Conduct Unbecoming to “An Officer”

May 23rd, 2012 § 4 comments

Followers of the ethical issues surrounding the press in general, and arts journalism in particular, spent the first few days of this week watching and opining on Peter Gelb’s decision to remove reviews of The Metropolitan Opera from Opera News and his decision, only a day later, to restore said reviews, amidst an almost unanimous outcry against his maneuver. Gelb’s efforts inspired sufficient umbrage that even when he reversed his decision, people then criticized him for folding so quickly and not having the strength of his own convictions.

As a result, you may be unaware of another critical contretemps that has set the theatre world abuzz – the Australian theatre world, that is. This past weekend, the stage musical of the film An Officer and a Gentleman opened in Sydney, Australia (please, hold your contempt for musicals derived from movies for the moment). This opening was a source of national theatrical pride, as Australia seeks to bolster its image as the starting place for major musicals, a position declared in the pages of Variety only last week. Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Dirty Dancing, also film-derived, are two previous productions cited. With the advent of the internet, going out of town to work on a show without press scrutiny has become increasingly difficult. Australia is seeking to supplant the West Coast of the U.S. as a place where one can go relatively free of prying eyes.

So what’s the fuss? The Australian, a national daily, first published a short review on May 19 critical of the musical and, on May 21, the same critic reinforced her views with a longer piece. But on the 21st, The Australian also saw fit to publish a letter from Douglas Day Stewart, screenwriter of the film and co-writer of the book of the musical, in which he lashed out strongly at The Australian’s review and its critic, going so far as to suggest that she is “incapable of human emotion.”  Because I have seen this coverage on the Internet, I do not know the relative prominence each piece received in print, although it is fair to say that The Australian sought to provoke controversy, since they could have declined to run the letter.

Now artists writing to newspapers to complain about reviews is hardly a new phenomenon. It’s not hard to understand why someone involved in a creative venture would feel compelled to try to debunk not only criticism but the person who wrote it. After all, no one likes being told their baby is ugly. However, in my experience, it’s an impotent gesture at best and a counterproductive one at worst: I am unaware of any critic ever seeing such a missive and then realizing that they were “mistaken.” More often, the critic will respond to such letters by reiterating or embellishing upon their original position, and the artist doesn’t get a second whack. The critic may harbor resentment, to be expressed in the future, against the artist or the producer, whether commercial or not-for-profit. When this sort of thing has come to me as press agent, as general manager, as executive director, I have always sought to talk the artist down, expressing genuine compassion, but trying to explain that other than making themself and perhaps the company feel better, no real good comes of such an action.

When this first blew up in Australia, several of my Twitter friends down under were quick to send me various links, saying, more or less, “Have you seen this?” My initial reaction was to not comprehend why this perennial conflict merited much attention, but consistent replies said that, indeed, national pride was at stake.  If that’s the case, then it is unfortunate that so many people have invested emotionally in the current state of Australian theatre through this one production – and even more unfortunate that Mr. Stewart (Mr. Day Stewart?) caused more attention to be focused on An Officer and A Gentleman.  The fact is, were it not for his letter, this opening might have escaped me (and no doubt many others internationally) entirely and the show would have been free to develop in relative solitude. Instead, it’s now “the show where the author got mad at the press.”  By citing “a plethora of five-star reviews,” Stewart sent many looking for them, and let’s just say I hardly found a “plethora.” (For your reference, here are a selection of reviews from: The Daily Telegraph, The Sydney Morning HeraldAustralian Stage, Crikey, Nine to Five, and The Coolum News)

Thanks to Mr. Stewart, my sense of An Officer and a Gentleman is that it did not meet with general critical acclaim, save for The Australian, but (thanks to comments beneath reviews) that it is a crowd-pleaser. If the creative team feels they have an impeccably wrought success and feel no further work is necessary, the show may be a risky venture based on what I’ve read. The more strategic response to the reviews, if there was to be a response, would have been to talk about the value of many opinions, critical and general public, and talk about how the time in Australia was going to be used to make the show even more successful and entertaining before conquering the known world.

Like the Gelb incident, the Officer and a Gentleman kerfuffle is a result of people not thinking through their actions fully in advance, perhaps not seeking (or accepting) the counsel of others, to the detriment of their institution or their production. The Metropolitan Opera will go on, and it’s very likely that An Officer and a Gentleman will be seen in other countries one day soon. But in both cases, focusing on the productions instead of the press would have been more, well, productive.

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  • Alison Croggon

    I followed this quite closely, because it was hugely amusing. I am based in Melbourne, so didn’t see the musical. Most of the Australian reaction I saw was not about “national pride” being invested in this musical at all: we have quite enough theatre of our own to invest “national pride” in. It was general hilarity at “Academy award winner” Douglas Day Stewart’s response, which was to tell us how emotionally crippled the critic Deborah Jones is on the one hand, and how brilliant his own work is on the other. One can only assume he is used to anodyne film industry PR rather than the robust and dialogic critical culture that exists here. Yes, we even have press!

    Stewart seemed to think that without his (American, film-based) musical, Australian theatre wouldn’t exist, and seemed astonished that this critic wasn’t cringingly grateful that he had deigned to notice these fatal shores. Someone asked if he thought he was opening his show to a bunch of ignorant convicts. It is certainly a classic case of an author behaving badly, with an element, let’s face it, of colonial arrogance thrown in. It was never going to end well.

  • As a “citizen” reviewer I have been the target of a similar offense.   Made me feel like I’d made it, to be honest.   But, I will reiterate, making a public fuss, calling into question the integrity of the critic is never a good idea.   It’s fine to contact the person and say, I think you missed something or ask for specific constructive criticism.  

  • I have a colleague and friend who recently felt the barbed sting of a particularly rough (I’d personally go so far as to call it unnecessarily brutal) review of her work. The director’s initial reaction was to want to ask the AD to never let this critic review the director’s work again. A ridiculous proposition, to be sure, which the director realized once the initial anger waned. But it made me ask a similar question: what are the options for an artist after a review comes out? I ask this often when I see organizations respond to negative facebook comments, online newspaper article comments, etc.

    I don’t think it’s inappropriate to respond to a review in some sort of public forum (letter to the editor, blog, facebook). But it can never look like sour grapes, because the creator will always lose in the public eye. A critic has no, as far as the public is concerned, vested interest in the show or the review. They have no evidence that the critic has an axe to grind. The artist, on the other hand, will never be perceived to be unbiased. So the only things the artist can do, in my experience, is correct inaccuracies and give context for things that they feel are misrepresented. “This is part of our development series”, or “Consideration must be given to the fact that this show is geared towards children/teenagers/first time theatregoers/etc.” or “Both the lead and  her understudy were taken with a severe flu” or “These performers are homeless men recovering from substance addictions”. I would say 90% of the time, an artist has to take their lumps, take the good with the bad (we never correct misrepresentations or misinterpretations when they’re in our favor, do we?) and keep their mouth shut. Because they won’t win.

  • Jonesd

    Thanks for your thoughtful piece. I am the critic in question, and would just like to point out that The Australian did not seek to court controversy by publishing Douglas Day Stewart’s response to my review. He prefaced his piece with a request that it be published. Had we not published he would have been quite right to accuse us of suppressing criticism. I wrote what I wrote, he wrote what he did. Others then weighed in. Social media has made it easy for many people to share many opinions. I think that is extremely healthy.

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