We Can't Have Nice Things

It’s been a parade of grotesqueries for the past few years, Constant Reader – an unceasing stream of corruption, belligerence, willful ignorance, and horrors beyond imagining. (And I’m not just talking about the Emmy awards.) You’re therefore forgiven if you didn’t realize we were living through a Golden Age. You’re especially forgiven if you didn’t realize this Golden Age involved the oft-maligned art of theater criticism. And yet the past two years have been precisely that – provided you’ve been reading New York magazine, where Sara Holdren has served as the drama critic.

Holdren is that rarest of theater critics – somebody who actually works in the theater, with experience as director and playwright. She’s therefore somebody with actual knowledge and experience in the field in which she’s writing. This shouldn’t be noteworthy – we have this expectation that theater critics are somehow men and women of the theater themselves. But that frequently isn’t true – newspapers and websites often have no prerequisites for the position other than really, really liking going to a show every once in a while. There’s no other sphere of journalism where this is the case; a financial writer who knew nothing about finance, or a political journalist who knew nothing of politics, would eventually be dismissed from their post. (A sportswriter who knew nothing of sports would probably come to physical harm, especially in the more boisterous cities of the Northeast.)

Holdren, of course, has so much more than basic competence. There is no theater writer active today who writes with the same level of insight, the same comprehensive attention to detail. She writes about the performances of supporting characters who most other reviewers don’t even notice are in the show. And there is nobody better at calling out theatrical b.s. of all kinds – be it playwrights who haven’t thought their work through, directors jumping on fashionable trends, or (most especially) producing organizations who haven’t stopped to think of how blinkered their mindset might be, and how that affects what they produce. These two years in which she’s been the New York reviewer have featured the best theatrical writing I’ve seen in a mainstream publication during my lifetime.

And now those two years are over. Last Monday, Ms. Holdren announced that she was stepping down as New York’s theater criticc, to return to her own theatrical projects.

Honestly, it’s amazing she did this as long as she did. I can’t imagine writing critically about people who are also your peers and colleagues. You’ll notice I don’t review much here in this blog, despite clearly being an opinionated sort of fellow; that’s entirely because the people I’d be reviewing are people I might someday wind up working with. It tends to put a damper on what you feel you can say; that Holdren said as much as she did is miraculous. And it’s possible they’ll find somebody even more miraculous to replace her, and that reviewer will have the pleasure of reviewing Holdren’s own productions.

So it’s not the end of this brief, glorious era that saddens me. It’s the fact that, outside of a few well wishes on Twitter, nobody seems to have noticed this.

Theater artists are constantly complaining about reviews, and with good reason. It’s not that they’re unfavorable, though when they are it can’t help but sting. The problem is that most of them are terrible. Uninformed. Catty. Blinkered by their authors’ privilege and comfort, and devoid of any kind of rigorous critical thought. (Which is weird, since they’re, y’know, critics.) We constantly wonder why writers don’t emerge who are willing to engage with the ideas we’re presenting, who know how to have the conversations we want to have and have the sheer skill with English prose to actually form those conversations.

But did we appreciate the conversation when it was actually happening? Do we ever?  Or are we so desperate for pull quotes, so insistent that people agree with our own tastes, that when actual informed criticism manages against all odds to rise above the din, we simply tune it out?

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