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What will they write about us in 500 words?

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In Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s film Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (IMDb rating: 7.7/10), Riggan, a decadent action movie actor, tries to make an artistic turn in his career by putting on a Broadway performance. He meets Tabitha Dickinson, a theatre critic in a bar. The following dialogue occurs:

Tabitha: But after the opening tomorrow, I’m gonna turn in the worst review anyone has ever read and I’m gonna close your play. Would you like to know why? Because I hate you and everyone you represent. Entitled, selfish, spoiled children. Blissfully untrained, unversed, and unprepared to even attempt real art. Handing each other awards for cartoons and pornography. Well, this is the theatre and you don’t get to come in here and pretend you can write, direct and act in your own propaganda piece without coming through me first.

Sounds fair, but it’s not. Criticism has always been authority. When it had no authority, it had no currency. Authority sprang from the critic’s sense of selfishness, from the infallibility of their opinion, from how influential their opinion was in the market. All critics know that.

Riggan: What has to happen in a person’s life to become a critic anyway?… (he points to a flower) You even know what that is? You don’t. You know why? Because you can’t see this thing if you don’t have to label it. You mistake all those little noises in your head for true knowledge. I’m a fucking actor! (inhales deeply) This play cost me everything.

The impact of a bad criticism on the tickets of a performance, on its viability, and the remuneration of its partners is an injustice that perhaps one should think about when writing a review. Also, it’s very important whether the phraseology of criticism is dismissive or not. The independence of the critic’s thought plays an important role and their integrity is determined by it. 

However, how much do critics themselves protect their independence of thought? Do they have personal relationships with creators? Does that prevent them from having an independent opinion? Are the rumors that want cultural reportage editors writing paid performance presentations disguised as reviews true?

We indeed have too many questions but the public debate on the criticism of the theatre, that is, the criticism of the production of modern culture, is what sets the bar in the debate.

Theatre remains one of the few arts that cannot be interrupted while it happens. While criticism comes to the market in retrospect, it sometimes shapes the market by giving credit or reproach. This creation of market demand for their artistic work is what all creators beg for, so they republish the reviews they received. Even if there is only one good phrase in them. Which can, through the echo effect caused by social media, turn into something unbearably ridiculous.

Riggan: You write a couple of paragraphs and you know what? None of this cost you fuckin’ anything! You risk nothing! Nothing! Nothing! Nothing! 

Tabitha: You’re no actor, you’re a celebrity. Let’s be clear on that!

(Picks up her notepad and the flower from the table and puts it in Riggan’s fist)

I’m gonna kill your play.

Those who have the experience of creating a performance know that nothing is ever enough to create a good performance, and maybe that’s why you never manage to create it.

Those who have the experience of creating a performance know that nothing is ever enough to create a good performance, and maybe that’s why you never manage to create it.

But what is the contempt for a work of art written in elaborate formulations or, even worse, through the use of adjectives (which demonstrates linguistic poverty) beyond a scolding? 

The theatre critic is also a contributor to the performance, albeit involuntary, a privileged spectator, someone whose thought can go deeper (even if paid to do so), on the occasion of a living work of art. To further confuse things, I must say that no one can be above criticism. Criticism of the existing world is a process like breathing, like when you inhale you understand the world, when you exhale you judge it. As intelligent beings, we construct our identities by evaluating faces and things. Everybody judges everything all the time. If someone has a problem with it, they’re living the wrong life. But what kind of job is this where you just say your opinion? And how selfish can that be when criticism is written? Meaning, does it remain unchanged in time?1Also interesting is the case of Coco , a critic found in Ernesto Sabato’s book On Heroes and Tombs. His reviews were always so ambiguous that you didn’t know if they were good or bad, because he used phrases like: ‘The actor of the show is not afraid to face the boredom of his audience.’

The theatre critic is also a contributor to the performance, albeit involuntary, a privileged spectator, someone whose thought can go deeper (even if paid to do so), on the occasion of a living work of art.

As crimes have been committed in the name of country and of love, so the name of art has its share in this cruelty. Emotional abuse, sexual harassment, manipulative behaviour, harsh handlings, unpaid work, and (not to get off the topic) bad dismissive reviews. There have been libels with extremely cheap language by people who dreamt of becoming members of the Academy of Athens.2There are, of course, exceptions, reading Eleni Varopoulou’s reviews, from 1974 to 2002, all gathered in a single volume entitled The Living Theatre, one can say that few contemporary texts of theatre criticism have any chance to survive in the future and become a reference for the next generation. Let us also exclude the gaze of Giorgos Sabatakakis.

Criticism has long now aroused suspicion about the integrity of its opinion, if we are to assume that it had any. Not to be unfair, I should say here that there are now Greek critics who are well aware of  the Greek and European landscape, critics who have theoretical studies in their resume, critics who, by reading them you experience the conceptional adventure of a performance from a different perspective and this is very promising and comforting. Some of them also write in proper Greek, just as important.

The issue is so complicated that by discussing it as an editorial team, we haven’t been able to figure it out. It was summer, so each of us left with our thoughts, we were spinning around some words without getting anywhere, the word criticism was heard ten times, the word ignorance four times, the word intent three times, the names of some critics were heard in five cases, the word education was heard three times, the word malice was mentioned five times, the name Kostas Georgoussopoulos was never heard, the word culture was said four times but it didn’t make sense, and we started the discussion from the beginning, nobody dared say the word fair (no criticism is fair), the term offensive phraseology was said in five cases, the words bought and paid reviews were heard twice. The words dramaturgy, summer, facebook, Athens Festival, audience, holidays were heard on three occasions, then the discussion stopped.

But if someone asks me what I think, I say that I would like my work not to cause ridiculous comments or cheap logical explanations, not to have specific prejudices, political or sexual, not to reproduce the past, and to speak Greek well. Anything else is cheap criticism for me. Or as a friend of mine used to say: I don’t respect anyone who doesn’t respect me.


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