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La Petite Mort–Alastair Macaulay and the Death of Dance Criticism: The Clyde Fitch Report

December 9, 2010

The Brown Tweed Society is pleased to welcome new contributing partner Leonard Jacobs, Editor of The Clyde Fitch Report, who will routinely weigh in with news from the New York theater scene and ongoing arts issues.

Mr. Jacobs: Good morning, boys and girls.

Class: Good morning, Mr. Jacobs.

Mr. Jacobs: Very nice. Billy, fix your tie. Much better. Today, boys and girls, in Remedial Arts Criticism class, we’re going to discuss how not to be a complete and utter jackass when writing a review.

Billy: Can I ask a question?

Mr. Jacobs: No, Billy, you cannot go to the bathroom. Your last symphony orchestra review paid not nearly sufficient attention to the brass section, and your summation of the woodwinds totally blew. Hold it.

Billy: [sulking] All right.

Mr. Jacobs: Pain is good for you, Billy, if you’re an arts critic. Better you should suffer like artists so you might actually know something of their daily lives. Class, today we’ll consider the Senior Dance Critic of the New York Times, Alastair Macaulay. Lately, he’s been a very bad critic, you know.

Cindy: What makes a critic “bad,” Mr. Jacobs?

Mr. Jacobs: Cindy, I’m so glad you ask! It’s certainly much more pertinent than going to the bathroom. A bad critic is someone, for example, unable or unwilling to distinguish between the performance given by an artist — an actor, say, or a dancer or a musician — and the physical characteristics of the performer himself or herself. In other words, John Simon, the theater critic, was criticized for how he reviewed actress Zoe Caldwell in the original Off-Broadway version of the musical Colette, written by The Fantasticks creators Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt. In the edition of New York magazine of May 25, 1970, Simon wrote:

Miss Caldwell is an actress of glibly spectacular competence, who once, working at the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre, exhibited something more than that. In New York, she merely exhibits herself, whether in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or in the crime against Mme. Colette, a performance that is all shoddy histrionic trickery.

Cindy: But why is that unfair, Mr. Jacobs? Simon didn’t write anything about Caldwell physically, he merely panned her acting and did so with vigor.

Mr. Jacobs: That’s true, Cindy. But Simon wasn’t content to talk about Caldwell’s acting — which is where his job as a critic should have begun and ended. To viciously attack someone’s physical characteristics for the sake of going after their physical characteristics is unethical, not to mention gratuitous and lame. Shall I read more of Simon’s review?

Billy: Anything to get me closer to the bathroom, Mr. Jacobs.

Mr. Jacobs: Your suffering is endearing, Billy. All right:

…Miss Caldwell is fat and unattractive in every part of the face, body and limbs, though I must admit that I have not examined her teeth. When she climactically bears her sprawlingly uberous left breast, the sight is almost enough to drive the heterosexual third of the audience screaming into the camp of the majority. Colette had sex appeal; Miss Caldwell has sex repeal.

Cindy: Wow, Mr. Jacobs. John Simon’s an asshole.

Mr. Jacobs: A gratuitous asshole, Cindy. Big difference.

Billy: What does this have to do with Alastair Macaulay?

Read more…

Visit Leonard Jacobs and The Clyde Fitch Report daily for for more posts on arts, theater and politics. Follow the Clyde Fitch Report on Twitter at @clydefitch.

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