Reviewing or Criticism?

I’m going to make a purely personal discrimination. It seems to me that reviews and pieces of criticism are different things.

A review exists to give the reader advice on whether or not the work being covered is worth attending. It is a consumer’s guide. If your taste matches a given reviewer’s, then you may have found a reliable guide, steering you away from evenings you will find tedious and recommending work you’re likely to enjoy. The better a guide a reviewer is to you, the better the reviewer. It seems to me that a review will be most valuable to you if you haven’t seen the work in question. For the most part, a review has less value if you have seen it because it likely won’t tell you something you don’t already know.

A piece of criticism, on the other hand, is of most value if you have seen the work in question. It assumes your knowledge of the work and enters into a dialogue with you. In my opinion (hell, all of this is my opinion), a great critic is not necessarily one with whom you agree. There are a number of critics with whom I’ve disagreed whose writing I nevertheless value. I think Robert Brustein has a big blind spot when it comes to appreciating musical theater, but his book, The Theatre of Revolt, has had a big influence on my thinking. So I value him as a critic, but not as a reviewer. (I doubt he cares.)

This has something to do with the guiding principles of this blog. There are dozens of people publishing online or in print opinions on every show that comes down the pike. I am not trying to be one of them. I don’t write about everything I see. I write when I think I can add something to the conversation. If a lot of other people have articulated well enough reactions I share, I don’t see the point of repeating these thoughts in other language.

I don’t entirely shrug off some of the reviewer’s function. If I see something that I think has been undervalued by most of my colleagues (it happens), I’ll recommend it.

But my primary impulse is to raise points I think haven’t been articulated elsewhere. Or to bring up bits of history that I think might enhance appreciating a work. My ideal audience is people who are as devoted to the theater is I am and who make an effort to see a lot and who get a kick out of batting around interpretations and insights.

So if I haven’t covered something, there are a couple reasons I might not have: 1) I may not have been invited. 2) I don’t think I have much to contribute that hasn’t been covered pretty well by others.

I do think I bring a perspective distinct from many of my colleagues by virtue of being primarily a dramatist. (I share this with David Spencer of Aisle Say and Michael Feingold, who alas isn’t covering as much as he used to.) I tend to look at how a work has been built and how it relates to other works, either by the same creators or by people who came before. I also try to avoid the lazy use of adjectives. (This is a carry-over from my ideas about playwriting. I think playwrights, too, should avoid adjectives. I think adjectives should occur in the audience’s mind.)

Also, although I’m primarily concerned with theater, I don’t want to be restricted to writing about it only. I love good stories, and I will pursue them in any medium in which I find them.


About dgsweet

I write for and about theater. I spent a number of years as a resident playwright of a theater in Chicago which put up 14 of my plays, and I still think of Chicago as my primary theatrical home, though I actually live in New York. I serve on the Council of the Dramatists Guild. Between plays, I write books, most notably SOMETHING WONDERFUL RIGHT AWAY (about Second City), THE O'NEILL (about the O'Neill Center) and THE DRAMATIST'S TOOLKIT (a text on playwriting craft). I also occasionally perform a solo show called YOU ONLY SHOOT THE ONES YOU LOVE. I enjoy visiting theaters outside of New York. I can be reached at
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1 Response to Reviewing or Criticism?

  1. Thanks Jeff. I Iove opinions, especially when I don’t agree. If I agree there’s not much more to say. If I disagree there’s lots to discuss. Always interesting and often illuminating.

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