Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Toward my next hundred posts (No. 201): Should a review be mainly polemical or the report of an experience?

In more than 40 years of reviewing performances, I have sometimes frustrated presenters by not being particularly "blurbable."

It's not because I'm a dyspeptic reviewer, which would mean who besides a masochist would want to quote me? No, that's not it: I like so much of what I attend that one of the volunteer workers at the Indy Fringe Fest has complained to me: "Do you like EVERYTHING?"

On the other hand, some readers over the years have insisted they couldn't tell from the review if I liked a particular show or not. Occasionally when they can tell, and they liked the event less than I did, I get something like: "You were too kind." It doesn't come across as a compliment, though kindness normally gets lots of lip service.

In many a review, I may register my caveats and disappointments along the way, but even my thoroughly positive responses too often lack a phrase that could be pulled out and used to encourage people to buy tickets.

I remember with amusement when, many years ago, Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre artfully concocted a positive blurb out of my Indianapolis Star panning of Maury Yeston's "Phantom." Judicious employment of ellipses works wonders in the blurb art form.

So I don't mind if my reviews are useful, even with such a tinge of misrepresentation. But I certainly don't go out of my way to make them... well, useless.

It was heartening recently to see one word from my review of Indiana Repertory Theatre's "Other Desert Cities" plucked out of its cozy nest and used to grace a Star ad, with just my name attached. Wow! I have a brand, I thought. And the selected word was "stunning." I had used it twice in my blog post, which made it an obvious choice for such a distinction.

What's more, IRT shared my review on its Facebook page with the recommendation to "read Jay Harvey's experience" of the show. At first the wording seemed awkward. Then I decided I liked it: maybe my reviews are best described as reports of an experience. Maybe that's why I'm not really fazed by "you were too kind" or "do you like everything?" remarks. This is what I gathered from being there, my reviews say.

I've never been comfortable putting stars on a review. I admired the late Roger Ebert, but he and Gene Siskel cemented the image of critics as Roman emperors with their thumbs-up, thumbs-down judgments. In my newspaper career, I accepted the rationale that reviews can be a handy consumer guide, though that weakened my advocacy of covering one-off performances.

Virgil Thomson reviewed music with distinction for 14 years.
So I've decided that IRT nailed it: I like the idea of reviewing as sharing an experience. It implies that arts patrons shouldn't be looking to a review for a verdict. Though a critic is a judge (the derivation of the word from Greek tells us), that concept has done much damage to arts criticism. At the worst, it may encourage those who attend an event to look up the review to see what they should have thought of the performance.

The composer-critic Virgil Thomson once declared: "Reviewing, unless it is an interplay between facts correctly stated and ideas about them fairly arrived at, makes no point." He was reviewing a book by Andrew Porter, then of the New Yorker, whose reviews Thomson largely admired. But he also scolded: "He can get so tied up in detail that decision fails him."

Even great critics are inconsistent, however. Late in life, Thomson spoke through a Times of London interviewer to nameless younger counterparts: "Remember, you're not reviewing yourself, you're reviewing the piece. What was it like? And what was it about? Don't give me opinions. What is it like? Everything is like something else. Just start there."

Precepts and prejudices  – and the opinions they generate — are all very well, and perhaps inevitable items in a critic's baggage. But openness to and basic respect for experience should trump them.

A religious anecdote may help explain my priorities. Long ago working for the Flint Journal, I covered a reading by the writer Jim Heynen, who shared this
Jim Heynen told a kind of parable
story with his audience to illustrate the parochial environment of his upbringing. One Saturday night, a tornado passed through the northwest Iowa town where he and his family lived. It made a mess of a neighborhood largely inhabited by Lutherans, then lifted into the air, sparing the Dutch Calvinist enclave where the Heynens lived before touching down again and wreaking havoc among the Catholics.

The next day after church the writer and his mother got into the car to survey damage to the affected neighborhoods, where the residents were starting to clean up and salvage what they could. Following a brief tour, Mrs. Heynen shook her head. "After all that," she muttered disapprovingly, "they still work on Sunday."

The dear lady rendered judgment, all right, but she wouldn't amount to much as a critic, I'm afraid. She couldn't muster much feeling for what it was like to put life in order again soon after a tornado's devastation. And her judgment on all the activity was backed up by her God's, she felt certain. Some critics assess performances with corresponding certainty.

But the most sustaining critical perspective favors taking a broad view of experience. That's where the damage, resilience and recovery, the sorrow and the hope, that constitute life make their home. That's fundamentally where the art is, too.

If a critic is less alive to that than to his ideas about what people should be doing and how they should be doing it, he's missing something essential. I never want to forget about values I hold dear, and I'll work to advance them, but part of me should always be with the folks who "still work on Sunday."

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