"Who Is It That Can Tell Me Who I Am?"


Leon Russom as King Lear, photographed by Shelby Barr

A society can’t claim perfection until it kills its critics. That is how it knows when to make the announcement.

Ask Stalin. Ask Mao. Ask the Americans who assault people at rallies and call for mass deportations – they’re only a little ahead of themselves. Be grateful that they let us see them coming. Act on the knowledge.

Critics – bitches, malcontents, squeaky wheels; the people who tell you you’re not doing it right – are half the driving force of progress. Alone, we are often incapable of making inroads; some of the greatest innovators are from a practical standpoint the worst in their field. Maybe we think you are more capable than we. So critics tell you you’re not trying hard enough, and we throw suggestions at you based on ideas you gave us.

To run-of-the-mill doers, critics look very much like annoying parasites, and annoying we are. But the relationship between critics and doers is wholly symbiotic if not satisfying.

Satisfaction is at the root of the problem. Critics are always hungry. We want things to improve. We are great optimists, not least because we think doers will listen.

Most of the time, of course, we’re not worth listening to. Most of us are critics of opportunity, essentially uninterested in what we’re whining about. We’re mostly useless or counterproductive; we’ll tell you what you don’t want to hear just keep our own mouths moving. Just smart enough to be enraged by our own impotence, many impede progress in the name of progress.

Beware especially the critic who desires authority: the neighborhood gossip, the unfounded speculator, perennially outraged, axe-grinding, who suggests that his is the voice of reason, himself the vehicle of change. That is not the critic’s proper role. He is most useful on the vanguard fringe, speaking truth to power from outside the structure.

Artists are never the power. Who speaks for the extant system, or from the center of the opposition even, is a propagandist at best. Propagandists exist outside the power too: The early attempts of most artists, and the ongoing work of all limited imaginations, are simplistic messages of good v. evil. The artistic forays of most critics are in this category, maybe good enough to clarify an idea, not good enough to persuade.

But the one you have to watch out for is the critic who uses ideas as a vehicle for personal aggrandizement or for complacency, especially when her ideas are not her own, and not innovative but reactionary. She wishes a return to a past that she pretends she understands from books or fireside tales or other received wisdom – a past that, if it ever existed, is not what she says it is. No rear-view activist is a doer. She is a dangerous drag on progress.

Equally problematic is the critic who looks to a future in which dissent is presupposed thoughtcrime, who acts as if such a future is already here. He is marked by a tendency toward infighting, toward attacking those who agree with him 90%, toward making enemies of worthy allies. He calls Enemy of the People on anyone who chooses solving a single problem over trying to force a whole agenda and consequently not solving any. He trips us up by declaring that one step at a time is a step backward. If you see him on the road, kill him.


Overall critics are more valuable than tolerable. Thinking you know better than someone else makes condescension look like a useful rhetorical style. The Socratic method, the teachable moment, doesn’t occur to most critics. This is how we tell you not to listen to us.

But some critics are doers. These are our greatest citizens. Most heroic journeys are taken by critics. Jack doubts the status quo when he trades cattle for magic beans because he sees past the cow in a way that his mother cannot. Her criticism is that of a reactionary. She has no vision but the one she’s received from a life of fear. Jack can see a future full of giant-killing. Jack climbs toward it while his mother tosses in fretful, self-congratulatory, self-fulfilling sleep.

All true artists are critics, implicit or overt. Shakespeare was that rare critic, a Jack who made great progress himself. Irreligious at a time when freethinking could still get you killed; unwilling in the tragedies to make his villains inexplicable, incapable in the comedies of making his heroes too virtuous, and in the sonnets unconvinced of an order to the universe. Shakespeare saw a flawed society and a flawed nature and he criticized it from perspectives spiritual and intellectual and practical and poetic.

In King Lear, we see a tyrant so unused to dissent that he immediately mistakes it for treason. He banishes the loyal opposition, delivers himself to Yes Men, and spends the next several hours unlearning the lessons of conquest. Lear ultimately mouths Shakespeare’s most critical commentaries on the evolution of culture, starting with that resolute building block called the family and heading all the way up to the castle heights of sovereignty.

Leon Russom has played tyrants for, among others, the Coen brothers (he threw that coffee cup at Lebowski’s head) and is currently playing Lear in Los Angeles. That fact alone verges the ticket on the imperative. He’s supported by Mark Bramhall and Bruno Oliver, which means seeing (at least) three theater greats on one stage, speaking Shakespeare’s truth to power.

This production, three months before a national election in which tyrants have formed the central question, mandates the attendance of critics. So far, two have written it up. I can’t go because I’m out of town. It’s up to you. Tell everyone how right or wrong it is. But see the thing at least, so that it’ll be easier to know what you’re talking about the next time you bitch about a candidate you don’t like.


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Comments (1)

U 52071 t 4170222

Agreed. Not to mention the fact that it’s a new venue in the valley. Something worth writing about one would think.

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