Understanding the mind of a critic

Thomas Emerson

Everyone hates a critic. But, really, they’re indispensable. After all, without them we’ll never know if our new hairdo looks like a bird’s nest or if there’s toilet paper stuck to our shoe. And without a true critic, we may never hear praise for the times we’ve done everything just right.

The critic Pauline Kael wrote that “criticism is an art.” Like artists and writers, critics write to make sense of the world around them. A theatre critic doesn’t provide free publicity or write to feel powerful. We just want the theatre we love to be the best; we want others to love it too. But love isn’t a critic’s only qualification:

A critic writes confidently. Imagine if Abby suddenly started writing like this: “Dear Timid in Tuskaloosa: I think, maybe, you should divorce your husband. But I’m not sure.” People would stop writing before you could say “Tuskaloosa.” Likewise, a critic must write confidently or no one will pay attention. Audiences want to know if actors are good, if direction is innovative. Unless the critic resolutely answers them, they’ll just flip to the football scores and not bother with the play at all. But don’t bad reviews keep crowds away? No. Haven’t you ever emptied the kitty litter just to thumb your nose at critical parents? A negative review drives people to turn off the TV, put away the pretzels, see the play for themselves – and prove the critic wrong.

A critic expects the best. John the Baptist wanted everyone to straighten their paths, not just rich people, not just garbage collectors. Like John, the critic must consistently hold everyone to the same high standards, or else mediocrity flourishes. Granted, student productions won’t resemble 15.7 million-dollar ones. (If they did, I’d suspect embezzlement.)

But some things don’t depend on money: you don’t need millions to make sense of a script or to act well. And if a theatre company sets the bar high with one production, the critic must always expect that same excellence. After all, if Fred Astaire suddenly started dancing like a Mack Truck we’d have every right to criticize him. He wouldn’t be living up to his usual elegant excellence and, besides, who wants to watch a dancing Mack Truck?

A critic caters to no one. Pauline Kael said that “the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising.” A critic who gives good reviews simply because he “likes someone” is worth less than a ten-day-old banana peel. He’s an insult to the craft, since he’s no longer independent and has merely become (as Pauline notes) a source of free advertisement. Biased critics should be ignored – they, like grocery clerks who falsely put “fresh” labels on sour milk, poison readers’ mind while claiming to be objective.

To charge a critic with bias is tantamount to accusing the pope of being Satan in disguise: you’d better have evidence, or you’ll be facing a lot of angry men in red hats. Critics respect their craft, their audience – and their jobs – too much to risk losing credibility with biased reviews. We truly love what we do and what we criticize.

And we’re here to stay.