Rethinking Academic Reviewing

A Conversation with Michael Dobson, Peter Holland, Katherine Rowe, Christian Billing, and Carolyn Sale

Edited by Sarah Werner

Copyright © 2011 Folger Shakespeare Library. This article first appeared in Shakespeare Quarterly, Volume 62, Issue 3, September 2011, pages 457-62.

[A preface: As I say in my introduction to this conversation below, this piece consists of excerpts from an online conversation about academic reviewing. That conversation happened around Michael Dobson’s review of a production of As You Like It and in the context of the open peer review that I conducted as guest editor of a special issue of Shakespeare Quarterly on Shakespeare and Performance. Because the author agreement that the Folger and Johns Hopkins University Press have in place allows authors to post their work on their own sites—a really wonderful thing—I have reproduced that conversation here. The main sense of the discussion can be found, however, not in this replication of the print version, but in the archived online debate. I have linked individual sections to that debate, and I encourage readers to pick up the threads over at MediaCommons. That site is no longer open for new comments, but you can comment here, should you desire.]

Longtime readers of Shakespeare Quarterly will know that the coverage dedicated to reviews and the type of writing that constitutes a review have shifted considerably over the past forty years. In the 1970s, the journal dedicated increasing, and considerable, space to reviews of productions from a wide range of venues, but most notably from regional theaters; at the height of this trend, in the early 1980s, nearly one quarter of SQ’s annual output was devoted to theater reviews. In the 1980s and 1990s, the space devoted to reviews shrank considerably, and reviews themselves increasingly focused on productions from major theaters, particularly those from the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). In the last decade, the journal has tried a number of different approaches, including extending the focus beyond the RSC, covering more North American productions, and trying the formats of omnibus reviews, paired productions, and single-show reviews. SQ’s ongoing exploration of what to review and in what format coincides with a growing conversation about what constitutes a review: How does a review differ from a scholarly article? Should a review focus on one individual’s evaluation of whether the show was good, or should it attempt to provide a more holistic account of what happened on stage? What makes a production noteworthy enough to be reviewed?

For this issue, our hope had been to push the exploration of reviewing by inviting multiple reviews of the same show. The call for papers for this special issue included an invitation to submit reviews of a single, trans-Atlantic production of As You Like It, directed by Sam Mendes as part of the 2010 season of The Bridge Project.1 We had hoped that by bringing together different responses to a single production, we could begin to explore the difference that individual viewers, locations, and performances bring to the act of reviewing. Unfortunately, the journal received only a couple of submitted reviews of the production. Although the hoped-for comparison of different responses didn’t happen, another opportunity presented itself in Michael Dobson’s review, which both addressed the production at hand and questioned the assumptions we make about the act of reviewing. Dobson generously allowed us to use his review to spark a conversation about the general convention of theater reviewing and the specifics of this production, and we posted the piece online at MediaCommons, our partner in the open peer review process for this issue. There, the review received over fifty comments from ten different respondents, a conversation that touched on a wide range of topics about Mendes’s production and how and why we write theater reviews. The dialogue flowed back and forth between participants, revealing some real areas of disagreement and a broad sense that this is a lively topic for exploration.

What follows are excerpts from Dobson’s review and the online exchange about reviewing practices that happened around it. Some of the conversation revolved around the production itself. Here, however, we have excerpted only those comments that focused on what it means to write and read academic theater reviews (the comments have been lightly edited and, in some cases, condensed for clarity). Readers are invited to read the full debate archived at MediaCommons, where they will be able to follow intricacies and nuances of the conversation that are necessarily lost in this edited excerpt.2

The questions raised by these excerpts give a sense of the type of conversation we look forward to continuing in future issues of Shakespeare Quarterly. Some of the comments raised interesting possibilities for new ways of reviewing, including variations on the idea of a review cluster, and we will be considering new experiments along these lines and otherwise exploring the creation and reception of academic theater reviews. So please stay tuned for future developments and come back for more conversations.

Should Only Exceptional Productions Be Reviewed?

Michael Dobson  It is extraordinarily difficult to represent any live performance adequately: any night at the theater is not just a multimedia artistic event but a social one too. When it comes to a great revival of a Shakespeare play, it is hard to bear even fragmentary witness to the myriad interpretative possibilities and affective nuances opened up by every gesture, every phrase, every fleeting theatrical image. But it can be just as difficult to do justice to a much more common experience of live Shakespeare—that of mediocrity, indifference, the disappointingly familiar sense that one is watching a cast going through the motions of a run-of-the-mill production which seems to have fired nobody’s imagination at all, not even that of its director. Such, alas, was my experience of seeing Sam Mendes’s As You Like It: six months on, were it not for the notes and sketches and the copy of the program which now lie in front of me, I might have forgotten the show entirely.

Peter Holland  Michael’s whole article seems to me to open an extremely important area of work that we have undervalued. Most analysis is devoted to the exceptional, the innovative, the brilliant. But for most regular Shakespeare performance scholars, most performances are dull. So how do we work on the normative? It can’t just be by sharply critical comments. It must be through a recognition of our own perceptions of the context of mediocrity. There are many ways we could extend Dobson’s analysis, for example, by taking that common case (for me at any rate) of going to a show with students, being totally bored but finding them thrilled by the experience—and then trying to make discussion in class helpfully critical without patronizing them for their inexperience. I wonder what would happen if a bunch of us went to a production expecting it to be poor but committed to writing about it. What might we learn?

Who are academic theater reviews for?

Katherine Rowe  What is an academic review for and who are its imagined audiences? I’ll confess that I rarely feel addressed by academic reviews; I rarely see my own interests in a performance (or boredom in a performance) addressed by them. This review is a welcome exception to that rule, but perhaps precisely for the ways in which it violates unspoken conventions.

Peter Holland  Academic theater reviews are directed to others working on Shakespeare and performance. In the same way that Kathy Rowe has brilliantly shown that most writing about Shakespeare and film would be laughed at by people in film studies, so our analysis of theater performance is often amateurish to those in theater studies. Too much reviewing still has a coziness of its own.

Sarah Werner  I do think that academic theater reviews are directed to others working on Shakespeare and performance (although I’m pretty sure that they’re read by people who do not think of themselves as falling into that category). But I also think it’s worthwhile lingering on Kathy’s question. That group of people who work on Shakespeare and performance is a widely diverse group, with a range of interests and motives: there are folks interested in Shakespeare and performance primarily for tracking a play’s performance history; others might be interested in studying performative languages; and there are some who still want to think about productions in terms of whether they adhere to a particular interpretation of a play. I don’t think academic theater reviews speak to all of them the same way.

What Are the Terms of Reviewing?

Christian Billing   As Peter Holland observes in this discussion thread with regards to Shakespeare on Film Scholars (versus Film Scholars), and Shakespeare in Performance Scholars (versus Performance Scholars), often the addition of the word “Shakespeare” to the job title appears to dilute the quality of the work. Might I suggest that this is because scholars who are not trained in performance studies or film studies think that they are qualified to publish in these areas because “above all, it’s Shakespeare”? The material realities of what’s going on in a theater performance or in a film (as well as the aesthetic, technical, social, and economic processes that have led up to either product) are complex, and if one is to write about these meaningfully one needs to have the tools so to do. Such tools are better learned through performance studies than literary or historical studies; yet many academics who publish theater reviews in scholarly journals do not also publish elsewhere in the field of performance. Consequently, reviews often lack the critical vocabularies and conceptual frameworks required by good theater criticism.

So-called “academic” reviews of Shakespeare in performance are often not objective analyses of a theatrical event set in a discursive context of relevant theater practice, but rather subjective personal statements regarding one individual’s intellectual and emotional engagement with a single night in the theater. This is perhaps why so many of us have difficulty in working out why we should engage with them afterwards. The writing is seldom in tune with theoretical models of how theater functions and they even less frequently offer thick and detailed description of what has been seen, heard, or felt to have taken place, which might be of use to subsequent scholars trying to consider past performances as part of more wide-ranging theoretical projects. Instead, academic reviews most frequently offer a solipsistic evaluation of whether or not a particular mise-en-scène (briefly described and more often than not thought to be related to a unified directorial concept) has aligned the play with one of a number of established literary readings (known to the particular scholar writing the review), together with an account of how well the particular production has performed against that reviewer’s personal top five performances of the text. Reviews of this sort are much more about what a particular scholar thinks about a particular play (and whether or not the production in question confirmed this reading) than they are a detailed and accurate record of what actually happened in a particular theater on a particular night.

In fact, I think that this is probably why so many of us don’t like them. Ultimately, I don’t care what you thought of the production, no matter who you are. If I can’t get to see it, what I want to know is what the production did with the play, and how: specifically and technically.

Carolyn Sale    My chief objection to Christian Billing’s contribution to this conversation is to his request that “academic” or “scholarly” reviewers offer “thick description” unadulterated by judgment or critical reflection. This demand involves a positivist fantasy which works against “complex viewing,” for any such review would simply provide facts with which others will later work; Billing wants the (future) reader, rather than the (current) reviewer, to be the person who filters a production through her consciousness. If we wrote such texts, we would be writing memoranda of performances, not reviews. The call for these memoranda worries me because such accounts or “documentation” erase the audience in two ways: not only, as Billing notes, because he has no interest in audiences, and therefore has no need for us to write any details about them, but because our critical reflections manifest the audience, or one constituency within it, at any rate.

Do I want reviews that include details about a production that help me envision, in my mind’s eye, performances that I did not get to see for myself? Of course I do. But let us consider what Billing would have us discard, or throw away, if we were to produce simply memoranda or “well-written-up documentary records” that would enable others, later “to write more theoretical responses to the work.” We lose, with the critical perspective and contextual details about the experience, evidence about the culture in and for whom the performance took place, especially where the reviewer’s rendering of his or her response carries information about other cultural practices and phenomena. To write reviews that give the future only the technical details of a production would not enrich the archive. It would impoverish it.

When we are reviewing, are we not all contributing to an enterprise that no one of us could pull off on our own, that of assisting productions to “linger” in collective “memory”? And don’t we do that by demonstrating why certain aspects of a production meant so much to a particular consciousness at the time—or in the case of the review that has set off this discussion, why a production didn’t mean much? And don’t we want as many traces as possible of precisely this, the effects, both negative and positive, dull and inspiring, of such performances upon us?

Christian Billing   I want as actively as I can to suppress the notion that I am proposing a “positivist fantasy” in which reviewers (merely) relate facts about a production for others to interpret at a later stage. The major points of my original posting were not about positivism, but rather that: (i) it’s the evidence of performance that’s key to determining what a production is about (i.e. what a production has done in performative terms with the Shakespearean source text); (ii) that such evidence needs to come from somewhere other than quotations of the literary text (supposedly) being staged, or personal responses to generalized aspects of the production on behalf of individual audience members; (iii) that without a sound evidence base and adequately theorized modes of analysis, academic reviewers manifestly lack the authority to speak about Shakespeare as Performance and that (iv) this unfortunate fact can have significant detrimental effects on the potential collaboration of other scholars and theatre makers.

Katherine Rowe  Here, I suppose, some might stake out the boundaries of genre. Does the more critical the reflection mean [that] the more the writing in question begins to look like a critical essay about a performance dynamic, rather than a review? I’m not invested in that distinction as such but observe that it does seem to be live in certain writerly practices among academic theater reviewers, at least in the general tendency not to cite other critics or theorists in a review—as opposed to a critical essay.

If one accepts Sarah’s thought that there are simply very divergent interests in academic theater reviews now, and that the generic landscape of the academic theater review is less well-defined and more expansive, then I’m curious as to whether this changes the choices of scholars (to review or not) and journals (to publish reviews or not). Is reviewing different than blogging, if one is writing the kind of review one wants to read, for a niche audience of Shakespeareans who share ones same predilections? Please know that I’m not meaning to trivialize either blogging or reviewing by asking this. I’m just trying to get at how a changing vision of reviewing (already a genre pursued out of love or obligation rather than gain, as several posters here observe) sits in the (also changing) economy of scholarly publishing in Shakespeare studies.

 

  1. For more information about the production, see BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music), “As You Like It,” http://www.bam.org/view.aspx?pid=1672; the original “Call for Papers,” is on the MediaCommons web site, at Shakespeare Quarterly, “Open Review: ‘Shakespeare and Performance,” http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/mcpress/shakespearequarterlyperformance/cfp/. []
  2. See Michael Dobson, “Review of The Bridge Project As You Like It,” http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/mcpress/shakespearequarterlyperformance/dobson/. []

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