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Cap’n Beady Eyes in the Blogosphere

By Nick Fracaro at 1:11 am on Friday, November 10, 2006

criticThe patronizing advice that Lyn Gardner dispenses to young theatre companies in her Guardian post could be better applied as a directive to her own writing. She needs to “think harder and be more self-critical” about her writing as it moves from print into the blogosphere.

Apparently oblivious even of the venue in which she is writing, she totes out that old print publishing truism that “reviewing space comes at a premium” when cautioning young theatre companies from inviting her “beady eyes” and her possible ire.

“Shiver me timbers! Stand fast me hearties! The ire of the reviewer is upon us!”

The Guardian in promoting its recent move into the blogosphere says that it’s

shiny new Arts & Entertainment blog is a new space for debate on, um, everything in arts and entertainment…. it’ll feature a host of Guardian writers and critics, plus, we hope, a range of new voices.

Even the words, um, and phrasing, um, of this promotion suggests the level of debate the Guardian expects from this “range of new voices.” Of course there is no obligation for the esteemed writers and critics of the Guardian to engage the vulgar herd in this debate, so they won’t. Their duty is merely to initiate the arguments with their posts.

So far comments are rare; the debate non-existent. But the Guardian Theatre Blog has certainly increased “the talk” about theatre from writers and critics, if by talk we mean that one way broadcast typical of print publication. Its theatre blog webfeed will send the reader on average two of these articles every day. Actually the Guardian is classifying these blog entries as “posts” but displays them as articles complete with “Editors’ picks”, leaving it to the reader to classify the actual nature and quality of “the talk” contained within them.

Dave Cote announced yesterday that TimeOut New York has also launched a magazine-wide blog this week. Cote is reviewer and editor of the theatre section of the magazine and only a few months ago launched his own personal blog Histriomastix. His initial entries indicate that he will probably direct the TONY theatre blog in the manner of his personal blog. The chatty and newsy content connects well with a common denominator of other theater blogs already on the scene. Unlike the Guardian’s blog there are no comments allowed at the TONY theatre blog so there are also no pretenses about creating a forum for a “range of new voices.”critic finger

Reviewers with a history of writing for print have been schooled within a certain mode of production. The strict time demands and space constraints necessary for print publication have induced an overall condition of abridged thinking in the field. Concision is a desired trait and brevity is sometimes a critical choice but the “theatre review” model has evolved (devolved) effectively into this “thumbs up/thumbs down” consumer report. The theatre audience reduced to just one more target audience within the horde of harried shoppers out there.

The role of the reviewer has steadily been condensed to that of market arbiter of What-To-See and What-Not-To-See. Although the reviewer may afford some small talk about the art form, his main function is to provide clear directions to the reader through the good, the bad, and the ugly to that holy land. The best bang for the buck.

These slick superficial renderings often say more about the writer than about the subject being reviewed. In this way the review has become its own genre of writing, as much entertainment as criticism. If the writer finds a production he cannot recommend (most often the case) he still needs to talk about it, which is to say, entertain. The partisan crowd might even grow to enjoy the laudations less than the witty ridicule and humiliations of enemy camps. In history, the obit of the reviewer may read:

“Who didn’t know that he became a circus act, really? But the real question is this: Sometimes I wondered what it might have been like if he’d actually become a force for good; coercive as Ken Tynan or inspirational like Clurman or rigorous like Rich…… I guess I thought that it’s gotta be a grueling job, and there’s so much falsity and meretricious bullshit you have to see, that it would finally take a saint not to turn into a bit of a brittle vulgarian, as he did. The theatre needs geniuses to criticize it; it needs passionate advocates and firebrands, not to mention writers of gorgeous prose. He, instead, opted for parlor tricks and reruns.”

Now that the critics can review at any length anything they wish and publish it whenever they wish in blogs (their own personal ones or the more official “Guardian” blogs of cultural taste), it is due time they reassess both their subject and audience as well as the mode and manner in which they write, post, critique, review, small talk, gossip… and make some discerning choices.

One choice might be to attempt to elevate the discourse in the realm of ChatNews instead of further propagating it. But then again, what’s the fun in that? And besides, isn’t John Simon and ilk, even with their sometimes vicious appraisals of performers’ physical appearances, also part of “the talk”, also part of that rough beast slouching?

“Arrrgh !! I be Cap’n Beady Eyes Lyn Gardner! Be that a peg leg, or arrr ye just happy to cast yer eyes upon me?”

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Comment by Alex Needham

February 13, 2007 @ 9:39 am

I’ve only just seen this post – hopefully you (and everyone reading this) thinks the Guardian arts blog has progressed in terms of the writers’ willingness to engage with the readers’ comments, and the way theatre is written about. Issues like the potential withdrawal of funding from the BAC have been, I think, thoroughly debated by a multiplicity of voices and a wide variety of theatre has been discussed. Please let us know what you think, either here or on the Guardian arts blog.

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