From Discussion Leader to Consumer Guide: A Century of Theater Criticism in Chicago Newspapers

Article excerpt

This article completes a three-part examination of theater critics working for Chicago newspapers during the twentieth century. The first article in the series covered the "boomtown "period leading up to World War I, and the second article addressed Chicago's rise after 1960 as a regional center for theater covered by fewer newspapers and fewer critics. This article reviews those periods but emphasizes the middle, "road town" period, which saw a gradually dwindling band of critics functioning as quality control experts, passing judgment on New York road shows. After examining that period, this article uses commodification to consider the changing role of the critic over the entire century. It concludes that while commodification is a useful concept to understand vast changes in the critical landscape, it is neither an irresistible nor an inevitable force.

While New York has long been America's theatrical capital, and its critics, therefore, have occupied a preeminent position, more theater is performed, and far more theater criticism is written, in the nation's various regional centers, beginning with the original Second City, Chicago.1 Previous studies by this author have focused on Chicago critics at the beginning of the twentieth century and toward the end, revealing vastly different environments for theater and for those who have reviewed it for a living. This article explores how Chicago criticism traversed the historical landscape from point A to point B, considering how changes in the worlds of theater and journalism may have affected each other. That exploration will inform speculation about what the current century may hold and the extent to which the experience of the Chicago critics might be expected to be reflected in critics, theater artists, and readers in the nation's other major regional centers outside New York.

A 2001 study noted the difficulty of positioning new research on American critics within the traditions of intellectual, social, or cultural history.2 Intellectual history is appropriate for the occasional thought-leader (such as art critic Clement Greenberg) but not for the larger critical community taken as a group.3 Social history goes too far in the other direction to be of use, concentrating on broad social classes. Not surprisingly, the 2001 study found cultural history to be the most appropriate of the three but noted that the definition of culture followed by most researchers ("a particular way of life," as Raymond Williams put it in Keywords4) seems to push to the periphery the arts and their critics. Even so, cultural history-though not necessarily cultural studies, which tends to focus on popular culture (a problematic term in its own right)-was seen as the most promising basis for research on critics. Readers interested in exploring that literature are directed to the 2001 study; although the current study relies on that context, there is no need to repeat that literature review.5

Since this article will consider broader issues, and to divine (or construct) the meaning of a century of theater reviewing, a more exacting theoretical tool is needed. Without wielding the totality of critical theory, much less the Marxism that spawned it, this study borrows one key concept from that tradition: commodification. Simply put, it posits that in a capitalist society all human activity tends over time to lose its intrinsic value and be replaced by purely a monetary market value. In other words, commerce eventually overwhelms culture, and the inevitable result is to progressively cheapen human creations. Cheapen might be a loaded term in this context; the word is used here merely to convey the idea that the impulse to cash in on human creation raises its monetary value only by lowering its true value.6 As Bob Dylan put it, "Money doesn't talk. It swears."

One does not need to tie commodification to a critique of capitalism to see its value as a defining principle of cultural activity. …