Thursday, August 30, 2007

A Critic Beyond Reproach?

George Hunka has responded -- via a comment to one of my posts. My replies are below.

When I was the general manager of a small theatre in Philadelphia in the mid-1980s I shared my office with the artistic director. When a bad review of one of our shows was published in the Inquirer or the Daily News, the AD would often go into hysterics. "Ah, these reviews!" he would yell, stomping and screaming. "George, I want you to draft a letter to the editor! Tell them that all of their reviews should have a sentence in bold italics before each review -- 'The below is only the opinion of our reviewer and shouldn't be taken as fact!'

What struck me then about his response, and what strikes me now about yours to my review, Leonard, is the extraordinary condescension and lack of respect that you show not only to me, but to the artists who are responsible for "100 Saints" and to the potential audience for this show, which includes the readership of various critics, both you and me.
How extraordinary that you accuse me of disrespecting the artists when that is precisely what you are doing.
Artists are not children to be coddled and protected from criticism when they, or their producing organization, invite it from whatever source, and critics are not paternalistic playground monitors, to pat artists on the head when they do well or scold them when they do poorly. Artists are fully-grown mature adults, well aware that they conduct their professional lives in the public arena. Criticism, whether it's from a reviewer or from a friend over drinks after a show, is the risk one takes, consciously, when one chooses the profession.
No one, least of all yours truly, is advocating coddling and protecting, and I think neither of us have been busy patting anyone on the head. You are not the only person who gets to have an opinion about how artists should be treated, and in what manner. Artists have historically reserved the right to determine when their art should be unveiled and evaluated, and Playwrights Horizons—and your complicity in their scheme—wags a middle-finger at that, and rather happily as well, it seems.
Readers of both blogs and newspaper reviews, similarly, are not children. Despite what my AD used to believe, they are fully capable of reading, fairly and critically, the reviews we write and decide on the basis of that whether they want to see the show or not. They are aware that these are opinions, nothing more and nothing less. And the more familiar they are with an individual critic's prejudices and interests, the more they are fairly able to judge whether the play itself holds any interest for them or not. People who have been reading "Superfluities" for the past few years, as well as the reviews I've written for other publications, are well-aware of my own, and my fairness when it comes to reviewing shows which don't conform to the aesthetics I hold for my own creative work.
None of which is the point. I dare you, George, to point to the specific sentence in which I stated that artists are children, or that artists are not capable of reading reviews. This germane issue is not about familiarity. It is about ethics, and you still haven’t addressed the question, perhaps because you know you did something unethical: You participated in an unethical and, in my view, very damaging experiment.
To give Playwrights Horizons its due, they're aware that the nature of the critical, reviewing and marketing world is changing too. It's changed quite a bit in the four years since I've been writing "Superfluities." Among the things that have been changing is this very "industry practice" that you spend so much time defending. The blogosphere has wrested criticism and reportage from the traditional MSM that former elitist cadre of marketers, critics, editors and producers used to control.
The blogosphere hasn’t wrested crap, Jean Valjean. What you are complicit in is a controlled violation of industry practices that everyone—including ATPAM and the League of American Theatres and Producers, to say nothing of every nonprofit and commercial establishment in this city, and, indeed, in every city I can think of in these United States, regards as stare decisis. Let me also mention the writers and directors, and the actors as well, all of whom are doing their job or, more likely, learning how to do their job. What you’re really saying, too, is "Ha! Now I’m one of you elitists."
I don't need to be lectured on professional ethics by the likes of you. It's your own self-protective, paternalistic, moralistic attitude towards the art and the industry itself you're expressing. You're not defending artists here (they can adequately defend themselves in their own work), or the audience. You're defending your own sinecure as a paid reviewer firmly ensconced in the MSM.
Well, that's too bad, because I’m going to -- and the likes of me, hm? Snuggling up to good old Stewie, I see. Most charming. It's not because I’m self-protective (I’m seeing the show anyway, I’ve arranged for Lois Smith to be the national cover story of Back Stage, and I’ll still vote on it as a Drama Desk member, so there’s nothing to protect). And it's not because I’m paternalistic. I am, though, defending artists precisely because you, so as to pump yourself full of unethical and (evidently) pissy self-satisfaction, choose not to defend them, but rather to subject them to the worst possible atmosphere in which to evaluate their work—actually, half their work, since you didn’t have the professional courtesy, or courtesy to the entities that provided you with tickets, to stick around.
I don't know why PH invited me to write about "100 Saints" on the terms they offered me. I continue to receive invitations to shows, some of which I write about, some of which I don't. But I think I get these invitations because of the quality of my writing and the perceived value of my response, positive or negative -- a fully open, ethical response to the individual reviewing situation I find myself in. I'm very flattered that it's valued. Your own self-serving harangues, though, seem to presume that I have some kind of influence that I certainly wasn't looking for.
It doesn’t give you the right to be damaging and hurtful. Or do you think it does?
In the event Backstage does want to do a story like this (and in the even unlikelier event they want to talk to me about it), my email address is on the home page of my blog. I'd have written to you via email, Leonard. But apparently you don't want your readers to have that kind of access.
Your last sentence makes no sense. If I didn’t think you were absolutely 100% wrong I wouldn’t even bother. You’re completely wrong and I can assure you I'll continue to yell it and scream it and shout it.

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George Hunka said...

I still don't know why you're bothering, Leonard, or what you hope to achieve by this. If it's just maligning me personally, fine. I've said my piece. But it's your playground here, and you're welcome to it.

Leonard Jacobs said...

I hope to make people aware of ethics.

Anonymous said...

Dear Leonard,

Back in June you asked why no one was “posting about Spike Lee being announced to direct the first-ever revival of Stalag 17 on Broadway?” You then speculated:

“Is there (with theoretical good reason) an automatic assumption that the show will be crap...”

It seems to me that speculating that a show will be “crap” a year before it opens is an infinitely worse transgression for a theatre critic to make than reviewing a show (or even half a show) in preview, especially when it’s with the blessing of the theatre company who have already placed the show in the public domain and are charging people money to go see it.

It’s hard to take you seriously when you call others out on their ethical standards if you fail your own.

At least George wrote about something he actually saw.

Leonard Jacobs said...

It is hard to take you seriously, Abe, given your perhaps tenuous relationship to the truth. I did not state that it would be crap. I posted the following:

Why is no one posting about Spike Lee being announced to direct the first-ever revival of Stalag 17 on Broadway?

"Is there (with theoretical good reason) an automatic assumption that the show will be crap, or that Lee will crap out on the project?

Or is it summer doldrums?...."

And that was in response to there being no response. That is not the same as passing judgement on the play. And again, I don't care if it comes with Playwrights Horizons' blessing or not. It was wrong, and it remains wrong, and I can assure something is being done about it.

Anonymous said...

Leonard, if you want to claim a stronger relationship to the truth than me, then you shouldn't misrepresent what I actually said.

I never claimed you were "passing judgement" on Stalag 17, I said you were "speculating". And your aside in parentheses, "with theoretical good reason", indicates that you are strongly sympathetic with those who make the "automatic assumption that the show will be crap".

That's a poisonous thing for a theatre critic to write about a show that hasn't even been staged, and I repeat, is a worse transgression than the one of which you accuse George.

Leonard Jacobs said...

Give me a break, Abe. If I wasn't passing judgement, as you duly acknowledge, then nothing poisonous occurred, certainly nothing that would be a worse transgression that what George did. And just because I said there might be "theoretical good reason" does not mean that I agree with the theory.