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Should a Theatre Critic Read a Play Before She Reviews It?

January 31, 2007

I've been exchanging emails in recent days with the playwright Deb Margolin. Deb was rather bruised by a essay I wrote for SF Weekly about the west coast premiere of her play 3 Seconds in the Key at SF Playhouse last week. Actually, I enjoyed the production immensely and thought much of the language entrancing and the humor, wickedly sharp. But I did have issues with the writing. I thought the play rambled and some of the themes felt superimposed and inorganic to the action.

"I think it is excellent that you had a copy of the script and were able to refer to it in the process of honoring me by considering my work publicly. I also think it is very much to your credit that you relied on what you saw rather than what you read later as your source for considering the viability of text, as theater is an art form that comes from the body and returns to the body, not language the ultimate fulfillment of which is to sit on a page," she sweetly wrote to me yesterday, adding: "I would just venture to say that, had the reading preceded the viewing, it is my deep belief that you would have felt differently about this play as a piece of dramatic writing."

Is it better for a critic to read a play before reviewing it or not?

I take Deb's point. I can understand her frustration about me "not getting" the play. (My colleague at the San Francisco Chronicle, Robert Hurwitt, had a similar response, which must have caused further frustration to the playwright.) But I firmly believe in going to see a play -- especially a new, or newish work -- without doing any prior reading or research. I want the experience to wash over me, unmediated by previous conceptions I might have as a result of reading the work. I don't want to know what to expect. I'm most concerned with a production's visceral and emotional impact as well as its intellectual one. I don't think I can be a fair judge of these things if I've read a script in advance.

But, as a rule, I do read scripts after I've seen the play. Doing this helps me to organize my thoughts about what to write and helps me look for any discrepancies between what I saw on stage and what the playwright wrote on the page. It's a useful technique, I find.

The discussion with Deb reminds me of something Lynn Gardner wrote about in her blog in The Guardian. Lynn asks whether the assault on New York bookstores as audiences for Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia rush out to stock up on books on 19th century intellectual life, is a good thing.

Gardner's feeling that one shouldn't have to do tons of research in order to appreciate a play correlates with my own. She writes:

"Going to the theatre five nights a week has certainly provided me with an education over the years, and I can think of countless occasions when seeing a play has made me rush out of the theatre and straight into a bookshop to find out more about a subject or historical figure. But just as too much research by a playwright and not enough inspiration and instinct can kill a play stone dead, I'm wary of the idea that audiences are expected to have completed their homework before taking their seat in the theatre."

It's great when a play inspires me to read around a subject (and I often do this to help me write my essay every week for SF Weekly). But one of the things I dislike most about Stoppard in particular is how he inspires this kind of frenzied behavior in theatregoers. There's no heart in his work. I really don't understand why London critics loved Rock 'N' Roll so much. I thought it as cold and dry as a Prague winter when I saw it around Christmas time in the West End.

Thanks to SF Playhouse's production (brilliantly directed By Leigh Fondakowski), I felt connected to Deb's play, even though I had issues with its dramaturgy. And I think, at the end of the day, that's the most important thing.



  • I'm the same. If I don't know a play before I see it, I will only read it afterwards. Partly it's simply that then I have the thrill of not knowing what is going to happen; but it's also for the reasons you list here.

    By Blogger Alison Croggon, At March 3, 2007 at 1:08 AM  

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