Another opaque post title, which, if I attempt to “Search” for it later I will be unable to identify.
"Doctor, why do I keep doing that?"
As it turns out, our tickets for Alan Bennett’s play Allelujah! were for the final preview before the official opening, which was good because we would see the play free from any preconceptions about the production offered by professional reviewers. Although we already like Alan Bennett, so that was one preconception right there, though it was a preconception of our own, which is better than the preconceptions of strangers we have never met and have no idea if our prejudices align.
What a long sentence. And yet, an interesting one. Why “interesting”? According to my preconceived idea of what’s interesting? Because it tells you all you need to know about my perspective concerning the professional reviewing of creative undertakings.
Saving a refreshing “wrinkle” for later.
Ooh, the suspense of it all!
Anyway, here’s what I have come to believe. No. I have pretty much always believed this. I just thought “come to believe” seemed more thoughtfully ruminative. (And then my congenital “honesty” kicked in and I had to embarrassingly come clean.)
One paragraph about me. Which for this venue is miniscule.
I created half-hour comedy series for television. And here’s what I noticed. No show I ever created got either unilaterally positive or unilaterally negative reviews. And wait, there’s more. The positive reviews were invariably not positive for the same reason. Nor “Ditto”, the negative reviews. Critics had different reasons for liking them, and for, inexplicably to me, not liking them. And yet, they all experienced the same show. I know critical reactions are not – and cannot be – uniformly objective. But one show! And the reactions were all over the map!
Critics do not review the artistic undertaking they are evaluating. Critics essentially review themselves. Through the convenient medium of the artistic undertaking they are currently critiquing.
The unavoidable, annoying “Mirror Effect.”
“Unavoidable” because the filtering “You” evaluating the enterprise is you. And the filtering “Them”, meaning the other reviewers evaluating the enterprise are them. Hence the maddening inconsistency in their reactions.
Challenging Hypothesis Open To Dispute:
It’s not the “reviewed.” It’s the reviewer.
Instead of an artistic critical reaction, you get camouflaged information about the critics. Each of them differently programmed, and variously prejudiced.
Case In Point?
Pay heed to two esteemed theatre reviewers from reputable London newspapers:
Michael Billington – The Guardian
Allelujah! –Critical Rating (according to Billington): “Four Stars”
Excerpted Quote: “… a smart, funny, subversively political play…”
Dominic Maxwell – The (London) Times
Allelujah! – Critical Rating (according to Maxwell): “Two Stars.”
Excerpted Quote: “… a show that dawdles, then jabs you in the stomach with a point it wants to make.”
Offering the practical conundrum:
“Should we go?”
“Well it says, ‘Four Stars.’”
“But this one says, ‘Two Stars.’”
“And they witnessed the same play? How very curious.”
“And also unhelpful.”
Additional Comment(for extra credit.)
From “Two Star” Dominic Maxwell’s review:
“… I’d rather Allelujah spent more time putting flesh on the bones of its pivotal characters.”
Note To Mr. “I’d rather…” Dominic Maxwell:
It’s not your play.
Do I know why one critic said “Two Stars” and another critic said “Four”? No. But that’s a major disparity. And I’m betting it wasn’t the play.
Objective reviewing is off the menu.
But... the refreshing “wrinkle” previously alluded to…
From a recent example:
While reviewing AMC’s premiering ‘Lodge 49’, wonderful L.A. TimesTV critic Robert Lloyd reveals in his very first sentence,
“If I wind up sounding a little daffy on the subject of ‘Lodge 49’… it is in part that it feels like a gift, tailor made to my sensibilities.”
Why “wonderful” L.A. TimesTV critic?
Because he agrees with me that critical objectivity is impossible.
And he is willing to say so out loud.
(Additional Comment After I Am Essentially Finished: Why is the issue of critical reliability important? Because the artist deserves an honest review of their work, not of the critic’s emotional tendencies. And the reader expects a truthful report on the artist’s intentions, not the critic’s personal prejudices.) (I had to throw that in, in case you thought I was cultivating the obvious.) (Though I may, sadly, be doing so anyway.) (In truth, it is all a matter of degree.) (But you could say that about anything.) (And then, what the heck would I write about?)