the last towering food critics until her magazine, Gourmet, folded. Steven Leigh Morris, the longtime theater editor and critic at the LA Weekly, survived six rounds of layoffs before he was let go and his position eliminated.
Literary critics and classical music critics fell by the wayside when McClatchy, the third-largest newspaper chain in the country, cut 10% of its workforce. In the last decade, longtime TV critics at major-market dailies – including the Dallas Morning News, Seattle-Post Intelligencer, New York’s Daily News and the Houston Chronicle – had been either let go or reassigned.
New ownership by ever more extractive, cost-cutting private equity firms and hedge funds no doubt added to the casualty list. As the Chicago Tribune’s Lori Waxman noted in her recent op-ed “Where Have All the Arts Critics Gone?” – “when money is tight, arts coverage is often the first to go.”
In Cleveland, Scene Magazine senior writer Sam Allard observed that “The Plain Dealer/Cleveland.com is utterly devoid of cultural criticism” after the latest series of layoffs of arts journalists in April 2020, including the movie, TV, book, theater, dance and dining critic. “The classical music writer is now freelance,” adds Allard. “There is no comedy columnist or humorist, no nightlife columnist, no gossip columnist, no ‘minister of culture.’ There is no pop music critic.”
Scene’s arts and entertainment coverage has also constricted dramatically, particularly during COVID-19. The music editor, Jeff Niesel, who reviewed concerts, interviewed local bands and touring acts, and assembled the weekly concert listings, was among those laid off in the pandemic’s wake. And much of Allard’s resource-intensive feature reporting and investigative work, which includes film criticism, has been reverted to daily blogging responsibilities. “Arts criticism,” he says, “is only valuable when it’s thoughtful, which tends not to fit into this equation.”
“The tragedy isn’t just that knowledgeable, experienced, caring voices on the arts are being jettisoned wholesale,” says Mark Dawidziak, former TV critic at the Plain Dealer, “but that they are being tossed aside at a time when their voices are most needed.”
Criticism amid COVID-19
Since the closing of arts venues due to COVID-19 beginning in March 2020, it’s been estimated that, nationwide, almost 1.4 million performing arts related jobs and $42.5 billion in sales have been lost. The arts scene in London between 1603 and 1613 suffered similar devastation when festivals and playhouses were shut down for a total of 78 months – more than 60% of the time – because of recurring bubonic plague outbreaks. When theatergoers reluctantly returned, they found that the quarantined Shakespeare had written “Measure for Measure” and put the finishing touches on “King Lear,” “Macbeth,” and “Antony and Cleopatra.”
Only now are some Cleveland theaters, galleries, halls and museums reopening for business, and audiences – like their Elizabethan counterparts – are finding revised performance seasons that include original and innovative works created during quarantine and reflective of their recent struggles to survive. But audiences are still hesitant to return to indoor venues, citing health concerns as the overriding factor.
“I worry that without numerous, diverse voices writing about and bringing greater visibility to the arts, it will make the work of professional theaters to bounce back and thrive considerably more difficult in the years to come,” says Nathan Motta, artistic director at Dobama Theatre in Cleveland Heights.
In light of the past 15 months and their devastating impact on the arts, perhaps arts critics still employed and with access to sizable audiences will find their writing to be more personal, more empathetic, and less adversarial. Perhaps it will be a while before we see our next negative review.
Not according to some of our area’s most high-profile working critics – specifically the News-Herald’s Mark Meszoros, the Akron Beacon Journal’s Kerry Clawson and Scene’s Christine Howey.
Some, myself and Clawson included, feel an obligation to chronicle how arts organizations have adapted to connect with audiences during the pandemic and call attention to the financial challenges they’ve faced. But few feel particularly compelled to overtly advocate for the arts as we begin to review, believing that audiences will return when they are psychologically and financially ready to do so. “I certainly want to see the Northeast Ohio arts scene thrive,” notes Meszoros, “but my primary obligation is to my readers.”
And fewer still feel the need to adjust our critical expectations and evaluations based on a “pandemic curve” – that is, the financial struggles of the past 15 months, the difficult rehearsal protocols and the decreased budgets. Says Howey, “I owe the theaters and all the creative people involved my honesty, and that’s what I attempt to provide.”
Playwright Oscar Wilde once warned an age without criticism is “an age that possesses no art at all.” He never could have imagined an age when the arts are eager for resurgence, but there are few critical voices to herald their return.