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Should reviews not be political? New York theatre’s latest scandal

I first skimmed Laura Collins-Hughes’s New York Times review of a new production of the 1985 musical Big River five days ago, not thinking for a second that it would generate any degree of controversy.

The review is largely positive, with plenty of praise for the performances, but Collins-Hughes asks some very gentle questions about the timing of the show, based on Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and its racial politics in 2017. She concludes:

“I’m not arguing for rewriting Twain or for consigning Big River to the scrap heap. But especially right now, with the United States plumbing its own soul over questions of privilege and belonging, the show doesn’t seem to have a great deal to add.”

A pretty fair, innocuous assessment, I’d have thought. The review asks the sort of questions I’d hope mainstream critics would be grappling with in writing about the world’s culture right now.

But former New York Times critic Frank Rich was quick to condemn Collins-Hughes for “p.c. policing”, which he says “empowers Trumpists”. (Because presumably Trump supporters are taking their political cues from the arts pages of the New York Times.)

Two days later Rich shared a vitriolic letter, written by Jack Viertel, the artistic director behind this production of Big River, to the drama critic of the New York Times. The letter labelled Collins-Hughes’ review “embarrassing” and “shameful”, and a “significant humiliation for the paper, a stunningly amateurish piece of work”.

All of this amounts to a public shaming of Collins-Hughes, and a clear attempt on the part of Rich and Viertel to ensure she no longer reviews for the New York Times. 

The message was clear: keep your politics out of your theatre reviews.

The public response I’ve seen on social media has been pretty evenly divided between those who think Collins-Hughes’s review was fair and reasonable, and those who think the politicisation of theatre reviews is inappropriate, and that critics shouldn’t push “agendas”.

Viertel’s attack is deeply disturbing considering Collins-Hughes, a thoughtful and experienced arts journalist, is one of a tiny handful of women writing reviews for mainstream outlets in New York, and one of an even smaller handful of people who are not white men to have ever written theatre reviews for the New York Times. 

“These productions become part of the way the world sees itself, whether we like it or not.”

Right now, the New York Times is in the process of recruiting a new full-time critic after the departure of Charles Isherwood. The timing of Viertel’s letter doesn’t seem coincidental.

The Times responded with its own letter defending Collins-Hughes’s practice, saying: “it’s incumbent upon our critics to think out loud about how a stage work might register with a 21st century audience. To do otherwise is to make theater nothing more than a scholastic enterprise.”

I wholeheartedly believe criticism inevitably involves a close examination of works from the theatrical canon and asking how they sit within the current social and political climate.

And, although they’re applicable, I’m going to try to make this case without using words like “privilege”, “diversity” and “systemic inequality”, because people who believe “political correctness has gone mad” generally tune out the moment they’re uttered.

Mainstream criticism in New York has been often unwilling to ask questions about the political ramifications of work; questions of how various stories and people are represented on stage, and who theatre affords representation to. These are not insignificant questions to be asking, particularly in New York theatre, an industry which exports live theatre to millions upon millions of people. These productions become part of the way the world sees itself, whether we like it or not.

Most of the critics I know, writing in Australia, would consider sociopolitical factors as amongst the most important considerations in their practice — right up there with considerations of craft, impact and execution.

Of course, comments telling critics to stop pushing political agendas are quite common, and companies have reacted negatively to these sorts of assessments in the past. But nothing quite as scathing as Viertel’s letter has ever emerged in Australia.

Part of the reason politics in reviews still sit so uncomfortably with some readers is that the history of theatre criticism is dominated by white men reviewing the work of white men. Their perspectives are the norm.

New York has produced many of the world’s finest theatre critics, but the majority of them have belonged to one demographic — the same demographic as those artists whose perspective has mostly been represented on stage.

As that starts to shift, we’re seeing criticism that’s more engaged with how both canonical and contemporary works represent and treat people who are not white men. The answer is often discomforting for those who have rarely thought to ask that question.

But beyond debating the role of criticism, what struck me as quite extraordinary is the contrast between Collins-Hughes’s measured response to the work — she explicitly stated “I’m not arguing for rewriting Twain or for consigning Big River to the scrap heap” — and the hysteria of her detractors. They claim that her review is an attempt to censor art, but the overwhelming campaign against Collins-Hughes is an attempt to have her work no longer published by the all-important New York Times.

That feels a lot more like censorship than a mild review which connects a work with its various contexts and notes that it’s maybe not the most insightful piece for the times we’re living in.

Featured image: The Encores! production of Big River. Photo by Joan Marcus

4 responses to “Should reviews not be political? New York theatre’s latest scandal

  1. Jesse Green at Vulture makes the same points as Collins-Hughes only more forcefully but no one seems to be attacking him.

  2. Imagine what you can get awya with if it were true nothing in life reflects or comments on contemporary society and its values both cultural and political. I am only aware of North Korea being totally in the league so the criticisms appearing the US, aligned iwth the spirit of fake news, are of deep, deep concern.

  3. This is an interesting and important piece.
    The editor of “Opera” (the important London-based operatic monthly) has recently been denigrated by some readers (though supported by others) for discussing political issues in his editorials. As if he had any choice in the contemporary world!
    It seems to me that the New York critic has, in this case, introduced some utterly germane points into her review: but it wouldn’t be the first time that a critic had been attacked by those with a vested interest in a production. I was once, when working as a theatre critic, banned by a produces/director, who told me “I don’t need the sort of publicity that I get from your reviews”. I went incognito and wrote a review, anyway.
    The point is a serious one of philosophy. Art is far more than merely a commercial venture (notwithstanding that it necessarily has a significant financial aspect). Those who would deny the right of a critic to make “political” arguments would deny that art is — and must be — “political”: it deals with the entirety of the human condition, after all. Anything less and it is impoverished art.
    And since a musical was under discussion, it would seem that the producers and directors fail to understand that the American musical has given Americans more than a sense of who they are: that form (take “Oklahoma” or “Showboat” as great examples from the past) significantly contributed to making them what they are.
    In opera, Beethoven’s “Fidelio” and Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelung” are conspicuous examples and there are, likewise, innumerable examples in literature.
    It is part of every artist’s (and every critic’s responsibility) to battle against this “commodification” of art.

  4. A clear and level-headed contribution to a debate that I was surprised to see taking place. I agree with all Ben Neutz says here and would add that his argument holds true even without raising the question of politics. Theatre is a live medium and its meaning can change by the night, let alone by the decade or the century. Hamilton had a different meaning the night Mike Pence was in the audience to take an extreme recent example. There’d be no point in reviewing revivals if each one carried the same meaning as the last. It’s the critic’s job to identify how those meanings have shifted. Of course, the critic’s analysis may be flawed, but it’s preposterous to suggest that any play, classic or otherwise, can somehow stand aside from the passage of time.

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