David Bruce: Critics Anecdotes


TV critic Anne Billson wrote a critical analysis of the American cult TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which she greatly admired because of its strong female, action-oriented role model. Despite her great love of the series, she did not like some characters. One was Dawn, Buffy’s younger sister (sort of) in seasons 5-7, who is criticized by Ms. Billson (and many Buffy fans) for being whiny. At the end of season 5, Buffy saves Dawn (and the world) by sacrificing her life. While watching the episode, Ms. Billson found herself screaming at the TV screen, “FOR GOD’S SAKE, LET THEM TAKE DAWN INSTEAD.” Ms. Billson’s extreme dislike of Dawn continued throughout seasons 6 and 7 of Buffy. When Ms. Billson lists a number of actions performed by Evil Willow at the end of season 6, one item, with Ms. Billson’s commentary) is this: “terrorize Dawn (yay!).” In the final episode of the final season of Buffy (season 7), Ms. Billson knew that some important characters would be killed. In her book about the show, she writes, “But who will be sacrificed? Xander or Willow? Giles? Faith? Principal Wood? Or (please, please) Dawn?” To be fair, Michelle Trachtenberg, who played Dawn, also thought that the character was whiny. She once pleaded with Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy, to let the character be less whiny—and wear high heels. After the final season ended, a Rocky Horror-type audience participation showing of the musical episode of Buffy—“Once More, With Feeling”—began happening in some major American cities. Whenever Dawn is whiny in the episode, the audience yells, “SHUT UP, DAWN!”

The art of Phelan Gibb was at first disliked by members of the public and by many art critics. When his paintings were hanging in a gallery, writer H.G. Wells stopped in and liked what he saw. Mr. Gibb and Mr. Wells spoke, and Mr. Gibb complained about his critics, pointing out, “I would like a little appreciation from my own countrymen.” The next day, Mr. Wells returned to the art gallery, bringing with him Arnold Bennett and a number of art critics. He announced, “Mr. Gibb, may I present your enemies!” (“Enemies” may have been the right word. Mr. Gibb and Mr. Bennett got into such a heated argument that they almost had to be physically and forcibly separated from each other.)

Even a bad review can be helpful in advancing a career. When Paul Taylor choreographed and performed 7 New Dances in 1957, the audience walked out after 10 minutes. Martha Graham, whose dance troupe Mr. Taylor had been in, even told him, “You naughty boy.” And in a famous review, Louis Horst simply put his name at the bottom of a blank page. Of course, Mr. Taylor was bothered by these reactions—but the review had good results. He says, “I was disappointed and mad that people didn’t understand what I had done. But that review was a big help because it brought me great notoriety. No one had heard of Paul Taylor before that.”

George Balanchine was even tempered, but he could and did criticize dancers. Sometimes, he would tell a dancer, “Don’t you know what fifth position is, dear? Didn’t anyone ever tell you? Where did you study?” (The dancer had studied at his own School of American Ballet.) Dancer Merrill Ashley says about Mr. Balanchine’s criticism that “with that question, he had made his point, with devastating effect.” Although Mr. Balanchine was a strict dance teacher, he was a well-loved dance teacher. After his classes ended, the students often briefly but appreciatively applauded—something he was unable to stop the students from doing.

Robert Gottlieb disliked John Cranko’s Eugene Onegin in part because of what he called “its patched-together Tchaikovsky score”—so did George Balanchine. Mr. Cranko had died young of a heart attack, but Mr. Balanchine told Mr. Gottlieb that he had died because of a different reason: “Tchaikovsky up in heaven looked down and saw that ballet and went to God and said, ‘Get that one!’” Of course, Mr. Balanchine was well aware of his place in history as a great choreographer, and when someone once asked him his opinion of the other choreographers, he answered, “And who are the other choreographers?”

Before World War II, Lucy Carrington Wertheimer ran an art gallery that concentrated on the work of then-modern artists. Charles Merriott, art critic for the Times in London, frequently wrote about her gallery. One day, she offered him the gift of a picture, but he replied that it was his rule never to accept such gifts. Ms. Wertheimer told the story later to the artist Frances Hodgkins, who replied, “Not without reason do they call him Marriott the Incorruptible.”

In the late 1950s, Robert Hughes wrote an occasional book review and created cartoons for the Australian newspaper the Observer. One day, the editor announced, “’I’ve just fired the art critic. Anyone here know anything about art?” He looked at the young Mr. Hughes and said, “You’re the cartoonist. You ought to know something about art. Good. Well, now you’re the f—king art critic.” Good choice. Mr. Hughes became a renowned critic.

Children can be the harshest critics. Luigi Arditi, a conductor, was playing the score of Tannhäuser on the piano when his daughter, who was in another room, asked, “Who’s playing the piano, mama?” Her mother replied that her father was playing the piano, and the little girl said, “Oh, I thought it was the piano tuner.”

Son House, a great blues guitarist, was also a devastating critic. He once listened to a recording of a white blues pretender performing one of his songs. Mr. House was pleased that someone had recorded one of his songs, but he said about the performance, “Those are my words, all right, but it sure ain’t my music.”

A critic objected to George Balanchine’s choreography of Apollo and asked him, “Young man, where did you ever see Apollo walking on his knees.” Refusing to be intimidated, Mr. Balanchine replied, “I would ask you: Where did you ever see Apollo?”

George Kaufman once made this criticism of a play: “I saw it under adverse circumstances—the curtain was up.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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