Friday, February 11, 2011

Spider-Man and Critical Ethics

On Monday, many critics published reviews of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark even though the show is technically still in previews. Ben Brantley, at the New York Times, justified his decision thus:

"I would like to acknowledge here that 'Spider-Man' doesn't officially open until March 15; at least that's the last date I heard. But since this show was looking as if it might settle into being an unending work in progress — with Ms. Taymor playing Michelangelo to her notion of a Sistine Chapel on Broadway — my editors and I decided I might as well check out 'Spider-Man' around Monday, the night it was supposed to have opened before its latest postponement. You are of course entitled to disagree with our decision. But from what I saw on Saturday night, ‘Spider-Man’ is so grievously broken in every respect that it is beyond repair."

As Patrick Healy reported the following day, the reviews sparked a small controversy:

“[The critics] argued that the show had already become the highest-grossing on Broadway and that ticket buyers deserved to know what they were paying for. The producers complained about the fairness of assessing a show while its creative team was still at work.”

The producers, of course, might not have raised such a fuss about critical integrity if most of the reviewers hadn’t agreed with Brantley about the show’s problems. (Healy found only a couple laudatory clips.) But this situation merits more reflection than Healy offers in his he-said/she-said account. Major questions remain unanswered: When exactly does a show become reviewable? Who gets to make that decision? In a spectacle as financially ridiculous as Spider-Man, it feels right to take the total number of audience members and the amount of money they’ve already spent into account. But for most other theater (including the shows that are actually interesting), outlandish sums will probably never come into play.

So how will the Times approach similar situations in the future? What might even constitute a similar situation? Is it just about popularity? The newspaper owes its readers a more explicit statement of critical philosophy.

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