If You Didn’t Like This Play, It’s Because You Didn’t Understand It

That’s a summary of what Chris Jones says in the Tribune.

The play in question is A True Story of the Johnstown Flood, which is running at the Goodman Theatre and is directed by Goodman artistic director Robert Falls. Chris Jones wasn’t too thrilled with the production in his first review. None of the critics were enthusiastic about the show.

But in this piece, Jones says:

I think “A True History of the Johnstown Flood,” which deals with the horrific events of 1889 when a man-made lake washed away an entire town, has some significant flaws. But I also think some of the people who don’t like this play haven’t understood it. It’s not easy to understand. And as one of my shrewder correspondents observed, you have to sleep on it a bit. And now that I’ve stared at the ceiling for a few nights, well … I suggest you go and see what all the fuss is about. I’m not sure I made that clear enough in my review.

My immediate question from this is how is the average theatergoer in Chicago supposed to understand this play if the mighty Chris Jones says that “It’s not easy to understand” and that he had to reflect on the show? Yes, I like it if the theater challenges people’s minds, but if the most influential, most read and best known theater critic in Chicago has a hard time understanding a show that either says something about the play or about the critic.

I have other problems with what Jones wrote, like that he says that the Goodman is “our [Chicago’s] flagship theater” and that “Falls is Chicago’s most essential director. It is inconceivable that this town would be without his work.”

Wait? The Goodman is Chicago’s flagship theater? Not that theater on the North Side that uses mostly Chicago actors, has Tracy Letts and many others in their ensemble and doesn’t open plays intending to transfer to Broadway? You know, Steppenwolf?

And Robert Falls is Chicago’s most essential director?! Not Amy Morton, Charles Newell, David Cromer, Mary Zimmerman, Sean Graney or Nathan Allen, but Robert Falls? (p.s., that was a shortlist of Chicago directors that are probably more essential that Falls).

I also find it interesting that he discusses the accusations of historical inaccuracy in a work of fiction. The only one that I’m immediately aware of is from Chicago Magazine (which is part of the Tribune Company), where it is discussed that an actor uses a zipper on his pants when the zipper wasn’t in existence at the time. I don’t care that it’s a work of fiction; that’s an error that a costume designer or a dramaturge, if it was in the stage directions, should have taken care of beforehand.

But ultimately my annoyance goes back to my original point: a critic should not need to write about a play a second time to clarify his point. And when clarifying a point, it is insulting to your readers and to your colleagues to say that they didn’t enjoy a play because they didn’t understand it. It is also baffling to say that a play is difficult to comprehend, that the critic had to think harder on it, and then suggest it.

7 thoughts on “If You Didn’t Like This Play, It’s Because You Didn’t Understand It

  1. Wow. Forget Chris Jones’ insulting post — read those comments! I love them!

    I think ChiTheatre says basically what I was thinking: Someone at The Goodman complained, and Jones is now backpedaling.

  2. […] over at Fragments, has some interesting things to say on this topic, […]

  3. I would hardly list Nathan Allen on a “short list” of essential directors in Chicago.

  4. Your arguments don’t seems to hold any relevance. For one, the company makeups of Steppenwolf and Goodman are very different. Steppenwolf promotes its acting company while the Goodman boasts its directing talent. And, interestingly, the list of other directors your count as more essential than Falls’ have also directed at the Goodman (except maybe Morton, not sure). So, interestingly, your argument is actually more in favor of Goodman’s importance in Chicago than against it. As for feeling insulted by Chris’ retraction, you need to take this into consideration. Critics have deadlines and need to be the first to publish. However, some plays take more time to sink in. So, when Hedy Weiss throws her “I don’t get it because it doesn’t sing an dance and have a smiley face at the end” rant, you have to consider she may not have given it adequate thought.

  5. Bob, I finally read all of the comments, many of which seem like the run of the mill Theatre Loop comments. I wouldn’t speculate as to what happened; It’s very possible that Chris Jones did think a bit more about the play and had a different opinion. We probably will never know.

    Mike, that might be your opinion. I simply listed Allen because a different audience has been drawn to The House shows than normally attends theater and he has risen to prominence in Chicago theater in the past decade.

  6. Mark, Steppenwolf has an ensemble that directs, acts, writes. I’m not sure if Nathan Allen or David Cromer have directed at Goodman either, and I know that what Graney directed was a Hypocrites production presented at the Goodman. I can also accept that Chris Jones might have changed his opinion, but the wording of how he says that bothers me.

  7. […] Mon­ica Reida on under­stand­ing the critic. This week, Chicago the­atre critic Chris Jones changed his tune about the Goodman’s pro­duc­tion of A True Story of the John­stown Flood. But in so doing, he seems to imply that if you didn’t like the show, you just didn’t under­stand it. The ques­tion is, in being luke­warm to begin with, what does it say to the audi­ence when the critic reeval­u­ates a play late in its run? Does this help the play or con­fuse the pub­lic as to the critic’s judgment? […]

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