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Thursday, 16 February 2012

Actor Attacks...

... Junto Contributor

The following is an exchange between Dan Rottenberg, editor of BroadStreetReview.com, and the actor Anthony Lawton. At issue is a review (go to BroadStreetReview.com to see it) written by Jackie Atkins, who is also a Junto contributor. I've also written by BroadStreetReview.com. Funny thing. It's the only place where I've been a contributor where critics in letters frequently fling personal attacks at the writers they're critcizing. As is the case in this letter by Lawton, such mud-slinging mired in a total misunderstanding of a critic's role (a almost congenital problem among many of the most outspoken BroadStreetReview.com letter writers) undermines anything of value they might have to say.

Thanks for your letter below, which I'd like to post as part of our continuing dialogue.

As an admirer of your work, especially The Great Divorce, I'm dismayed that you seem unfamiliar with Broad Street's Review's mission. From our perspective, we're not arbiters of taste here; we're just trying to foster conversation among people who've attended a given performance— whether they're critics or customers, professionals or amateurs, wise or foolish. As far as I know, Jackie Akins isn't a professional critic, but whether she is or isn't makes no difference to me. I was intrigued by her idiosyncratic response to The Great Divorce, so I posted it in the hope that it would trigger further discussion, as indeed it has.
Best regards,

Feb 15, 2012
From Anthony Lawton 4:51pOnm Feb 15

Dear Dan:
I must respectfully dispute your claim that it ill behooves an actor to blame anyone for failing to grasp a play's intended message.Or, rather, I don't dispute you -- in well over 99% of cases. I have gotten at least one pan -- probably a lot more -- in each of my 20 years as a professional artist. More than 99% of the time, not only do I not blame a critic for not getting the point; more than 99% of the time, I think they're probably right. Much of the target of criticism is a question of taste -- there is room for difference of opinion, and the inherent ambiguity of some plays makes it impossible to judge them with a single, correct interpretation. Moreover, I have never imagined that any work I have generated is perfect. But 2 years ago, Wendy Rosenfield characterized my play, The Foocy, as an anti-Semitic work.Sorry, but I must object. First of all, she is wrong. In my subsequent correspondence with her, I got her to admit that 99 out of 100 audience members would probably never interpret my play in that way. So even she admits that she was wrong. Second, and more importantly, she owes it to me, in justice, to retract a statement that is so thoughtless and damaging. I owe it to myself to demand that retraction from her. Granted, as an artist, I make myself vulnerable, in public, to the brickbats of critics, and it's ungracious of me to whine if someone doesn't like my work. But this wasn't just a question of someone's disliking my work. It was a question of an admittedly wrong-headed misrepresentation of my work, so far outside of the realm of common sense that it gave the public a false and slanderous idea of me. You have seen The Great Divorce, and you must admit that Ms. Atkins understanding of the work is disastrously wrong. That I, or anyone, would argue that etiquette is the grounds for salvation is preposterous; the wealth of imagery in the piece supports her block-headed interpretation not at all. One might as well argue that Death of a Salesman is about gay rights, or that The Foreigner is about spelling reform.Ms. Atkins is, in effect, publicly accusing me of stupidity. And she is not one to talk. When I was in high school, I learned to write an essay that had a clear thesis, and which then presented clear argumentation and evidence in support of that thesis. Ms. Atkins would have flunked out of my high school in half a semester.I am content to let competent critics spew bile at me in public. But I should not have to suffer the published contempt of someone who can't spell the word "murderer," and who can't understand a simple literary theme or metaphor.It is not clear, on your website, that these reviews are unsolicited, and it is not clear what "unsolicited" means. Does that mean that anyone who has a mind to can submit a review? If that's the case, you must make it clearer on your home page. For all the public knows, Ms. Atkins is a qualified journalist. For all the public knows, she has an ounce of discernment. The public has no way of knowing that she is a hack and an amateur. One more argument: critics fire from a position of relative safety, and they have little to lose. They have all the capacity to hurt, and very little vulnerability to being hurt. As a result, many of them quickly acquire a taste for cruelty and contempt, because artists think it "ill behooves" them to respond. To my way of thinking, it can't hurt a critic to have someone return fire once in a while. Maybe -- maybe -- Ms. Atkins will put a little more thought into her next review if I (perish the thought) hurt her feelings a little. Ah, probably not.I concede that I can't be objective on this question. The Great Divorce is a piece that is near to my heart; I make myself very vulnerable, emotionally and intellectually, every time I present it in public. Many critics have disliked it, and I'm content to let them have their say. But I will not stand by idly while a dunce, masquerading as a professional journalist, tells the world that black is white. I guess there is no way for me to come off as unbiased or gracious if I choose to defend myself in this way, and, in that respect, perhaps it "ill behooves" me to do so. But gracious or biased or not, I still have a right to defend myself.