Slack the Knife
Local arts critics show courage under fire
April 10, 1981
Here are raised interesting questions about the role of critics in particular and the press in general. I never quite state my opinion on them here, because I never quite formed one.
I knew and liked the Springfield newspaper critic who figures in this piece. (I had written about him earlier, in this piece.) He left town a few years later for a choice editing job, and his replacements lacked the wit or the will to emulate him. I did not pay enough attention to local arts performances to tell whether they good better or worse because his absence.
This piece differs slightly from the original in what I hope are good ways.
"There is a certain race of men that . . . value themselves upon giving Ignorance and Envy the first notice of a prey." Dr. Johnson was speaking of critics, which was a subject about which he could not make up his mind. Dr. Johnson also said, "You may scold a carpenter who has made you a bad table, though you cannot make a table" because "it is not your trade to make tables."
People have always had trouble making up their minds about critics. Partisans of local amateur arts group cherish them for the attention they give but hate them for doing it uncomplimentarily. In such disputes I side standfast with the critics. It isn't easy to be a critic, and to be a local arts critic is harder still. How glad would you be as each June rolled around, knowing that summer is bringing with it yet another backyard version of Brigadoon?
I have studied this issue with detachment. I neither tap dance nor croon, and the only quartet I belong to is the one that sits on the first base side at Redbird games. Disputes about the merits, qualifications, and morality of local critics, though usually more entertaining than the shows that spark them, are not important in themselves. However, they do raise some interesting questions about the role of critics in particular and the press in general.
Maugham once wrote, "'People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise." This is as true on Broadway as it is on East Lawrence Street, home of the Springfield Theatre Guild. The difference is that a Broadway show is not likely to be directed by the wife of a major advertiser. Besides, professional actors and musicians have learned (along with professional journalists) that nothing that is said in print, good or bad, is long remembered. Amateurs, however, venture onto the boards too seldom to develop a skin thick enough to thwart the slings and arrows of critics.
If he dares say that a baritone's vibrato resembles a township road in March, they first demand to know his credentials, usually in a letter to an editor that begins, "What right does So-and So have . . . . " Of course, they seldom advance their own credentials for attempting, say, The Doll House with a part-time real estate broker in the title role, for reasons which the critic probably pointed out anyway.
Hurt artistes also inevitably react to a pan by noting that the people in the cast worked terribly hard, and that they are unpaid. This suggests that the merit of a performance varies with the smallness of its budget. Poets have used that dodge for years, with somewhat better results.
What local arts groups want is a sort of aesthetic indexing, by which standards would be adjusted so that a production of Waiting for Godot staged by the Noon Optimists Club could be rendered the equal of its New York counterpart. The problem is that this accommodation violates the press's oaths of honesty. The phrase, "Good for a local production" is merely a euphemism for "bad." Boredom is no less boring because its perpetrators are well-intentioned. Nor do I think critics should give performers credit for sincerity; artists, like politicians, should be judged according to results.
Still, central Illinois isn't New York, and some adjustment would seem in order. I advocate reviewing a performance in terms of the performers' pretensions. And how could pretension be graded, you ask? I suggest using ticket price as a guide. if the Springfield Symphony Orchestra charges big-city ticket prices so it can put professionals in the first chairs, it should be held to a higher standard than a recreational string quartet whose only goal is to have fun making music. The technique is complicated by government arts subsidies, but in such cases a ratio of fox stoles to total seats sold in the audience would do nearly as well.
As I noted earlier, trashing other people's work isn't easy, especially in a small town. Like steam, feelings get all the hotter for being confined in a small space. Steve Slack offers the perfect example. Slack is a critic for Springfield's State Journal-Register. He is considered a clever writer by his fans and a vandal by his victims. Last year I received a note from a local theater person in response to a column I'd written on the lost art of invective. It read in part, "Invective is alive and flowering in any review of a local theater production by . . . Slack. If you wish to continue further research on the subject, may I suggest you invite yourself to a bull session of local theater people. Casually drop Mr. Slack's name, and you will be able to collect enough examples of local invectives to write at least three more essays!”
Of course, in years past, editors followed their mothers' advice and never said anything at all if they couldn't say something nice about local artists. I am told that for a while the person who reviewed the Municipal Opera for the SJR was also on the opera's board, which is a relationship so cozy that it would make even the Department of Mines and Minerals and the Illinois Coal Association blush.
More recently, provincial papers have taken on big-city airs, and to their credit have sought more disinterested reviewers. But the size of the arts community in small towns makes certain conflicts unavoidable. One freelance critic confided to me that she attended a recent local dance recital deathly afraid that the performers would be bad. If they were, she would have to say so, and she knows several of them and takes private dance lessons from the company director. Happily, it turned out that they were not at all bad. But the assignment put the critic in a hopelessly compromised emotional situation.
Being a critic, then, can lose you your friends. It can also lose you your job. Last fall Luciano Pavarotti appeared in recital at the Krannert Center in Urbana. His performance was wildly received. Thomas Schleis, the freelance music critic for the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette, was less enthusiastic, complaining in a review that, among other things, the aging tenor's voice had lost clarity in the upper register. This is a commonplace observation about Pavarotti these days; a few weeks later a New York critic would complain that Pavarotti's program had been "more crooned than sung."
But Pavarotti is a star as well as a singer. Local fans were outraged at Schleis's cheek, and wrote the paper saying so. (As Donal Henehan has noted in the New York Times, "The fan listens with ears . . . but hears with the heart." ) The next day Schleis was told that the N-G would no longer have a place for his reviews. According to a story in C-U's The Weekly by Rick Wagner, a News-Gazette editor reportedly said that the public was not mature enough to handle objective reviews.
It is a fact that many readers attribute negative reviews to either ignorance or malevolence on the part of critics. Malevolence is rare, however, and ignorance usually shows itself in the glowing reviews rather than the critical ones. Walter Kerr of the New York Times is always complaining that a negative review is harder to write than a positive one. Maybe. But from a strictly literary perspective, writing a negative one is more fun. What Tolstoy said about families ("Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way") is true of reviews as well: Complimentary reviews are all alike; every uncomplimentary review is uncomplimentary in its own way. It is a grievous temptation to a critic to pen lines that will live on in the literature. Had Dorothy Parker said of Katherine Hepburn in The Lake, "She ran the whole gamut of emotion from A to Z," no one would have remembered either her or the performance. Instead, she said, "She ran the whole gamut of emotion from A to B," and so won a niche in eternity all for herself. Besides, as H. L. Mencken used to say, people love to read abuse.
In the end, critics serve valuable social functions which are seldom recognized. In the old days, audiences would express their own criticism, using a vocabulary of boos or rotten vegetables. We are more polite now, but no less critical; as a result we must turn to the critic who says in print what we only wish to say. (It is not the critic's opinion that troubles performers as much as their fear that all their neighbors down to the office agree with him.) This vents emotions vicariously which otherwise might erupt into acne or speeding.
It seems possible too that the new standard in arts criticism has spared the community many painful exhibitions of the sort that used to be common in the days of a more compliant press. I do not count it a bad thing that Springfield no longer can see the ladies of the Second Presbyterian Church in a series of Tableaux Vivants, as was staged in the 1880s at the Old Chatterton Opera House. The hours spent at rehearsal are hours spent away from family, church, and swim club. Because of this, the critic is an unsung protector of American family life. If it take the presence of Steve Slack in the front row to discourage local thespians from attempting such extravaganzas, thus keeping them at home nights where they can rake the carpet and beat the kids like normal people, then I say "Hats off!" to Slack the Knife. □