Self-criticism: A theater critic’s search for nuance in the age of Yelp

Self-Criticism: In this first of an occasional series of essays by our critics, Charles McNulty looks back on ten years of reviewing theater for The Times.

Self-Criticism: In this first of an occasional series of essays by our critics, Charles McNulty looks back on ten years of reviewing theater for The Times.

(Elvis Swift / For the Times)
Los Angeles Times Theater Critic

The end of this year will mark my 10th anniversary as The Times’ theater critic, and I have a confession to make to my readers: I’m still figuring out how to write theater reviews.

False modesty isn’t my tactic here: I’ve never missed a deadline, I’ve reviewed for all kinds of publications (mainstream, alternative, trade and scholarly), and I’ve even won a few prizes for my theater writing.

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My first review appeared in the Village Voice during a summer internship in 1992. It was of an inconsequential revival of Irish playwright Sean O’Casey’s “The Plough and the Stars,” in which I complained that the actors were so scrupulous about the work’s naturalism that they completely overlooked the characters’ native theatricality.

My editor, Ross Wetzsteon, appreciated the observation, and a critic was born. You might think after toiling on deadline for more than two decades that I would have developed a formula for writing reviews. But the longer I keep at it, the more I find myself questioning their basic objectives.

There has been much lamenting within my dwindling tribe over the demise of outlets for theater criticism. For as long as I’ve been writing, reviewers have been complaining about the shrinkage of review space, but now the big issue is the vanishing of entire publications and arts sections. Once unapologetically high-minded periodicals such as the New Republic have tilted their arts coverage toward pop culture. Today it is easier for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye than for a play without a celebrity to enter a magazine’s back pages.

This is a consequence of what has been dubbed “digital disruption,” that handy euphemism for the perverse devaluation of creative labor and loony overvaluation of an elite tier of managers and bean counters. Someone — where is George Bernard Shaw when we need him? — will have to sort out all the upheaval this “democratizing” technology has wreaked.

In the meantime, I’m still waiting for the nonprofit sector — universities being the obvious place — to launch new arts journalism initiatives and collaborations that could fill in the intellectual breach. (Academics questioning why they should get involved might consult the work of literary critic Northrop Frye, who in his classic “Anatomy of Criticism” reminds his readers that “[a] public that tries to do without criticism, and asserts that it knows what it wants or likes, brutalizes the arts and loses its cultural memory.”)

But the crisis in criticism isn’t simply a business problem that USC or Eli Broad could solve. In this hyperdistracted age, in which marketing has insidiously pervaded the cultural landscape with the persistence of weeds on a neglected lawn, criticism isn’t always readily distinguishable from the salesmanship and hype that have corrupted not just our politics but the arts, education and even healthcare.


Critics shouldn’t be shielded from critical light. There are still great ones out there, but the time has come to broach the elephant in the newsroom: the decline in prestige and prominence of reviewers in their once oligarchic role as cultural arbiters.

Metrics, the ability to tally online readership, can take some of the blame. For as long as click counts are ruling journalism, theater criticism will be on the endangered species list. (What theater review could compete with a photo gallery of reality stars’ secret tattoos?)

Then there’s the notion that everyone’s a critic, an idea that has been taken to a new level in this age of Yelp. The validity of these citizen “reviews” seems not to matter all that much to online publishers, who value journalism quantitatively rather than qualitatively.

But why, I wonder, has my own interest as a consumer of high-end criticism faded over the years? I don’t think scarcity is the only problem.

While it is sadly true that the loss of illustrious theater critics in print hasn’t been offset by the arrival of equally potent voices online, the Internet has helped make the work of critics more accessible. Yet the hue and cry and feverish haste of the Web have had a homogenizing effect. The individual voice has been drowned out in the digital din.

Writing takes time, which requires money. Brain space, as Shaw once said about the soul, doesn’t come cheap. Reviews written at an assembly-line rate aren’t going to have much room for contemplation. One symptom of the relentless pace is the lazy sprawl of plot summaries. I can’t remember the last time I read a theater review without skipping over tedious paragraphs of story recap.

Another disaffecting quality of the ever-more-competitive contemporary scene: the critic as kingmaker, mobilizing his hyperbole for the sake of his own power-broker status. How many events of the season are we supposed to believe? Newspaper reviewers can’t escape their consumer reporting function, but at a time when the theater has become so commercialized, it’s dismaying to see critics sacrificing nuance for neon.

Verdicts must be delivered, but they shouldn’t be the “point” of a review any more than an interpretive statement should be the point of a work of art. There’s something self-serving about all these swooning raves and hellfire denunciations clamorously accompanying my morning coffee. A review isn’t ultimately about a reviewer’s generosity, wit, exquisite connoisseurship or emotional depth. These qualities might shine through, but they should be a byproduct of the main focus: the work.

Reviews are a curious journalistic animal, at once highly subjective, the opinionated expression of a particular taste, and an authoritative appraisal, steeped in tradition and mindful of contemporary practice.

When I started at the Voice and was still in the throes of graduate school, I was writing for what I imagined was a politically engaged audience, schooled in the classics and open to the avant-garde. When turning out reviews for Variety, I was writing chiefly for industry insiders who wanted a thorough inspection of the marketplace goods without too much grand theorizing. (One reason my stint there didn’t last that long.)

When I began writing for The Times, I remember feeling burdened by the expectation (mostly self-imposed) of completeness. I somehow couldn’t get it out of my head that I was writing for the city’s “paper of record.”

Artists naturally want to be mentioned, and when I inevitably left somebody out, I would receive an angry voicemail or email screed. The wig designer of a musical seemed to be on the verge of taking legal action against me for not printing her name. Music directors wanted me ousted for giving them short shrift.

Report cards, however, make for dull reading. The truth that took me some time to apply to my own turf is that writers are by nature irresponsible, and the best criticism, like the best fiction, poetry and drama, has a go-it-alone quality. Good prose ignores protocols.

Criticism, while it has the power to bring together as disparate and unwieldy a group as the Los Angeles theater community, is a lonely job. A critic has to reject the temptation of making a splash through inflated rhetoric, tune out the moralizing choruses on Facebook and Twitter, turn a blind eye to the comment-section trolls and recognize that befriending artists and institutions isn’t the most fruitful way to love the theater. In this profession, there is no more precious gift than the capacity to be honest.

Walter Kerr and Kenneth Tynan, two titans of 20th century theater criticism, could have told you the same 50 years ago (minus the social-media references). I’m no Luddite — I tweet! I work my DVR! — but I don’t believe that criticism will be revitalized through “platform innovation.” Does anyone really want a video blog of my immediate reaction of a show? Criticism is fundamentally — and defiantly — an act of writing.

The imperative now is to reaffirm the timeless fundamentals of this demi-art. The theater critics I get the most out of reading are those who take the long view. L.A. Weekly’s Steven Leigh Morris (who’s the founding editor of Stage Raw) and former Village Voice colleagues Michael Feingold (now writing for the website TheaterMania) and Alisa Solomon (a contributor to the Nation) spring immediately to mind. These writers elucidate why a given work may be worth your engagement. They fit a play or musical into larger schemes, aesthetic, political and social. They convert resonance into words and ideas. They clarify and challenge artistic and institutional visions.

How to do this is a unique challenge with each and every assignment. The greatest challenge might be simple indifference.

There’s nothing more daunting to a deadline-rattled critic than a work that is too trifling to hate or love. (A far more common occurrence these days since artistic directors have been subjugated by their bottom-line-patrolling boards.)

Twice this summer senior colleagues (one a theater professor, the other a semi-retired actor) told me they could never do what I do. The prospect of attending so many mediocre shows seemed to them a fearsome penance, and I agreed that the job isn’t for the faint of heart.

My saving grace is that the theater never ceases to matter to me even when it’s being frivolously squandered. Convincing an audience why it should matter to them, and to a culture increasingly enthralled by its own superficiality, seems to me not a bad way of spending a working life.

The future of theater criticism, wherever it might take place 20 years from now, doesn’t lie in hackneyed consumer guidance. This may seem counterintuitive in a media era in which Miley Cyrus’ latest celebrity spat constitutes breaking news, but critics must operate on a different frequency.

The assumption that should underlie any review, from the most ardent rave to the most dismissive pan, is that the stage is indispensable to our humanity. Where else do human beings non-virtually congregate to see other human beings enact the patterns of our common fate?

Criticism’s value is indissolubly tied to the art form’s. The mission now is to go deeper, to stop thinking so much about the business of the theater and to confront the reason for its existence. With our souls hanging in the balance, how could any critic possibly grow jaded?


This is the first article in an occasional series.


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