A Critique of Crimson Critics

What Editors Can Learn from the Macbeth Controversy

How should The Crimson review campus theater productions? The recent criticism of The Crimson's Oct. 24 review of Macbeth brought this controversy to a head. Many letters criticized the review of the lead actor's performance, deeming the review too personal, overly critical or too harsh.

In the past year, The Crimson has made a few changes in its arts coverage. The number of pages devoted to arts has increased dramatically. There has been an increased emphasis by the editors on professionalism in reviewing. First-semester writers (otherwise known as compers) no longer write theater reviews. According to The Crimson's Arts Board, reviewers and editors are judging student productions with a stronger eye, but not necessarily a less sympathetic one.

There has been some criticism that The Crimson does not review all student productions. This is valid. While in the past, The Crimson attempted to review all student productions, this year's emphasis on assigning experienced writers to theater reviews has made covering everything impossible. The Crimson should strive to produce both quality and quantity, as the increasing space devoted to arts coverage makes it possible for smaller productions to receive equal coverage and prevent otherwise excellent plays from being marginalized simply because of their low profile.

There has also been criticism from some students condemning overly harsh reviews, while others praise the improved quality of theater reviews. I see a theater review as much like an editorial. While you are reading the author's opinion on a certain topic (in this case, a theater production), the author is still bound by certain journalistic conventions. Most important, the author must justify what he or she says with examples and facts. In reading The Crimson's arts coverage and speaking with the arts editors, I am impressed that this need for justification is put in the forefront of the review process. A very close examination of the Macbeth review (which, understandably, is not the way most people read the newspaper) showed that what seemed on the surface to be personal criticisms were in fact meticulously backed up by scenes and lines from the play. While the Macbeth review was very close to the boundary of how critical coverage should be of individual students, its actual argument was well-thought out, detailed, and perceptive.

Three different interests have a stake in a play review: the performers and the arts community; the Crimson editors and writers, and the potential audience, namely students. The relationship between the theater community and The Crimson is by definition adversarial, but it does not have to be hostile. While actors and directors must realize that all Crimson reviews cannot be positive, just as all plays aren't perfect, The Crimson must also make an effort to incorporate the views of actors and directors into its coverage. One reader suggestion which I think is a good one is to conduct and publish more interviews with those involved with a play. Perhaps such interviews could help The Crimson cover plays that it isn't able to review because of staffing constraints.

According to The Crimson arts editors, The Crimson has never, as far as they can remember, received a letter to the editor complaining about a favorable review. This fact alone speaks volumes about the tense communication between actors and directors and reviewers. It seems that the battles between the theater community and The Crimson at times need a referee and not a reader representative. However, I caution The Crimson Arts Board to remember that many of the people who read the arts pages religiously are those who are involved in student productions.

What, therefore, can The Crimson do to help alleviate this tension? First, and perhaps most important, communicate more often and more formally with those involved in student productions. In responses from student actors, I have heard and read several very interesting suggestions about how The Crimson might better review plays. One of these suggestions--having roundtable discussions with reviewers and actors--might help to open lines of communication between these two groups.

The Crimson should also continue to strive for thoughtful, critical reviews while attempting to address as many different productions as space and staff allow. The theater review section has much improved over the past year; it is important for The Crimson to continue to build on this improvement. The reader who seems to get lost in this controversy is the person who is not involved in theater but frequents Harvard theater productions. These readers are the majority of those who read arts coverage; however, since they don't often write letters to the editors. Both The Crimson and the actors are aiming to reach this audience. Therefore, discussions between The Crimson and actors and directors should center on these readers and playgoers who are the most important part of their audiences and be sure not to forget the readers who don't have the loudest voices.

Noelle C. Eckley, who is not a Crimson editor, is The Crimson's Reader Representative. She can be reached via e-mail at eckley@fas.harvard.edu.