Why Not Just Shoot the Messenger?
By ROBERT W. BETHUNE
ART TIMES July/August 2009
If a baseball player gets a bad call, can he eject the umpire? Not in any league I’ve seen or heard of. You can make very loud noises at the Commissioner, but you’ll find that he is very slow to let you have your way, and certainly not while the game is in progress.
If you don’t like the way the trial is going, can you get rid of the judge? Once in a great while, judges will recuse themselves; once in a an even greater while, an appeals court will decide that a judge should have done so. But again, the system is very slow to grant the wishes of the participants in the trial when they decide they want to change the judge.
Few publications are committed to theater reviewing or reviewers. It does not draw eyeballs to advertising to any great extent. It is provided as a public service—unless it competes too strongly for page space or becomes an annoyance. A theater that makes an effort can get rid of a critic by making it easier to get rid of the critic than to defend the integrity of the publication. So, more and more often these days, when a theater doesn’t like the criticism it gets, it goes for the obvious solution: get rid of the critic.
Theaters are routinely judged by critics, often critics who are not really critics, but merely ink-stained drudges little versed in the art. Theaters have a vested interest in getting control, one way or another, of what critics write. After all, what critics write can have a strong effect on the fortunes of the theater. So if theaters can get editors and critics to behave as desired, an interesting result occurs: the critic stops being the voice of the audience and starts functioning as an extension of the publicity department.
Who then is left to speak for the audience? Theater people love to look down on the audience, to regard it as a mere necessary evil or useful source of suitable behavior, such as buying tickets and applauding. Since the time of Shakespeare, theater people see the audience as “capable of mere dumb-shows and noise.” Of course, at some point, the audience is capable of killing theaters by starvation by the simple and unstressful choice to go elsewhere, or not go at all.
So theaters deprive themselves of the voice of the audience at their peril. True, critics often are at variance with the audience. Critical taste and audience taste often differ. That’s an annoying fact of life, but not a fundamental one. Critics may be out of touch, but may also realize things the general audience does not realize, though it would be better off if it did. True, a theater could devise its own ways of staying in touch with the audience—but very few do. One can easily observe, in almost any theater company, that theater people shrug off complaints and treasure compliments—what could be more human? That’s why the job of judging quality requires an outside voice, one not emotionally involved in the work. Without a reliable way to judge the quality of their work as seen by outsiders, few theaters will improve what they do very much.
But improvement is tough. Shooting the messenger is easy. Human nature is what it is. The choice is quite predictable.