By Bob Abelman and Cheryl Kushner
271 pp. New York and Frankfurt: Peter Lang
Reviewed by Don Rubin (Canada)
It is somewhat ironic that one of the most useful little books on the art of writing criticism and on the history of anglophone theatre criticism should appear at a time when courses on the subject in universities and positions for working theatre critics in the media are disappearing daily.
In the English-speaking world generally and in North America specifically, newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations are daily doing everything they can to divest themselves of full-time critics and reviewers for economic reasons. In my own country, Canada, for example, there are probably not more than a dozen positions that even come close to full-time anymore in the media. The U.S., at ten times the size of Canada, probably does not have more than a hundred or so such positions, maybe nowhere near that many.
Yet theatre criticism, like the theatre itself, does survive, sometimes in traditional forms, sometimes in not so traditional guises, sometimes in forms still emerging from the ether. I keep hearing about theatres with special sections for those who cannot resist the urge to “tweet” while viewing whatever is in front of them. Is this the future of criticism?
This new book, Refereeing the Muses: A Theatre Criticism/Arts Journalism Primer is for all of those still maintaining an interest in and hope for the traditional forms as well as for those who retain an historical and/or academic interest in what can be called the anglophone approach to criticism.
Cleverly put together by two journalistic veterans, Bob Abelman (a professor of arts and media criticism at Cleveland State University) and Cheryl Kushner (a teacher at Kent State University’s School of Journalism and former entertainment editor at the Cleveland Plain-Dealer and New York’s Newsday), the book runs a careful line between basic academic theory, anglophone theatre history and applied journalistic practice.
To begin, we are offered a useful general historical overview of criticism and journalism which touches on Socrates, Plato and Aristotle before moving on, very briefly, to Aquinas and the Renaissance with Erasmus, Thomas More and Francis Bacon making cameo appearances. From there, the subjects flow into the nature of critical thinking, the how-tos of contemporary anglophone journalistic practice and the elements involved in writing and structuring a review for a newspaper.
More academically, we are offered definitions of several “isms’ including of genre criticism, auteur criticism and anthropological criticism. From there we move on to such things as high and low culture, the Broadway musical and even the arts in academia.
On the latter subject, we are told—accurately I think—that the Academy in the last decade or so has increasingly mirrored market-based models of measuring success. How many long-time jobs does theatre training produce? How many people are working in their field five or ten years after graduation?
To which Abelman and Kushner respond: “how does one quantify the impact of music, theatre, dance, philosophy, and other pursuits in the arts and humanities on the individual? On the community? On our culture? As colleges and universities become more allied with the profit goals of government and corporations, the esoteric pursuit of the arts is increasingly seen as intangible and, therefore, tangential….”
Given this situation, the authors suggest that what is needed is not fewer critics but more and better ones. Everyone, in fact, should be encouraged to engage in real critical thinking and this book, we are told, “provides the necessary information to do so…. It is written to offer insight and useful information for those casual critics thinking about starting a blog or looking to become more thoughtful critical consumers of the arts, those university newspaper arts writers and editors hoping to improve their craft, or aspiring critics….”
In discussing critics and criticism generally, we are told early on that the word “critic” itself comes from the Greek kritikos, which means “able to discuss,” as well as from the Greek word kritos, which means “a judge” and that “the primary function and, perhaps, greatest contribution of arts critics is to incite or instigate discussion” and “to recognize art in places beyond the proscenium arch and gallery—the boardroom, the picket line, and the political arena, for example—and consider its ramifications….”
“Critics,” we are told at another point, “are the designated drivers of the arts—the ones who remain sober enough to reflect on, describe, explain and analyze the entertainment, the vortex, the mechanics… This, in turn, facilitates the audience’s subsequent reflection on its own.”
Still later, British scholar Ronan McDonald is quoted as saying that “the era of the experts, the informed cognoscenti whose judgments and tastes operated as a lodestar for the public has seemingly been swept aside by a public that has laid claim to its capacity to evaluate its own cultural consumption.”
What will happen to the theatre if real critics with real expertise really do disappear? Critic David Cote warns us of the dangers of this, with a colourful biological metaphor saying, “We critics…are the dung beetles of culture. We consume excrement, enriching the soil and protecting livestock from bacterial infection in the process. We are intrinsic to the theatre ecology. Eliminate us at your peril.”
There are also scattered throughout the book a series of boxed sections called “In Profile.” Among them are pithy quotations by a range of American critical voices including Eric Bentley (the first winner of IATC’s own Thalia Award for Critical Writing), Jeffrey Eric Jenkins (current President of the American section of the IATC), Stark Young, Alexander Woolcott and Ben Brantley of the New York Times and such critical thinkers as Harold Clurman.
Even the IATC’s own “Code of Practice,” reproduced from the IATC website, is an “In Profile.” Unfortunately, it is never dealt with in the body of the book but it’s nice to know that the authors found it interesting enough to include somewhere.
A few small complaints. I am not sure why an “abstract” is needed before each chapter as well as a “summary” after. Having both clogs the book’s through-line, as does a far too basic chapter on the nature of theatre art which also has little to do with the ostensible subject of the book: theatre criticism.
Because there are so few books on the nature and practice of theatre criticism published, this book takes on immediate value in the field. Its ultimate importance, however, will most likely be as a useful course text for anyone trying to teach criticism at the high school or university level or for anyone seeking to pick up the art on his or her own. Even for those already established in the field, it will prove a good read and well worth a look.
 Don Rubin is the General Editor of Routledge’s six-volume World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre and was for many years the theatre critic for the New Haven (Conn.) Register, the Toronto Starand CBC Radio. Founding Editor of the Canadian Theatre Review, he is President of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association and is former Director of the Graduate Program in Theatre and Performance Studies at Toronto’s York University where he continues to teach numerous courses including Applied Theatre Criticism.