Perhaps you noticed that Warren Epstein, Entertainment Editor of Gazette, has just submitted his resignation after 23 years on our newspaper. Perhaps you didn't--the news hardly made headlines.
You may have also heard that earlier this year John Moore, the Denver Post theatre critic, also resigned.
While the departures of both men were officially "voluntary" it is unlikely they will be adequately replaced. These two resignations are part of a larger mega trend: the slow death of the newspaper. That will be a protracted event, but the toll on the arts is immediate and shocking. The state of theatre criticism in Colorado has rarely been high, even with Warren and John at their posts. That's because a real theatre critic is hard to find. The position requires more than genuine interest and a minimal ability to write. It requires a real liberal arts education, a knowledge of theatrical history and literature, a familiarity with what is happening in the best and most interesting theatres in the world, and the time and space to write at a length that serious thought and engagement demand. There is no one writing about theatre in Colorado at the present time with these qualifications or opportunities.
Perhaps this is because theatre serves such a very small proportion of our population -- about one percent of the Pikes Peak Region. But perhaps it is also because the role of arts criticism has been dumbed down in our newspapers. The recently retired John Moore once told me that he thought of himself as an "average Joe" who was reporting on his experiences. As far as I am concerned, that statement was grounds for dismissal. I don't want my culture mediated by an average Joe any more than I want my politics guided by a plumber. Warren Epstein told me that Gazette Theatre reviews and their inane grading systems were designed to advise average readers about what they might go see and like. This is a distressingly diminished sort of criticism, at least in my old fashioned view. I'd much rather read a critic who was guided by the fuddy-duddy principles of Matthew Arnold, the eminent Victorian.
It was Arnold who famously said the business of criticism was "simply to know the best that is known and thought in the world, and by in its turn making this known,to create a current of true and fresh ideas." The proper business of the critic is not just to describe what he or she likes, and then assign grade (C+!), so that average Joes and Janes can decide on an evening menu. The real job of the critic is to identify what is really excellent, and by thoughtfully engaging with it help create a stimulating climate of discovery and progress. Now we're talking! We might all get down on our knees and thank the critics blessed with the talent, the education, and the opportunity to serve us in this way. There are not so many of them anywhere, even in film, where there are a zillion critics in every cinema. In London at least there are enough theatre critics so that every serious production gets a dozen reviews, but often these reviews are skimpy and, of late, far too generous. I thank the stars that every morning I can read Ben Brantley and Charles Isherwood in the New York Times, two critics who have the knowledge, the intelligence, and the generous word counts to really tell us something. I thank David Denby at the New Yorker, whose recent essay on The Artist was truly illuminating; so was Geoffrey O'Brien's essay on The Tree of Life in the New York Review of Books.
But the bad news is that this dismal and diminished state of critical affairs is about to get worse. At the Denver Post, John Moore was in fact much more than the average Joe he claimed to be. He was intelligent, open and amazingly assiduous, going well beyond the call of a critic's duty to become the glue of the Colorado theatre scene---indeed, he as much as anyone, is responsible for creating that vibrant scene over the last decade. When he was involuntarily furloughed last summer, and forbidden to write, John came down to see our Merchant of Venice anyway--and though he could not publish a review, he served us well by awarding Christopher Lowell as Colorado's 2011 Actor of the Year for his performance as Shylock. Now John has been vaporized into the ether. It's very unlikely we will see a Post critic here in the near future. At the Gazette, Warren Epstein was full of passion and enthusiasm for local arts for two decades, and now he, too, is no more. There is no evidence these crucial critical cultural energies can or will be replaced. We are far likely to see even less theatre criticism of any kind in print. Of course there will be some on-line, but the internet is not a medium that invites extended critical thought or engagement. Its success will be measured by page views, and page views are largely driven by photographs. So we can expect to see lots more pictures of roller derby in our arts and entertainment sections.
It is the shameful way of the newspaper world that the departures of these two hardworking and passionate servants went virtually unnoticed. John cleaned out his desk and disappeared (though you can still find him on facebook, with the rest of the world). Warren managed a few words of farewell in his Go DVD review this week, but you had the feeling his goodbye was a stealth operation. This is disgraceful. And it is our loss. I conclude with a few more words from Matthew Arnold, a writer not made for tweeting: "to have the sense of creative activity is the great happiness and great proof of being alive,and it is not denied to criticism to have it; but then criticism must be sincere, simple, flexible, ardent, ever widening its knowledge." To have such a criticism present in our lives is devoutly to be wished--devoutly! Judged by the loss of John and Warren, as far as our newspapers go, we are wishing in the wind.