Ah, but anyone can shit on a play…

January/February are somewhat dead theatre time in Victoria, I’ve been plenty busy with other art forms, and I find Twitter a little distressing, so I had missed the fact of a new (beautifully designed) Australian general-interest publication, The Global Mail, having an inaugural arts feature pertaining to theatre bloggers.

Or rather, using theatre blogging as a pretext to profile one Jane Simmons, who voiced her opinions on theatre (anonymously until The Global Mail report) on a blog titled, indicatively, Shit On Your Play.

Carl Nilsson Polias alerted me to the fact that I was name-checked in the article, and I read with great interest the profile, the quotes from Ms Simmons’ blog, and then the blog itself. And I suppose what I read made me want to respond.

It is unusual for the Australian press to report positively on blogs – theatre blogs in particular; despite the global opinion generally being positive (what with The Guardian jumping on board with their Theatre Blog years ago, and the emergence of authoritative sources of theatre criticism such as Nachtkritik.de), Australian media are still presenting them roughly with a combination of bored yawn (‘oh dear, everyone is a critic now’) and outright hostility towards the un-edited, un-professional, un-paid criticism uncloaked in the authority of a general-interest publication. The exception to that, of course, have been the many (many, many) articles published by Alison Croggon (of the widely read Theatre Notes, for my overseas readers), articulating the relative strengths of theatre blogs, and the hole they plug in the relatively poor coverage in the mainstream media.

For those reasons, it was interesting to read The Global Mail article, which was a rare case of a non-hostile write-up. But. Oh but. To start, it is simply incorrect to present Jane Simmons as model blogger (as Alison C notes in her response to the article:

blogging is much more interesting, diverse, porous (and long-lived) than is represented here. [...] It seems like an enormous missed opportunity to explore the pros and cons, the challenges and problems, of current blogging and critical culture.

But Jane Simmons’ is such a singularly poor model of theatre blogging that profiling Shit On Your Play (in eerily positive terms) is an enormous disservice to everyone: Simmons herself, theatre blogging, Australian theatre, Australian media, the uncritical Stephen Crittenden, and The Global Mail itself.

At least two bloggers have already and publically taken offence at being packed into the same basket: Alison C and Augusta Supple, who wrote in her blog:

I’m not going to shit on anyone or their play or their blog. I don’t think that’s cool. I don’t think that’s useful. But I will ask those who delight in the style of writing that empowers the anonymous and aggressive – if this is the tone and style of the artistic conversations we should be having? Is this the best we can do for each other?

What to say about Jane Simmons, except that she has basically been a troll with a blog? She has been known for writing in the style of the following (her review of the Malthouse/STC co-production of Baal:

Stone calls this play a tragedy- “by presenting humanity in extremis, tragedy shows us the extents of our psychological potential…Baal is the nightmare catharsis of the anti-social instinct”. Ah…sorry, what was that? Do you mean, by presenting as many cocks, cans, titties and a man in women’s undies, we will expose the deepest darkest parts of ourselves and show the world how terrible to succumb to this extreme? I struggled to think the cast cared, let alone me. I left the theatre more concerned about what to have for dinner than what message the play might have tried to imbibe.

Or, from her review of STC’s production of Gross und Klein:

German surrealist literature….well, perhaps all German literature actually, can often be categorised as reflecting a people who understand that everything turns to shit. This being the case, Gross und Klein fulfilled its objective. By the end not even the enticement of hearing the actors Q & A or catching another glimpse of Kevin Spacey in the audience was enough to make me want to stay.

There is so little in this kind of review that could be of any value to anyone: to the audience, to the artist, to the production company, to the reader. It is largely opinion without analysis, plus critique ad personam, often amounting to the following argumentative logic: ‘this play sucked because the director is stupid, and so 5 minutes in I wanted to go home and do my laundry instead‘.

There is no analysis of what went wrong or how – no real meat to her argument, anything to debate with, anything to use as development of one’s own experience of the work, very little new information about what the work could or should have been. Compare Augusta’s review of Baal:

The adaption itself seemed to be obsessed with the sound of the language – declamatory and forced and overt – and therefore clumsy. The delivery seemed equally as staccato, stylized and forced. I found the style itself alienating (harking back to Brecht’s ideas within Epic Theatre – which is interesting since I don’t think he’d yet developed that idea when he wrote BAAL – so to overlay that directorial style on this texts seems somewhat anachronistic). I found the characters to be utterly basic and one dimensional – with little to no sub-textual level and therefore without any major transformation or change. And I wasn’t sure what I was being asked to feel. Was I to feel sorry for Baal? Or his friends? Or the women? I felt was disconnected from them all. I also felt like it was all a fore-gone conclusion. They brought about their own demise – but did I care? Nope.

And so I asked myself, “why don’t I care?”

Is this an example of my own numbness? Perhaps. But I guess it came back to the fact that I feel like that world – where desire is soley manifested in the act of sex, and sex is confused for love, and stimulation is synthetic and drug-induced – is so far away from my life, reality/experience that I had no connection to it; at all. I watch on as the embarrassing pink-fleshed animals of my species destroy each other and I think – well… I’ve learnt nothing – this is what I assumed of this world and it follows what I believe – ego is ugly, fame is fickle, fame creates a false sense of power, entitlement and immortality, having no values hurts. So I was vindicated, but not transformed.

Or, say, my own:

Stone has made his name by essentially re-writing, then directing, the works of that same previous generation – and the generation Brecht was particularly defining himself in opposition to. [...] And Stone has directed them aptly Bergmanesquely: in chiaroscuro, with long shadows, carving hints and glimpses of universal significance out of meticulous portrayal of the mundane. [...]

Whereas a scene from Ibsen is a meticulous moment of mundane, through which one may glimpse a universal significance, Brecht’s writing is blunt, sketchy, showing only the essential point of the scene. The role of the spectator is then to relate this sketch to an everyday moment, to anchor it in reality (in this aspect Brecht’s writing functions as satire).

So. Ibsen: particular hinting at the universal. Brecht: universal hinting at the particular.

I don’t think it’s easier to direct the former than the latter kind, but much of this production nonetheless looked like Stone wasn’t sure what particular he was hinting at.

Jane Simmons and The Global Mail make a big deal out of other critics being overly supportive of bad theatre, but I think this is a claim incorrectly made on purpose, to mask the lack of substance of Jane Simmons’ reviews. Many of us didn’t like Baal. Most of us went through the effort of analysing why, what went wrong. That is hard work, harder, in any case, than sniping at male nudity and shrugging the whole enterprise off. What Jane Simmons tells you, in most cases, is that she liked or didn’t like a play; or that it worked or didn’t. That’s all you get: an appraisal, a vote. The review could have been replaced with a number: 4/10, sit down.

A commenter on Theatre Notes related that to Simmons’ role as drama teacher:

It seems to me that Jane speaks like many a drama teacher in her sharp criticisms. Anyone who has been in an acting school or class has probably been told that what they’re doing is shit at one point or another. I’ve read articles about awesome actors who came in for heavy criticism from their teachers at drama school, so it’s no surprise that this particular drama teacher has a ready supply of caustic things to say, it’s just that she’s now giving the drama teacher treatment to everyone, not just her students.

But, again – I have myself participated in numerous crits, on both sides. Only a bad crit is about character assassination. The purpose of the crit is to interrogate the artist (budding) on the intentions and goals of their work, their method and process, and then judge the work on having or not achieved those goals – and do it in a way that can send the (budding) artist off with a plan to fix the flaws. (See wonderful American reality TV series Work of Art for a much better example of what a crit consists of.) To disagree with the artist’s entire premise, aesthetics and goals is not what you are there for; you are there to be a sort of art doctor.

The non-constructive review has its place in this world, too. Every so often one sees a performance whose flaws would take too long to list – here we have the hatchet job, as exemplified by Dale Peck in literary criticism. However, if it not going to be a constructive lament of sorts, if it is going to be heartless, a negative review must, at the very least, be a good read.

Compare any of the above Simmons to Kenneth Tynan lamenting (completely unconstructively) the dearth of commercially successful theatre in England (The Lost Art of Bad Drama, 1955):

One begins to suspect that the English have lost the art of writing a bad successful play. Perhaps some sort of competition should be organized: the rules, after all, are simple enough. At no point may the plot or characters make more than superficial contact with reality. Characters earning less than £1,000 a year should be restricted to small parts or exaggerated into types so patently farcical that no member of the audience could possibly identify himself with such absurd esurience… Irony is confined to having an irate male character shout: ‘I am perfectly calm!’… Apart from hysterical adolescents, nobody may weep; apart from triumphant protagonists, nobody may laugh; anyone, needless to say, may smile…. Women who help themselves unasked to cigarettes must be either frantic careerists or lustful opportunists. The latter should declare themselves by running the palm of one hand up their victim’s lapel and saying, when it reaches the neck: ‘Let’s face it, Arthur, you’re not exactly indifferent to me.’

Or, say, David Foster Wallace’s merciless review of John Updike’s Toward the End of Time:

It is, of the total 25 Updike books I’ve read, far and away the worst, a novel so mind-bendingly clunky and self-indulgent that it’s hard to believe the author let it be published in this kind of shape.

I’m afraid the preceding sentence is this review’s upshot, and most of the balance here will consist of presenting evidence/ justification for such a disrespectful assessment. First, though, if I may poke the critical head into the frame for just one moment, I’d like to offer assurances that your reviewer is not one of these spleen-venting, spittle-spattering Updike-haters one encounters among literary readers under 40. The fact is that I am probably classifiable as one of very few actual sub-40 Updike fans . [...]

Most of the literary readers I know personally are under 40, and a fair number are female, and none of them are big admirers of the postwar [Great Male Narcissists]. But it’s Mr. Updike in particular they seem to hate. And not merely his books, for some reason-mention the poor man himself and you have to jump back:

“Just a penis with a thesaurus.”

“Has the son of a bitch ever had one unpublished thought?”

“Makes misogyny seem literary the same way Limbaugh makes fascism seem funny.”

These reviews make editors money and increase literacy rates across countries because they are fun to read, witty, well-observed and still informative, not merely because spleens are vented. When spleens are merely vented, it is called ‘ranting’. And when they are vented anonymously, as is Shit On Your Play, without even presenting a coherent on-line identity, then we call it ‘trolling’.

Writing witty unfriendly things about John Updike’s latest novel, or Simon Stone’s direction of Baal, and signing it with one’s own name and surname, carries the risk that the same John Updike or Simon Stone might bump into you at a magazine office, theatre foyer, dinner party, or on the street, and want to discuss your work the way you discussed theirs. This is not pleasant, hey – which is why using one’s name and surname is the best and quickest way to get a critic to build sound and researched arguments.

Jane Simmons’ reviews often conceal, rather than articulate, her knowledge of drama – her discussion of Brecht in the review of Baal makes sense to me, but would not inform anyone else. Her own taste constantly gets in the way of good analysis: she dismisses the entire German dramatic practice (its writing, its direction, and its dramaturgy) without batting an eyelid. Her critical manner is appalling, and I would be worried if she extended it to her teaching practice.

Finally, her snide and anonymous comments, devoid of articulated argument or charm, are quite the opposite of unusual: the theatrical social world of every country I know is lubricated with unfounded, slight, ad hominem, often vicious, informal and unsigned commentary behind people’s backs.

This approach is basically anti-intellectual: it amounts to yelling at people who disagree with you, and attempts to disqualify them from the argument, rather than arguing anything out. It turns everything personal too soon. It shuts debate, rather than feeding it. It makes participants give up, and either ignore a discussion held at such low level, or attempt to be bland and even-sided to the point of terrible boredom, just to bring the discussion back on some civilised track. It is completely and typically Australian in all of these aspects.

It is so tiring to see an Australian general-interest magazine focus on the arts, once again, only to construe a mini-culture war: overly polite, inner-city, Europhiliac, bleeding-heart critics and theatre establishment versus rugged individualists and suburban working families, with their no-bullshit, tell-it-how-it-is attitude. It does not need to be like this. I have just returned from Hobart, a small city which has embraced its temple to avant-garde art, MONA, with unreserved curiosity and delight. MONA, in turn, has embraced its locale to an astonishing degree. Being there, watching children wander through MONA, and having the local hair-dresser eager to discuss the influence of religious ethos on Wim Delvoye, felt very much like being in Europe, a place similarly relaxed about the role of art in everyday life.

But alliance-building takes time, and a certain astuteness, in a country ravaged by culture wars, and I don’t see J.S. exactly leading the way. The only people who will really enjoy J.S.’s dismissive reviews are those who either cannot get to the reviewed shows (either because of geography or finances) and want to feel they are not missing anything, those who have made a conscious decision not to go and want their views validated, and those for whom theatre-in-Australia is something to opt out of as an act of identity definition. (Look at the comments.) It will not foster an audience, the way I started going to theatre in Melbourne only once I felt I could trust Theatre Notes to guide me. It will not foster a discussion, not beyond the outraged blip that is has caused already. Now that J.S. has been named and profiled, her reviews might acquire a degree of accountability, and she might grow into a constructive force yet. But, as of today, nothing constructive has yet come out of her shitting on people’s plays.

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17 thoughts on “Ah, but anyone can shit on a play…

  1. Amen + goal. Jane Simmons is no relation despite the Guardian (typically!) misspelling her name.

  2. sarah miller says:

    excellent response – thank you

  3. Matthew Day says:

    Great article Jana! I was thinking of Spangberg’s blog as I read this. I struggle with but am entertained by his venom, and your arguments helped me consider his writing in more depth- thanks.

    • Jana says:

      Hi, Matt (welcome!). I have thought of this for a long time, because, although there is a great emphasis on ‘constructive criticism’ in the world of reviewing, I too get such a joy from reading a certain kind of witty, clever art-bashing – and people do!

      For Spark, Carl and I would get inquiries from prospective reviewers, and we often talked about requesting a sample of negative reviewing as a way of portfolio. Being all positive is a very safe position to take. Being damning with style and depth and name and surname is the real challenge.

  4. John McCallum says:

    Late catching up on all this, but this is a great thoughtful piece

  5. Jimmy Fallon says:

    It’s extremely rich for the likes of Diana Simmonds et al to be hovering under this great piece. Jana’s explanation of reviewing with its “interrogation of the artist” and meat to arguments would be marvellous if that actually happened in The Australian, the Herald and Stagenoise. But it doesn’t. The reviewing culture in our fair city is average to say the least and we all wish they aspired to Jana’s ideals.

  6. Southerner says:

    My god! The Vanguards of Literate Blogging take offence (in high dudgeon) to someone having access to their Hallowed Platform to tell us plainly what they thought! Good fricking on SHIT ON YOUR PLAY! The only time I’m anti-elitist (because I believe that elite means good) is when elitists mercilessly denigrate anything that isn’t. Ah yes – ‘but anyone can shit on a play’. Yes they can. Yes, they have every right to. And, yes, you can wrap it up in as many erudite references as you like, but your patently greasy snobbery is really off-putting.

  7. Southerner says:

    Sorry – I do have to say something else, and, believe me, I’m not trolling or anything. I just get need to say that you are doing to her, what you claim she’s doing to the work. You say that her reviews are like: ‘this play sucked because the director is stupid, and so 5 minutes in I wanted to go home and do my laundry instead‘ (which, I add, is very true). But do you even see that this response smacks of: ‘somebody else is playing in my sandpit and they’re playing a different game and maybe kicking sand and that reflects badly on me with the teacher because me and Ally and Augusta really want to be the class representives?” You rage against her slamming shows in her gauche fashion, and then slam her just with a few more larger words. “Well, this is what I wrote about Baal, Miss. Do I get an ‘A’?”

    • Jana says:

      Hello, Southerner – welcome to GS!

      The thing is, in the Australian discursive sphere as it is, it is just about impossible to make a substantial negative comment without being reduced to your subjective position – from a very limited pool of options. Review a show negatively, and immediately you hear that you are just envious, should go make your own art, are just being mean, haven’t read enough… Make a negative appraisal of a blogger, and you’re envious, just being mean, have read too much… More narrowly, either you are the inner-city overschooled elitist or some mumsy suburbanite.

      It seems to me that this has lead to a situation where people simply fall back on their subjectivity and socio-economic background at all times, and often don’t even attempt to ground their argument in some objective criterium. ‘I hated this play, but I went to a private school where all we read was Aristotle in Greek’, or ‘I’m too working-class to be bothered with this’. It reduces the argument to a class war, five minutes in. And then everyone either descends into ad hominem accusations, or agrees to disagree, lest someone get personally offended.

      Both JS (I discuss her style above), the Global Mail article, the comments on TheatreNotes, and you in the above comment, basically employ this same mode of arguing. So do blogs throughout the country, theatre-goers in private conversations…

      Seriously, it’s not important whether you’re anti-elitist or not, whether I remind you of the girl who wants to be class representative, whether JS or I or you find anything or anyone off-putting. It’s not enough, incomplete, to stop at someone’s feelings. Please let’s argue with arguments, not with the person.

      I have described in great many words what I think of SOYP. You have given me nothing to respond to yet.

  8. Jana says:

    And hello everyone! Welcome to GS, and hope you find other things of interest while you’re here.

  9. Southerner says:

    But the problem is that the establishment crrrritics are saying that noone else should be able to post a note on a blog saying something they disagree with. The review’s MUST be uber-informed, contribute to your form of critical discussion or cite a bibliography before they’re legit. I think that the whole conversation should be reframed as one around democratisation, points of view and, more critically, context – rather than newspaper-aligned critics slagging off someone who cares about theatre, for being a “middle-aged drama teacher” (like that’s something to be ashamed of)as Cameron Woodhead did today in The Fairfax, is pretty apalling (and a dog-whistle to your own egos). We need to remember that noone asked Alison Croggon, Cameron Woodhead or Augusta Supple to blog, so why deny Ms Simmons the right to either.

    • Jana says:

      I agree that Cameron Woodhead’s qualification of Jane Simmons as ‘mumsy’ was out of line and didn’t help de-polarise the argument. I think there’s a certain reflex in a lot of arts writing in this country to pigeon-hole people by class, age and suburb, as if doing that automatically tells you everything you should know about them. Completely agree: appalling.

      However, can you submit some evidence of what you mean by ‘establishment critics saying that no one else should be able to post a note on a blog saying something they disagree with’; i.e., attacking the SOYP blog specifically for publicizing opinions contrary to their own? Quotes tied to specific authors, with links, for example? Also, some of my own – because I can speak for myself better than I can for other people.

      Also, how do you suggest we (you and I) reframe the conversation? Democratization, point of view and context are all interesting, but please expand on your points. As much as I’m tempted to tell you all I think about them, I want to be sure I know what you mean when you mention them.

  10. Maladjusted says:

    The best thing that I’ve seen written on this topic, Jana. I’m glad that (at least by the size of this comment thread) it — and of course your other writings — have been getting this blog some of the attention that it deserves.

    I particularly like your argument (actually made in the comment thread over at Alison Croggon’s “Theatre Notes”) about just how unconvincing Simmons’s anti-’elitist’/pointing-out-the-naked-Emperor pose really is (which is not to say that she mightn’t be right about a given play/or (obviously!) that she doesn’t have the right to say what she thinks about something (note, it really worries me that the latter question is even mentioned whenever anyone makes a criticism of anyone…)

    But, anyway, your argument, at least as I remember it, goes something like this:

    1) Simmons presents herself as someone who by “calling it as she sees it” boldly and refreshingly breaks with all the wanky and ‘dishonest’ forms of criticism that other critics (apparently) must be employing if they manage to arrive at critical judgments different from her own.

    All very good thus far, no? After all, hating wankers and loving “honesty” is pretty close to the national religion even and especially in art/academic scenes where — accusations of wankerdom seeming likely — it seems especially important to attack, Republican Senator style, other people’s masturbatory peccadilloes as a way of drawing attention away from one’s own. (The hope is that by saying “Benedict’s a wanker”, I pretty much TRANSFORM myself from a latte-sipping Director of a Theatre company/private girls school teacher into an ordinary blue-collar Aussie with a larrikin sense of humour and a no-bullshit attitude…

    But, then again, no.

    As you, Jana, very nicely put it, the big problem with this kind of position can be seen if we just stop to think about the criteria by which we demarcate the elitist from the ‘honest/accessible/stuff the people want….”

    Take an un-Simmons like critic who makes an argument with reference to an author, a concept or a history. Now, let’s say that the author is (alleged to be) obscure or the concept arcane. Surely, we’re in elitist territory, right? Well, no, because the allusions still immediately offer the reader a reference point, something that she can (if she’s never heard of the thing) check out/learn about/fall in love with. And this is the way that anyone finds out about anything: through moving from a phase of ‘what’s that’ to a ‘Beckett’s my favourite writer of the 20th cetnury…)

    In contrast, when Simmons takes the road of expressing only near-meaningless personal judgments (“I felt like walking out…”) in the absence of any arguments or reference points gives the reader nothing to go on, i.e. nothing to interrupt the authors defecating over the play she’s just seen. Especially if, as you point out, her posts are full of snide, theatre-gossip related innuendo, this is far -more- of a door shut in the face of the readership than someone who mentions ‘semiotics’.

    Nicely done.

    P.S. I’ve just notice that most of this comment is taken up with re-stating an argument that you’ve already made in a less pithy and effective manner. Redundancy thy name is Mal.

    Still, well done.

    Best,

    Mal.

  11. [...] senior female bloggists: Alison Croggon’s Theatre Notes, Augusta Supple and Jana Perkovic at Guerrilla Semiotics. I also missed the forum at Belvoir last weekend, where most of those engaged in the debate were [...]

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