Nowadays, thanks to the comment facility to most online reviews, not to mention bulletin boards and Twitter, criticism is no longer a one-way monologue but a platform for multiple conversations to begin around a production. And as critics who dish it out, we occasionally have to take it, too: we’re not immune to criticism, either.
But should artists involved in a show ever answer back themselves? Steven Berkoff famously issued a death threat against Nicholas de Jongh, the former theatre critic of the Evening Standard, which de Jongh’s editor took so seriously he called the police (so I fear for the safety of Fiona Mountford and Dominic Maxwell, who respectively gave Berkoff’s latest, Six Actors In Search of A Director, a one-star review last week in the Evening Standard and The Times).
In a Daily Telegraph interview a few years ago, Berkoff claimed “I just did it to turn him on.” Did it work? “Yes, he was very excited.” And playwright David Storey once equally famously assaulted the critics, and in particular Michael Billington, when he saw them next. As Storey himself told it in a Telegraph interview, “I just couldn’t resist verbally abusing them and I got carried away. I only really hit hard at Michael Billington. I was rather soft with the others - it was on the back of the heads, reproachful, like you do with schoolchildren. With Billington, I hit him each time I came to a vowel. ‘I-di-ot.’ I just remembered the first sentence of his review, which only had two words in it: ‘A stinker.’ I knocked his glasses across the floor. Irving Wardle [then the Times critic] brought me to a dead halt by pressing me against a wall and saying, ‘Don’t hit me!’ And I thought, God, we’re both idiots, aren’t we?”
Usually, though, it’s just verbal volleys that some creative people lobby against critics they don’t agree with. And last week, following the Australian world premiere of a musical version of An Officer and a Gentleman in Sydney, the film’s original screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart who co-wrote the book to the musical, answered a scathing review of it in The Australian newspaper by writing a letter to the paper, which it duly published.
He wrote, in a letter that combines petulance, defensiveness and insults, “I want to urge those of you who are reserving judgment to ignore the so-called review that appeared today in this paper. After four decades in this business I can tell you this was not a review by any standards. It was an ‘execution’ by someone clearly unable to feel human emotion, or to put it in a kinder way, by someone whose highbrow tastes do not represent you. Perhaps she had made her mind up before seeing the show. I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that many critics pretend to represent the popular taste but often only represent an eclectic, overly intellectual point of view that allows them to insulate themselves inside a cocoon of superiority. I like to think of them as that unpopular outsider from school who can now wield a cudgel of revenge against those of us who feel true emotion. When you read a review of a new artistic effort that has only harsh negativity to offer (like the one in this paper) that is your warning that you have run into such an emotional cripple.”
Ouch! But there’s more: there’s a suggestion that Sydney is lucky to see it - and a (not-so) veiled threat, too, that if they don’t support it, the supply chain of musicals that are supposedly putting the city on the international theatrical map will dry up. “If I can be your Officer and a Gentleman for a moment, I want to warn you Sydney theatregoers how dangerous it is to have voices like this speaking on your behalf. In recent years your city has emerged as a world centre for the opening of new musicals, including Dirty Dancing, Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Dr. Zhivago. If you listen to a critic like this, good luck on seeing any more new musicals come here. But if you love the arts and want to see Sydney continue to grow as a centre, or if you simply want to have the kind of theatre experience that lifts you “Up Where You Belong” come see An Officer and a Gentleman The Musical as soon as possible.”
As Howard Sherman, who is also a regular columnist for The Stage, puts it in a Huffington Post blog, “It’s not hard to understand why someone involved in a creative venture would feel compelled to try to debunk not only criticism but the person who wrote it. After all, no one likes being told their baby is ugly. However, in my experience, it’s an impotent gesture at best and a counterproductive one at worst: I am unaware of any critic ever seeing such a missive and then realizing that they were ‘mistaken’. More often, the critic will respond to such letters by reiterating or embellishing upon their original position, and the artist doesn’t get a second whack. The critic may harbor resentment, to be expressed in the future, against the artist or the producer, whether commercial or not-for-profit. When this sort of thing has come to me as press agent, as general manager, as executive director, I have always sought to talk the artist down, expressing genuine compassion, but trying to explain that other than making themself and perhaps the company feel better, no real good comes of such an action.”
And in fact it draws attention to the negative review more fully than if it had been allowed to pass, as this blog today proves again. Mr Stewart, elsewhere in his letter, cited a “plethora of five-star reviews” in other outlets, and it sent Sherman to look for them, and he comments drily, “Let’s just say I hardly found a ‘plethora’.”And as he concludes, “The more strategic response to the reviews, if there was to be a response, would have been to talk about the value of many opinions, critical and general public, and talk about how the time in Australia was going to be used to make the show even more successful and entertaining before conquering the known world.”