Charles McNulty: A father writes to a critic who panned his son's play. The critic responds

Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

But candor and compassion aren't antithetical terms. A critic is as much a sensitive recording instrument as a synthesizer of information and a spouter of opinions. Longevity in this admittedly odd and perhaps indefensible profession isn't determined by years but by an ability to stay open and self-questioning.

The image of the snobby curmudgeon, grumpily tapping out dismissive notices in a bathrobe and carpet slippers, has long been out of date. For better or worse, there is no stereotype of the contemporary professional critic. There are so few of us left, the demographics of the field are (belatedly) changing, and our gatekeeping function has largely been reassigned to the internet.

What is it that we do? We think, we feel, we traffic in nuance. Whenever possible, we make connections. Along the way, we offer judgments.

Kenneth Tynan summed up his function as dramatic critic in three words: "I mummify transience." The only way to do that, of course, is not to become mummified oneself. Custodians of the past, we must recognize that history moves kaleidoscopically, shifting with every turn that also turns us.

Critics, for the most part, don't enjoy being the subject of criticism. (I certainly don't.) But defensiveness lends the worrisome impression of a doctor afraid to take his own medicine. Not even a would-be tastemaker has a monopoly on perspective. But sometimes what arrives angrily over the digital transom isn't so much an artistic quarrel as an appeal to something more human.

I received the accusatory message of the playwright's father while selecting tomatoes at the farmers market. I waited till I got home to put the flowers in water, the tomatoes in a bowl and the other fruits and vegetables away before writing back. I needed a moment to gather my thoughts before responding. (My note has been redacted and slightly edited to protect identities.)


Dear Sir,

You have reason to be proud of your son. He's a working playwright, ensconced in a community of theater professionals who are working at the highest level of the field. He received a glowing review from a major outlet. Criticism is part of the field. He will get negative reviews in the future along with high praise. He should take only what he finds useful and reject the rest. Playwrights and critics work on parallel tracks. We are both trying to enrich the art form, even though at times it can seem as if we're on opposing sides. I am touched by your note. I wish all artists had such supportive parents. I think you should trust that your son is on the right track and that one negative review won't undermine his progress. As for me, I also teach playwriting at the California Institute of the Arts, and I can assure you that nothing brings me greater satisfaction than seeing a writer make a leap, find his voice and come into his own.

Best regards,

Charles McNulty


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