Don Hall, over at "An Angry White Guy in Chicago" (see blogroll), in a section of a post entitled "Critique the Critique," chides Chicago Sun-Times theatre critic Hedi Weiss for her review of "A Child's History of Bombing" because she takes issue with what the play says. "In other words," Hall writes, "she criticizes the play, not for the acting, the set design, the quality of the written text, but because she disagrees with the point Allen and Sherman are making. She turns her review into an OpEd on those who would criticize war in general rather than just the wars she dislikes. This type of critique goes to heart of Scott's treatise on An Ethics of Theatre but focuses upon the role of the arts journalist in the equation of In-Yer-Face type topics. When the critic of a major newspaper turns a theater review into a political OpEd it no longer serves the art but blurs the line between responsible arts journalism and punditry."
I respectfully (and perhaps predictably) disagree that the content of a play should be ignored. What if there was a well-acted, beautifully-designed, stunningly-directed production of a brilliantly-written play that was a racist diatribe -- would it be OK to simply ignore the fact that the play was about something, to not condemn the content of the play? So many theatre people seem to expect critics to remain mired in the formalist New Criticism of the 1950s, which examined poems and novels as if they existed in a vacuum with no social, political, or psychological context. It is as if, when I was grading a student essay, I only graded on the font choice, paragraph layout, ink color, and quality of paper, but not what the essay was about.
A play is not simply a form on a stage -- a work of art in the theatre says something, and that is as much a part of the production as the interpretation. In my labyrinthan mind, this connects to the current expressions of opinion concerning the Muslim protests of the Danish cartoons portraying the prophet Mohammed. Isaac over at Parbasis (see blogroll) states an opinion that it is difficult to argue with: "I am staunchly for the freedom of expression, and that comics are art and art should be protected." Hear! Hear! Me too! Me too! By all means artists should be free to say what they think, but that is not the same as saying that people who view the art should not be allowed to react to it, to protest it with vigor.
For some reason, artists think that they should be given a free pass -- they can confront people, provoke people, make people "uncomfortable," invade their space, grab them by the scruff of the neck and shake them, but they expect that people should just shut up and accept the assault quietly and passively. Artists can hand out the assaults, but scream like babies when they are assaulted themselves. Yes, the Danish cartoonist should be allowed self-expression, and so should Muslims. To expect them to simply look the other way when their prophet is attacked is unreasonable. The same is true of the Christian reaction to Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi . That said, the form these protests have taken should be strongly condemned -- violence, or the threat of violence, is never an acceptable reaction to a work of art. However, non-violent protests should be seen as acceptable, and perhaps even welcome -- they might be seen as proof that the artist has succeeded in his goal of provocation. What's the point of provoking if everybody remains unprovoked? But to be surprised that there should be a negative reaction at all is naive.
If your slogan as an artist is "Sacred cows make the best burgers," then you should expect to get gored by a bull now and then. It is part of the game you've chosen to play. If you see your role as an artist being to provoke, then don't be surprised when people are outraged and let you know it. And don't whine when they take actions that provoke you. Goose, gander.