Sep 21, 2011

Theater of War

Pace Hunka, I found this, from Billington, bracing:
I think people are in danger of getting a little prissy about the qualifications to be a theatre critic. Obviously, you need a passion for the medium, a vision of its potential and the capacity to communicate. But I've come to feel that critics, myself included, have been recruited from too narrow a stratum. We still, mostly, tend to be English Lit graduates who may have dabbled in literary journalism, or even had a go at directing or writing plays, before moving on to a seat in the stalls. Nothing wrong with that. But, for several reasons, I've come to believe that a knowledge of public affairs and life's larger crises is also a useful attibute for a critic.
This comes in response to news that WMD-sniffer Judith Miller will review theater for the Tablet, which reminds me that economics reporter Catherine Rampell is now moonlighting at the NY Times theater desk. I do have mixed (and not entirely disinterested) feelings about the way newspaper folk are shuffled around from the sports desk to the features desk, from clothes to food to the city beat, but I think Billington's following point merits consideration:
One obvious reason is that theatre is changing. It increasingly tackles big issues: global warming, economic collapse, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It therefore seems logical that journalists with some knowledge of geopolitical tensions should bring their experience to the critical table...I'm not saying it's a job for anyone: it requires dedication, stamina and what the late Bob Robinson called "a willigness to have your evenings ruined". I'm simply suggesting that, as theatre engages increasingly with the public world, a critic has to be alert to politics, economics and foreign affairs as well as having a capacity for aesthetic judgment. "What do they of cricket know who only cricket know?" CLR James famously asked. You could apply exactly the same question to theatre.
It is a good question, and it makes me think that having a small child around the home (even a small child with a taste for cast albums, I can't think why) is a great reminder that there's a life outside the theater. Lord knows mine, at least, has profoundly changed the cost-benefit equation of a ruined night.


George Hunka said...

Well, yes -- and no. It's not surprising that Billington argues for critics with a broader knowledge of current affairs, given that he's been one of the most passionate critics of "state-of-the-nation plays" (if he didn't coin the term, this was the title of one of his books a few years ago). A drama critic should read the news pages at least as much as everybody else, if not to inform his criticism than just to be an informed citizen. But I'd be wary of a drama critic suddenly moved into the position of an economics or Middle East correspondent if they didn't have a more-than-superficial understanding of the issues involved in either economics or the Middle East region. Being a "lifelong economics nerd" or a "lifelong Israel nerd" (as Rampell describes herself as a "lifelong theatre nerd") may not be a full qualification for the position.

Tobin Vance said...

I, for one, don't really need another dose of the nightly news when I go to the theater. This summer I was able to get some Book of Mormon discount tickets (and some other cheap Broadway tickets at Amazon Tickets). While the play was dealing with religion (eek!), genocide, and genital mutilation, among other things, it did so in such a funny way I didn't mind!
Even now I find myself humming along to "I Believe!" I want my own planet, dammit!