Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Critiquing the play that's *not* in front of you?

Jonathan Jones may be discussing how visual art shows might be curated in different ways, but his comments parallel the situation with some theater reviews: It's all very well to hew to the safe line that reviewers should review only the plays that are in front of them, but what if — hypothetical case — a theater puts on a decidedly old-fashioned, clearly out-of-date production, with no attempt at updating or relevance, but simply to bank on ticket sales because of longtime name recognition?
I agree that it would be obnoxious to spend an ENTIRE review doing nothing but whining about how this show is being done instead of some other, more contemporary piece. But is it REALLY true that such a (hypothetical) review shouldn't mention the problems involved at all?

It's an extreme example, but The Merchant of Venice is simply not the same play after the Holocaust as it was beforehand.
Similarly, in the last 50 years, American attitudes toward race, sex, gender, consumerism, leisure time, education, smoking, evolution, drugs, science and so on have all changed.
Not every production has to a thesis or explicit relevance. But by the same token, doing a show simply because it was popular 50 or 20 or even five years ago is not, in itself, enough justification for choosing to produce a play or musical. And if there's zero attempt to link another era's artifact to the concerns of today, then critics ought to (briefly) comment on it.

[ image: Munkustrap from Cats, from ]

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