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Why Are Critics Villains?

A theater critic is a “malicious, cowardly” person who cannot see the beauty in a flower because she cannot put a label on it. That is what the ex movie star turned first-time Broadway director Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton) tells the New York Times theater critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) in Birdman. “You risk nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing,” the director tells the critic as they both drink in a theatre bar. “I risk everything.”

Critics are “really failed playwrights or actors who become critics out of desperation,” the playwright character says in the Broadway revival of Terrence McNally’s It’s Only A Play, which singled out the (actual) New York Times theatre critic Ben Brantley as “a pretentious, diva-worshipping, British-ass-kissing twat.”

From “The Man Who Came To Dinner” to “The Worst Show in the Fringe” (in which a critic is kidnapped), theatre critics have been depicted as intimidating, pompous, and unpleasant—yes, usually cultured and erudite, but also condescending and out-of-touch…and sometimes (All About Eve?) villainous. In Ruthless! The Musical, the daughter of a character named Lita Encore says: “Oh Mother hates anything to do with show business; she’s a theater critic.”

Even Mark Twain had it out for critics: “I believe the trade of critic, in literature, music, and drama, is the most degraded of all trades, and has no real value.” He added: “However, let it go. It is the will of God that we must have critics and missionaries and Congressmen and humorists. We must bear the burden.”

Why such hostility towards drama (as well as other) critics? That is one of the three questions I explore in my essay for Howlround,

Are Theatre Critics Critical? An Update

 

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About New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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