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Home :: Archive :: 2003 :: February ::
Re: Reviews
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.0312  Wednesday, 19 February 2003

[1]     From:   Peter D. Holland <
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        Date:   Monday, 17 Feb 2003 09:44:56 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.0303 Re: Reviews

[2]     From:   David Evett <
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        Date:   Monday, 17 Feb 2003 12:16:48 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.0303 Re: Reviews

[3]     From:   Mike Jensen <
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        Date:   Monday, 17 Feb 2003 09:38:45 -0800
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.0303 Re: Reviews

[4]     From:   Charles Weinstein <
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        Date:   Monday, 17 Feb 2003 15:27:05 -0500
        Subj:   Reviews


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Peter D. Holland <
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Date:           Monday, 17 Feb 2003 09:44:56 -0500
Subject: 14.0303 Re: Reviews
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.0303 Re: Reviews

In the 1980s (it may still be the case), theatre reviewers in Soviet
Russia were required to be trained. This meant not only learning how to
write well but also taking classes in acting and directing (and probably
other theatre skills as well). The idea that a reviewer might actually
understand the technical demands of the art-form s/he is writing about
is obviously far beyond us in the West. Instead our reviewers begin as
recent graduates who are praised for their smart (= sardonic) comments.
Some become superb thoughtful writers (in England, I think of John
Peter, Paul Taylor, Michael Coveney and Michael Billington) but all, in
my substantial experience, accept that speed and space prevent them from
doing what they enviously see academic Shakespeare reviewers being able
to do: seeing a production a number of times, weighing their thoughts
over weeks and months, writing at length about the performance. Russian
theatre reviewers also attended productions frequently and were not
required to write late-night or early-morning pieces to meet fast
deadlines. But then they don't write to sell newspapers - and remember,
as the brilliant Irving Wardle found to his cost, that theatre reviews
are only included in papers because editors believe the reviews sell
copies. There was much to be said for the Soviet system in which theatre
reviewers were not expected only to meet the demands of the marketplace.

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Evett <
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Date:           Monday, 17 Feb 2003 12:16:48 -0500
Subject: 14.0303 Re: Reviews
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.0303 Re: Reviews

My wife, Marianne Brish Evett, was Alfred Harbage's last dissertation
supervisee at Harvard; her edition of Henry Porter's *Two Angry Women of
Abington* (Garland, 1980) is, I think a model of its kind.  After a
dozen years of full-time teaching, a series of happy accidents led to
her becoming the drama critic of the Cleveland *Plain Dealer*, so that
for 15 years she did full-time criticism of plays in Cleveland, New
York, London, both Stratfords, and every major regional theater in the
US; she was for many years on the Executive Committee of the American
Theater Critics Association (of which she served for a time as chair),
and though now retired from full-time reviewing, still turns out an
occasional piece.  Her retirement party was a love feast which virtually
everybody in the Cleveland theatrical community attended, and I invite
anybody to call the office of any theater company in that city to
inquire whether she is missed there.  Her scholarly training and
disposition meant that she never attended a performance without finding
out all she could about the play, the playwright, the director, the
company.  I do not believe that anyone ever complained, however, that
her reviews were in the least pedantic, or evinced less than a rich
appreciation of the difference between studying a play and making it
work in the theater.  If anything, she was sometimes criticized for
being too generous and nurturing (except by directors and artistic
directors whose work she had taken to task for one deficiency or
another).  She is, I think, only the one I know the best of many able,
sensitive, perceptive, thoughtful, and articulate academic critics of
theatrical performance.

David Evett

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Mike Jensen <
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Date:           Monday, 17 Feb 2003 09:38:45 -0800
Subject: 14.0303 Re: Reviews
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.0303 Re: Reviews

I'd like to thank David Lindely and others for pointing out Mr.
Weinstein's comments, which I had not read.  The following is some
evidence for their conclusions.

My SAA paper for 2002 in part looked at the theater and film reviews for
Adrian Noble's *MND,* comparing them with journal reviews.  I literally
studied dozens of reviews looking for insights into what Noble
accomplished, or failed to accomplish, in his staging of this play.

With the single exception of the *Variety* film review, comments in the
mass media were invariably superficial compared to journal reviews.
Typically, media reviewers only discussed matters anyone in the audience
could figure out on their own, but journal reviewers raised issues for
those thinking on a deeper level.

I have recently done the same with Trev Nunn's *Othello,* and had the
same result.  I particularly recommend Virginia Mason Vaughan's
masterful chapter on Nunn's sage and television versions in *Othello: a
contextual history*, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994),
217-232.

Mike Jensen

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Charles Weinstein <
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Date:           Monday, 17 Feb 2003 15:27:05 -0500
Subject:        Reviews

I am aware of Harry Berger's literary criticism (which I do not much
admire), but I don't recall any production reviews.  A man with an
avowed preference for "imaginary audition" is not likely to devote much
time to reviewing, or to say much of value when he condescends to do
so.  Nevertheless, if my interlocutor has something specific in mind, I
would be happy to know of it.

As for academic reviewers in general, I find that one page of Tynan (or
Simon, or Brustein, or Kauffmann) is worth a dozen of their
lucubrations, and that Pauline Kael on Shakespearean movies shows more
common sense than any of them can muster.  (Kael's review of Peter
Brook's Lear is an overlooked gem).  The point is not whether one always
agrees with these reviewers.  (I dissent from Brustein's estimates at
least 50% of the time; but his experience, independence, rigor, insight
and style make him a stimulating person to disagree with.)  Moreover,
their status as "reviewers" is not compromised by their academic
credentials.  Simon holds a Doctorate in Comparative Literature from
Harvard, and taught at several universities before devoting himself to
full-time reviewing.  Kauffmann has given courses on film and criticism
at a variety of institutions, including the Yale School of Drama.
Brustein held tenured positions on the English faculties of both Yale
and Harvard; but these were strictly adjunctive to his artistic
directorships of, first, the Yale Repertory Theater and then the
American Repertory Theater.  All of these writers are reviewers or
theatrical animals first, academics only incidentally, secondarily or
formerly.   Priority of orientation is the key.  Those who approach
reviewing with the ingrained outlooks and habits of the Academy have
neither the taste, judgment, individuality, cogency or writing style to
pen effective reviews; and their ulterior motives compromise their
critical integrity.  Desperate for canonical material to feed their
pseudo-discipline, they are broadly accepting towards most of what they
see, and are therefore partly responsible for the shocking decline in
production quality during the past few decades.  Personally, I can no
longer stomach the academically-edited "Players of Shakespeare" series:
Who cares how Derek Jacobi created his bad performance of Macbeth, or
how David Troughton conceived and executed his not-very-interesting
Richard III?  (What next?  A book-length study of Peter O'Toole's
Scotsman?).  The same lack of selectivity, the same privileging of the
mediocre and meretricious along with the estimable, makes each of the
slender "Shakespeare at Stratford" volumes surprisingly diffuse and
tedious.

One can argue whether a review on the one hand, or an extended essay or
study on the other, is the best means of responding to productions.  The
question is moot, since it all hinges on the writing.  By that
criterion, I have actually gotten more from reviews.  Nevertheless,
there are some academic essayists who have made useful contributions, by
dint of selection and discrimination, a willingness to distinguish good
from bad and valid from invalid, and an insistence on treating
productions as modes of elucidating Shakespeare rather than as ends in
themselves.  In this regard, Ralph Berry and Roger Warren head the list,
particularly the former's "Changing Styles in Shakespeare" and the
latter's "Staging Shakespeare's Late Plays."

--Charles Weinstein

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