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March 23, 2010

Critics in Lights

My eye was caught the other day by news that a legit theater in Chicago had been renamed for the longtime local theater critic Richard Christiansen. It is not exactly unprecedented for an aisle-sitter to have a theater named for him (or her, though I don't offhand know of any examples of that). In New York alone there are theaters named for Walter Kerr and Brooks Atkinson.

What, if anything -- other than respect for a longtime fixture of a local or national scene -- does this mean? I suppose one could fret about the erosion of the adversarial relationship supposedly prevailing between judger and judged, or reporter and reported. Though that seems a particularly American fetish, one being eroded in tough economic times by the loss of staff jobs and the need for freelance critics and bloggers to branch out into public relations, arts administration, or worse.

Basically, though, I think it's a nice thing to do, and far better than theaters (or seats or cornerstones or passageways to the bathroom) named for donors or corporations who demand gold-embossed recognition in return for a mingy gift. I have been appalled at the names of corporations and rich individuals on the titanium panels of Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Auditorium in Los Angeles, or the fascistic array of corporate logos and banners festooning the grand lobby of the Wortham Theater Center in Houston.

In New York there are theaters named for Broadway moguls (Bernard B. Jacobs, Gerald Schoenfeld), donors (Mitzi Newhouse, Alice Tully, Avery Fisher, Andrew Carnegie and on into the night), actors (Lunt-Fontanne, Helen Hayes, the Barrymores), playwrights and composers (August Wilson -- or is that one in Pittsburgh? -- Eugene O'Neill, now Stephen Sondheim), even a cartoonist (Al Hirschfeld).

So why not a critic? It may enfold them or their memories rather too clammily into the embrace of the theater community (dreaded word for an adversarial critic). More kindly, it's honorable recognition of the important role critics can play in the fostering of art.
March 23, 2010 9:33 AM | | Comments (3)


The August Wilson is in NY, as are the Gershwin, the Neil Simon, the Richard Rodgers, the O'Neill and the new Sondheim. Time for a Williams.

Richard Christiansen got one named for him because (and I speak with a little authority as it was my idea) he went out of his way to champion developing Chicago theatre artists even when they were non-Equity and even when they were working in basements in the suburbs. He discovered and encouraged (though not uncritically) just about everybody of significance who's emerged out of the Chicago theatre scene in the renaissance that was launched by the opening of Second City. I don't think there will be many critics similarly honored.

I see nothing wrong if a critic has earned respect of both the theater community and readers that he/she be recognized with this very nice, and rare honor. But to call Hirschfeld a cartoonist is like calling Sondheim a songwriter.

Nice to see John's blog and while my father, who was a painter and sculptor, considered critics below apes in the evolutionary scale, I became one anyway, not writing about theater but dance and even visual arts. Which is all by way of saying that since I write in a small city (Portland, Oregon) I am ever mindful that my role involves I suppose an adversarial stance when I think work is bad, but also support for an art form that many think arcane and obscure. What I would like when I bourree into the great beyond, is not, God forbid, to have a theater named for me, but rather a plaque put on the back of the seat in the Keller Auditorium that I usually occupy so the dancers know a critic is watching them. Because the way things are going, there aren't going to be any left to watch them or write about them, not from print media anyway.

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