A Theater Criticism/Arts Journalism Primer

Refereeing the Muses

by Bob Abelman (Author) Cheryl Kushner (Author)
©2013 Textbook XVIII, 271 Pages


A Theater Criticism/Arts Journalism Primer: Refereeing the Muses examines the skill set associated with being a critic and arts journalist. It explores the history, evolution, and future of the profession in the United States, and carefully and purposefully dissects the preparation, observation, and writing process associated with generating thoughtful and interesting arts criticism.
Using theatrical productions as the best and most vivid example of a storytelling enterprise that employs creativity, imagination, collaboration, aesthetics, and artisanship to effectively engage an audience, this book is intended to generate the critical thinking and critical writing skills necessary to effectively engage in all forms of arts journalism.
It is designed to be used as a college-level textbook on theater criticism and arts journalism courses, for those looking to become more thoughtful, critical consumers, for casual critics thinking about starting a blog or working for their university newspaper, and for working critics hoping to improve their craft.
The text is written in an accessible style and includes quotes from renowned critics and arts practitioners throughout as well as frequent sidebars that offer timely, insightful, and entertaining examples of the points being made in the text.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • Praise for A Theater Criticism/Arts Journalism Primer
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of “In Profiles”
  • Preface
  • Notes
  • Acknowledgments
  • Permissions
  • Chapter 1 Abstract
  • 1 The Arts at Arm’s Length
  • Keeping the Arts at Arm’s Length
  • The Demise of Vaudeville
  • Theater Has Been Relegated to High Culture Status
  • The Broadway Musical
  • Art Is Demanding
  • The State of the Arts in Academia
  • Summary
  • Key Concepts from this Chapter
  • Notes
  • Chapter 2 Abstract
  • 2 Criticizing the Arts, Or Not
  • The Obstacles of Critical Thinking About the Arts
  • The Era of the Internet
  • It’s Only Entertainment
  • Mainstream Misinformation
  • Critical Thinking is Not Taught Here
  • The Disappearing Professional Critic
  • Summary
  • Key Concepts from this Chapter
  • Notes
  • Chapter 3 Abstract
  • 3 The Critic
  • The Arts Writer/Entertainment Reporter
  • Public Relations and Promotions
  • Box Office Sales
  • Advertising Revenue
  • Status Conferral
  • The Critic
  • The Disruption of Audience Autopilot
  • Standard Bearer for the Audience
  • Seeing the Big Picture
  • Providing Advocacy
  • Documentation
  • Standard Bearer of the Arts
  • Critics in Conflict
  • Critics as Privileged Communicators
  • Critics as Creative Communicators
  • Critics as New-Wave Communicators
  • Summary
  • Key Concepts from this Chapter
  • Notes
  • Chapter 4 Abstract
  • 4 Critical Thinking
  • The Stages of Critical Thinking
  • Desire to seek
  • Patience to doubt
  • Fondness to mediate
  • Slowness to assert
  • Readiness to consider
  • Careful to dispose and set in order
  • Hatred for every kind of imposture
  • The Evolution of Critical Thinking
  • Critical Approaches: Placing Art in Context
  • Sociological Criticism
  • Genre Criticism
  • Auteur Criticism
  • Anthropological Criticism
  • Summary
  • Key Concepts
  • Notes
  • Chapter 5 Abstract
  • 5 The Evolution of Criticism: From Dramatic to Theater Criticism
  • The Birth of Dramatic Criticism
  • The Birth of Theater Criticism
  • The Paid Puff System
  • Scalpers and Mountebanks
  • Bacchanalianism
  • Summary
  • Key Concepts from this Chapter
  • Notes
  • Chapter 6 Abstract
  • 6 The Evolution of Theater Criticism: The Modern Era
  • A More Learned Press Corp
  • The Birth of Modern Criticism
  • The Age of Instant Criticism
  • Rebounding from Yellow Journalism
  • The Roaring 20s
  • After the Lean Years
  • The Era of the Critic as Superstar
  • Summary
  • Key Concepts from this Chapter
  • Notes
  • Chapter 7 Abstract
  • 7 Storytelling Conventions
  • Theater’s Core Conventions
  • Theater is an Art Form
  • Theater is Grounded in the Human Condition
  • Theater’s Structural Parameters
  • Theater Can Be Classified by Genre
  • Theater is Collaborative
  • Becoming Theater Literate
  • Summary
  • Key Concepts from this Chapter
  • Notes
  • Chapter 8 Abstract
  • 8 The Storytellers
  • The Playwright
  • The Critic and the Playwright
  • The Artistic Director
  • The Critic and the Artist Director
  • Director and Designers
  • The Critic and the Director
  • Actors
  • The Critic and the Actor
  • Summary
  • Key Concepts from this Chapter
  • Notes
  • Chapter 9 Abstract
  • 9 Prelude to A Critique
  • A Critic’s Characteristics
  • Development of a Critical Third Eye
  • The Desire to Seek
  • Risks Associated With the Desire to Seek
  • The Establishment of a Critical Voice
  • Adherence to a Sliding Scale
  • Risks Associated With Sliding Scales
  • Possessing Keen Powers of Observation
  • Summary
  • Key Concepts from this Chapter
  • Notes
  • Chapter 10 Abstract
  • 10 Writing A Critique
  • What Do You See
  • The Application of Observation
  • Note Taking
  • What Do You Write
  • Naming Names
  • The Lead
  • The Nut Graph
  • The Descriptive Overview
  • The “So,” “How,” and “So What”
  • The Kicker
  • The Title
  • Characteristics of a Good Read
  • Summary
  • Key Concepts from this Chapter
  • Notes
  • Chapter 11 Abstract
  • 11 Deconstruction of A Critique
  • A Case Study in Criticism
  • The Critic
  • The Critic’s Process
  • The Play
  • The Playhouse
  • The Review
  • The Deconstruction
  • Paragraph A, the title
  • Paragraph B, lines 1–4
  • Paragraph C, lines 5–12
  • Paragraph D, lines 13–19
  • Paragraphs E–F, lines 20–37
  • Paragraphs G, lines 38–45
  • Paragraphs H, lines 46–56
  • Paragraphs I-J, lines 57–77
  • Paragraphs K, lines 78–82
  • Paragraphs K, lines 83–85
  • A Point of Comparison
  • The Review
  • Summary
  • Notes
  • Index

| vii →

List of “In Profiles”

The West Wing

Gay Theater and the Diffusion of Innovation

Academically Adrift

Rating on a Curve

What Kind of Man

Waiting for Godot

Spider-Man’s Success by the Numbers

Upon Critics Who Judge of Modern Plays Precisely by the Rules of the Ancients

The Critic-Critic v. The Non-Critic Critic

Theater Critic Joke

“Discussing the Undiscussable” as Sociological Criticism

“In Defense of Disney” as Genre Criticism

“Color Vision” as Auteur Criticism

Assassins and Hair as Anthropological Criticism

“Dunlap’s Darby’s Return

The Astor Place Riot

Shaw as Critic

The Aisle-Sitters of Gotham

Clurman’s “The Complete Critic’s Qualifications”

Kenneth Tynan—The Notorious Critic

Theater Criticism and the Pulitzer Prize

Plays and Films Featuring Critics

Jukebox Musicals ← vii | viii →


Who Doth Inhabit the Primary Position

Broadway Musical Flops

Timing and the Cruel Review

Job Description at East West Players (Los Angeles, CA)

The New York Times Critic Watch

Actors’ Equity

One Actor’s Process

The National Standards for Arts Education

Do Critics Need To Be Practitioners

Theater Mission Statements

International Association of Theatre Critics Code of Practice

Participant-Observer Exercises

Theater Critic Poem

Follow the Leader

Ira Glass on Writing

Guidelines for Writing a Good Headline

Being Word Savvy

The Washington Post

Review: The hues blend evocatively in Arena Stage’s ‘Red’

Review: CPH’s ‘Red’ offers a vivid rendering about abstract art

| ix →


“I would especially like to recourt the Muse of poetry, who ran off with the mailman four years ago, and drops me only a scribbled postcard from time to time.”

~John Updike, author1

The sub-title chosen for this book is Refereeing the Muses. It seemed a fitting description for what it is that professional arts critics do and what, after completing your reading of this book, you are likely to be doing as well.

In ancient Greece, where many of the arts were conceived or refined, poets validated their work by claiming it was inspired by the muses—the goddesses who presided over all of the arts and all the sciences. Socrates (469–399 B.C.E.), one of the founders of Western philosophy, reasoned that poetry is created when the gods remove from the poet of choice all human senses and replace them with divine inspiration. Indeed, the word “inspiration” is akin to “respiration” and means to be divinely filled with breath. ← ix | x →

The muses2 were daughters of Zeus, the ruler of the Olympian gods, and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. They include: Calliope (muse of epic poetry); Clio (muse of history); Erato (muse of love poetry); Euterpe (muse of music); Melpomene (muse of tragedy); Polymnia (muse of sacred poetry); Terpsichore (muse of dance); Thalia (muse of comedy); and Urania (muse of astronomy). It is the faces of Thalia and Melpomene that are believed to have inspired the paired masks of comedy and tragedy that have come to represent the theater arts.

The muses were benign, helpful beings, who—according to legend—approached a deserving poet and, after removing all human senses, conferred on him three gifts: a laurel branch to use as a sceptre, which was a sign of authority; knowledge of the future and the past with which to generate insightful and inspirational verse; and a wondrous voice with which to share this verse. The muses were the equivalent of ancient Greek Guggenheim grants.3

Testimonials to their perceived influence on the arts can be found throughout history. Near the end of the 8th century B.C.E., Homer invoked the muses in the first words of Book 1 of the Odyssey, the West’s first great work of literary art: “Sing to me of the man, Muse, of twists and turns driven time and again off course.” The lyric poet Pindar, in the 5th century B.C.E., referred to himself as the prophet and herald of the muses, who has special knowledge which sets him apart from other men.4 At the outset of his Metamporphoses, the Roman poet Ovid greedily embraced not one muse, but all nine, as his inspiration. Virgil, in his late-first century B.C.E. epic, the Aeneid, did the same. In the second canto of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, completed in the early 14th century, he calls out: “O Muses, O high genius, aid me now.”5 Milton, Shakespeare, and Chaucer have all, in their works, specifically beseeched the muses for their favor and credited them for their successes, as have many others.

Over time, the nature of the muses and the avenue of their divine inspiration have gone through changes. For some, the pagan nine were replaced with the Holy Trinity of the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost for divine artistic inspiration. This is most clearly reflected in Christian art throughout the Byzantine Empire around the 4th to 6th centuries, in the Gothic architecture and sculpture in the 10th and11th centuries, and among Flemish artists of the 14th and 15th centuries.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, Italian Renaissance painters such as Raphael favored a more earth-bound form of muse-worship that has retained much of its popularity in the modern era: attractive flesh and blood women. The model for two of Raphael’s most famous Madonnas and the confessed source of his inspiration was not Mary, but a Sienese baker’s daughter named Margharita di Luti.

At the turn of the 20th century, psychologist Sigmund Freud demystified artistic inspiration by claiming to have actually located the source of all inspiration ← x | xi → in the inner psyche of the artist. He noted that inspiration came from unresolved psychological conflict and, particularly, from childhood trauma. Freud’s contemporary, Carl Gustav Jung, suggested that artists are particularly attuned to genetic memory and, through dreams, acquaint themselves with and are inspired by the unconscious. Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, author Robert Louis Stevenson, and musician Paul McCartney have each credited an ambiguous, sleep-induced unconsciousness for helping them conceive the ideas for Kubla Khan, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the entire melody for Yesterday (the most covered Beatles song in their entire catalog), respectively.6

“Poets have stopped invoking the spiritual muses,” suggested contemporary journalist Lee Siegel, “eventually turning instead to caffeine, alcohol, and amphetamines.”7 More specifically, in the 1960s, hallucinogens inspired the psychedelic art movement, led by artists Peter Max, Pablo Amaringo, Mati Klarwein, Rick Griffin, and others.8 Rock groups such as the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, inspired by chemical muses, popularized the notion of a psychedelic consciousness through the sounds and lyrics of their music and, as a visual phenomenon, through their advertising, album cover art, and on-stage theatrics.

It was also at this time that, in the United States at least, the muses became federalized. Throughout history, other developed nations routinely devoted large portions of their gross national products on cultural endeavors. The French and Austrian monarchies, for example, generously patronized the arts for centuries. The United States shied away from such action until the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 1965, when the federal government became a significant patron of the arts.9 The NEA funds dance, design, folk and traditional arts, literature, local arts agencies, media arts, multidisciplinary, museums, music, musical theater, opera, theater, and the visual arts. The muses became money managers and, in the eyes of skeptics and fiscal conservatives, sugar daddies.

In February 2011, the U.S. House of Representatives approved by a close vote of 217–209 Rep. Tim Walberg’s amendment to cut an additional $20.5 million from the already reduced budget of the NEA.10 The NEA has not seen this kind of deep cut in 16 years. Also on the table was the complete elimination of funding for the NEA ($167.5 million), the National Endowment for the Humanities ($167.5 million), and the Public Broadcast System ($445 million), which GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney swore he would put into effect if elected.11 In response to the budget cuts, on April 4, 2011, Arts Advocacy Day was declared in Washington, D.C. and Emmy Award-winning actor Kevin Spacey, who serves as artistic director of the Old Vic Theatre in London, gave an impassioned keynote lecture at the Kennedy Center in defense of the arts and the federal funding of them.12 Spacey outlined how all great nations have valued public funding of the arts and how leaders of all ← xi | xii → political parties have championed that effort in the past, particularly during difficult financial times. Winston Churchill, noted Spacey, responded to the recommendation to cut funding for the arts during the Second World War by asking “what are we fighting for?”

No matter what form the muses take—nine goddesses, the Holy Trinity, unresolved conflict, dream-stalkers, hallucinogens, federal grants, Kennedy, Churchill, or Spacey—arts critics have long held the responsibility of experiencing, contemplating, and evaluating the outcome of their handiwork. And no matter the art—poetry, literature, painting, music, film, television program, or videogame—arts criticism has been instrumental in influencing its form, function, and consumption.

As referees of the muses, arts critics are on the front line of the arts themselves. Their writing and commentary facilitates exposure to the arts. Their insight shares and spreads art appreciation and education. Their passion and perspective fosters arts advocacy and, thus, bolsters the efforts of the muses. And, by effectively and judiciously serving as the referees of the muses, critics have—upon occasion—taken on the function of the muses themselves by guiding and inspiring artists and helping shape the arts. This book examines the skill set associated with being a critic, explores the history, evolution, and future of the profession in the United States, and dissects the preparation, observation, and writing process associated with generating thoughtful and interesting arts criticism. It is written to offer insight and useful information for those casual critics thinking about starting a blog or looking to become more thoughtful, critical consumers of the arts, those university newspaper arts writers and editors hoping to improve their craft, or aspiring critics hoping to work for The New York Times, Broadway.com, or their hometown newspaper.

The title of this book suggests that it is an arts journalism primer, but with a focus on theater criticism. Indeed, this book is written with the hope that those with a background or interest in any of the performing, visual, or fine arts will find that much of the information is pertinent to their particular pursuits and passions as critics. After all, the act of criticism is, itself, an enterprise that is applicable to all the arts and whose roots are as old as the arts themselves. In addition, all artistic work employs creativity, imagination, aesthetics, and artisanship in its effort to effectively engage an audience. All works of art integrate our emotions with our intelligence and use the human spirit as its springboard. All works of art reflect or refract the human condition and call upon consumers to bring their own life experiences to the table when interpreting a work.

Most of the chapters of the book are applicable to all arts journalism and tend to use theater as the best example. However, even those that concentrate specifically on the performing arts—that is, Chapters 5 and 6 (which explore the evolution ← xii | xiii → of theater criticism), as well as Chapters 7 and 8 (which examine the storytelling conventions and stage crafters of theater)—reveal much about the arts in general.

It could also be argued that, as a particularly collaborative and inclusive enterprise, theater embraces and incorporates the full spectrum of the arts. Its reliance on the written and spoken word, as contributed by a playwright and delivered by performers, entails an understanding and appreciation of the art of oral storytelling. Dance, as depicted in stage movement and choreography, is instrumental in all theatrical performances. The visual arts come into play with the creation of time, place, and temperament in the form of scenic design, costume design, and lighting design. Music and sound are also instrumental in theater, whether used for ambience, segue, or as an integral narrative device. Technological innovation has always been embraced by theater as well. In short, many art forms are employed under the auspices of theater and are considered during the engagement of critical analysis. There are, after all, nine muses who are related to one another. This book hopes to shed light on most of them.


1 Cited in Lewis Nicholsipswich, “Talk With John Updike,” The New York Times, April 7, 1968, BR34, http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F10D17FD385913748DDDAE0894%20DC405B888AF1D3 (accessed December 23, 2010).

2 The image of the muses that appears in the Preface is The Dance of Apollo with the Muses, by Italian painter and architect Baldassare Tommaso Peruzzi, early 1500s.

3 Accredited to Lee Siegel, “Where Have All the Muses Gone?” The Wall Street Journal, May 16, 2009, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124242927020125473.html (accessed on December 23, 2010).

4 Cited in Penelope Murray and T.S. Dorsch, Classical Literary Criticism (New York: Penguin Putnam, Inc., 2000), iv.

5 Ibid.


XVIII, 271
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2013 (July)
aesthetics history evolution artisanship future
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt, Oxford, Wien, 2013. XVII, 271 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Bob Abelman (Author) Cheryl Kushner (Author)

Bob Abelman (PhD, The University of Texas-Austin) is a Distinguished Professor of Communication at Cleveland State University where he teaches arts journalism and media criticism. He is also an award-winning theater critic for the daily News-Herald, a produced playwright, and a former professional actor with New York credits. He was a 2010 National Endowment for the Arts fellow in Arts Journalism and is the recipient of three Excellence in Research awards from The International Mensa Education and Research Foundation for his work on media/arts literacy and artistic giftedness. Cheryl Kushner (MA, Kent State University) is Assistant Professor at Kent State University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She is a former entertainment editor at The Plain Dealer, as well as New York’s Newsday, where she directed coverage resulting in a 2002 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. She was a fellow with the National Arts Journalism Program, where she studied theater and creative writing at Northwestern University. Ms. Kushner is also the author of four romance/women’s fiction novels.


Title: A Theater Criticism/Arts Journalism Primer
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