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The Contra-Review and the New TheatreTalk

By Nick Fracaro at 9:53 am on Tuesday, November 28, 2006

As difficult as it is today to differentiate the alternative from the mainstream in theatre culture, so too is the difficulty in attempting to classify the various modes of writing being used to represent theatre now that the blogosphere has brought the internet into a new age.

George Hunka misdirected his fellow theatre bloggers with the abstract he selected from Eric Bentley’s Thalia Prize speech in his post titled “No Critics, No Directors Either”. As a result Isaac Butler, MattJ, and the other theatre bloggers who posted comments on the subject have either not read, are deliberately ignoring, or are totally dismissing Bentley’s main premise and question:

Let’s simply agree that consumer guiding is not proper drama criticism. What is?

I am with Bentley in classifying the “theatre review” model as a worthless vehicle for drama criticism.contra

Of course theatre bloggers can disregard Bentley’s premise if they do not consider their theatre-talk as a species of drama criticism. And in fact the current trend does appear to be devolving the review model even further away from drama criticism. The blogosphere even seems to be inventing its own bizarre theatre-talk model: the contra-review.

Consider both the motivation and subject of “blogger’s night” as conceived by Isaac Butler at Parabasis.

I want to use the bloggers nights to create an alternate constiuency to subscribers and mainstream critics…. The first one of these we did was for Greg Kotis’ Pig Farm at The Roundabout, and was specifically done as an answer to Charles Isherwood’s dismissive (and, I felt, unfair) take down.

Obscene Jester, Jason Grote, Playgoer, Adam Szymkowicz, Mr. Excitement News, and MattJ all show up in varying degrees of advocacy for Anne Washburn’s The Internationalist and in varying degrees of protest or agreement to Charles Isherwood’s review. When Isaac then reviews these reviews of the mainstream review it becomes obvious how far away from drama criticism this theatre-talk has moved.

Similarly Alison Croggon at her blog theatre notes is not writing drama criticism but is writing a contra-review in her theatre-talk about Melbourne’s “paper of record” review of a local theatre production. Interestingly, unlike the “blogger’s night” attempt to counter a mainstream reviewer’s dismissiveness, Alison Croggon is trying here to counter a mainstream reviewer’s rave.

Eric Bentley restates his main premise and question later in his speech:

If the purpose of daily theater journalism is to guide the consumer toward or away from a show, what is the purpose of the broader theater criticism I respect and try to emulate?

The most directly Bentley answers his own question is in the “distinguished names” of criticism he provides: Stark Young, George Jean Nathan, Irving Wardle, Kenneth Tynan, Robert Brustein, Gordon Rogoff, Richard Gilman. And he does partially withdraw his earlier dismissal of theatre reviews, his own and by extension others’, by suggesting that they are also part and parcel of a “living theatrical culture in a living general culture.”

Although in this speech he is accepting an award for criticism, Eric Bentley sees himself not as a critic but more generally as a “theatre person” (reviewer, essayist, translator, adapter, playwright). His more “sacred pronouncements” on theatre were not in his reviews or essays but were saved for his plays. Most of the “cybercritics” creating the new theatre-talk in the blogosphere also probably reserve their more sacred pronouncements on theatre for artistic ambitions outside their blogs. Many like Bentley also realize that the theatre work they wish to pursue “would have no place in a totally commercialized culture–as Broadway and Hollywood often seem to be.” These contra-reviews of the mainstream and status quo by artists can be seen as first attempts at finding the theatre-talk that will be needed to represent their work and that of their peers.

So although these contra-reviews should not be considered drama criticism per se, the various new species of theatre-talk by theatre people with blogs will likely become a very significant part of the discussion within the “living theatrical culture in a living general culture.” And if a new species of drama criticism is to emerge expect it to be born from among similar artist/critics who practice art as well as write about it.

If an artist has a practice, he has an aesthetic stake to defend or explain or propagandize. His criticism of others’ work will necessarily have both the bias and the integrity of this practice as its foundation. He is able to speak from this specific base of aesthetic knowledge– to define and delineate borders between his practice and others’. This kind of criticism creates a venue for an exchange of ideas outside the market, a discourse about the art form itself. This is exactly the discourse that the artist/critic Eric Bentley and others have defined as drama criticism.

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Comment by MattJ

November 28, 2006 @ 6:40 pm

Hey. Cheers for confronting the blogosphere in this way. Constructive confrontation is so necessary to keep the discourse going in a direction which is good for theatre, rather than bad for it. Thanks for your thoughts.

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Comment by Scott Walters

November 28, 2006 @ 8:38 pm

Outstanding! You’ve put the discussion in perspective.

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Comment by nick

November 29, 2006 @ 6:49 am

Thanks Matt, Scott.

It seems strange talking to you here. Define here.

A room, I guess, at my house, I guess. But I didn’t build it, you did. And I am honored to be here. Define here.

I also have visited each of your houses and have thought of building rooms there. Or moving into one that others have built there. Define there.

The MakerThinker of these rooms, here and there, is an endlessly fascinating creature.


“Matt” “Scott” More to them than first meets the eye. The silent t at the end of each, for instance. Always something unsaid. This unsaid something often more important than what is said. here and there.

“Those are fighting words!” Well, no, not that. But something “real”, something that does not drown itself at sea in NewsChat.

Mat t Scot t Thanks for dropping by. See you again, hopefully. here and t here

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Comment by Karl Miller

November 30, 2006 @ 4:38 pm

Wonderful post. I was about to write my own contra-review for the prevailing critical treatment of “The Clean House.” The NYTimes, Village Voice, and TONY have all bewildered me with this play — regardless of whether they’re trashing it or raving about it. But I’m just as bewildered by the blog-swarm around “The Internationalist,” too.

After all the posts about Washburn’s play, I’ve heard a lot about Isherwood’s m.o. but precious little about … well … the PLAY itself. I still don’t know if it’s worth seeing because (to my knowledge) no one’s bothered to dig into the meat of the piece, to analyze or compare an exemplary line/scene/passage, to hold the writer to any sort of standard. “Opaque = good” isn’t enough. I love abstract debates about the NYTimes circulation, the value or taste of opaque plays, etc, just as much as the next snarkmonger out there. But damn!

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