No Business Like Show Business
Springfield arts critics get panned—again
July 28, 1978
I once asked Alan Anderson, the transplanted New Yorker who was editing Illinois Times, what was the biggest adjustment he’d had to make to life in a smaller city. Easy, he said, He’s never before had to worry about meeting on the street people he’d written about.
"I would like to see the State Journal-Register be big enough to praise all those connected . . . and promote Muni by deleting such articles in the future." That extraordinary plea was voiced on May 23 by Dorothy Knous of Petersburg in the letters-to-the-editor columns of the SJ-R. The cause was a review by that paper's Steve Slack in which he said that watching the Springfield Municipal Opera's production of "Brigadoon" was "like observing potatoes being riced." Ms. Knous stoutly defended the Muni Opera. The company “gives great pleasure to hundreds of people”—faint praise, considering that the number of people who attend Muni productions is in the thousands annually. The performers are mostly amateurs "who give their free time and work very hard in extremely warm weather." Just about everybody at Muni works for nothing and some (might we deduce Ms. Knous herself?) drive in from as far away as thirty miles. "Amateurs need a pat on the back—not a put-down," she insists, and criticism a la Slack "promote(s) ill will and destroy(s) the confidence" of the players.
Ms. Knous, in common with most local arts enthusiasts, wants the local press to suspend their usual journalistic standards in the interests of advancing their cause. Arts people typically call this being a "good citizen." But the role of booster suits the press badly. It is a role better left to chambers of commerce, bank presidents, or politicians, who daily indulge in the small hypocrisies required of the role and for whom the occasional lie thus poses no ethical pain.
A good local critic, naturally, will not go to the Muni Opera expecting to see shows of Broadway quality. He or she must judge a local production against the standard of the best such local companies can stage; indeed, Slack compared the latest show and found it wanting in terms of the standards of the Muni itself, which he said is "capable of better." Finding the balance point between criticism and condescension isn't easy; the New York Times principal drama critic Richard Eder notes this week that his job is like working in a coal mine, because "The work is done in the dark, it is done alone, and the roof keeps falling in. "
Of course, what Ms. Knous wants is not the invocation of appropriate standards but their abandonment. She advises the SJ-R, "Don't take the word of just one person." How then, one might ask, is the press to review performances? Pass out ballots in the box seats? Have a show of hands? Resort to an applause meter?The word of just one person is the essence of criticism; anything else is not criticism but public opinion. Knous suggests, none too helpfully, that the paper "print some comments from the public who faithfully attend and continuously support the Muni Opera productions." Aside from the fact that such opinions beg the question of quality, the scheme flounders on the assumption that aesthetic judgments (at even this low level) are collective. It is not true that the more people like a show the better it must be; in fact, it means only that it is more popular. The two are usually confused.
Slack's pan of "Brigadoon" neatly illustrates one of the dilemmas of journalism. Say what the people want to hear and your wisdom will be sung from the church steeples. Take one step off that worn and muddy path however, and you 're either unqualified, ignorant, or (my favorite) biased. Is there anyone in our city surprised that no one from the Muni Opera or the Theater Guild or the Springfield Symphony ever writes in demanding that the press not take the word of "just one person" if that one person has praised one of their productions? It is not the method but the result they quarrel with. Heads you win, tails I lose. The next time the SJ-R raves about a Muni show, I think I'll write a letter to the editor demanding that the paper print some comments from the public who faithfully stay away from and couldn't care less about the Muni Opera productions—just to restore some perspective, you understand.
So I repeat, for anyone who's interested, that it is not a journalist's job to make organizations like the Muni Opera look good; that is their job. We are not press agents and we are not shills, and to the extent that we allow ourselves to be used as either our performance should be panned too, because, unlike the theater, amateurism offers journalists no refuge from the obligations of the profession. In the meantime, whenever we see a bird with a red wattle and brown feathers that goes "gobble-gobble-gobble" we will continue to call it a turkey. ●