The ramifications for arts reviewers of Chow vs. Guide Gault-Millau (the influential monthly food and restaurant journal) are fascinating to contemplate. You may remember the 1983 court case. The owner of Mr. Chow’s, a famous restaurant in New York, London and Beverly Hills, sued the restaurant guide for libel after it reported that the service at his Manhattan restaurant was slow, the cooking bore “only the slightest relationship to the essential spirit of Chinese cuisine,” and the pancakes that accompanied a duck dish were too thick.
To prove that the restaurant was libeled, Chow had his chief noodle chef roll thin pancakes in front of the jury, and showed videotapes of cooks preparing Chinese dishes. Chow won his case, and was awarded $20,000 in compensatory damages and $5 in punitive damages.
Can’t you see what will happen once theatre directors, actors, designers and such—many of whom live on the outskirts of poverty—catch on to the precedent set in the Chow case?
We take you now to a metropolitan courtroom, where a reviewer for the local morning daily is on trial for libel. (To avoid embarrassment, let’s call him The Critic.) On the stand is plaintiff Ima Grate Actor.
Judge: Now, Mr. Actor, please explain how The Critic’s review, in your opinion, defamed you.
Actor: He said that in the third act my delivery of the key soliloquy was “flat and uninspired.” It was nothing of the kind—and now, as a result of his slanderous review, my employment opportunities are decreased.
Judge: How do you intend to prove your assertion that your performance was satisfactory?
Actor: If you will give me just a moment to get into my costume, I shall demonstrate that point directly.
Assuming his costume, Actor then proceeds to the jury box and delivers his controversial soliloquy. The jury applauds. The Critic is declared a slanderous fellow. Damages are awarded.
It’s a thrilling scenario, especially when one realizes that theatre artists have very little recourse when their work is unfavorably reviewed. Oh yes, they can write letters-to-the-editor, but since they are not disinterested, their anger is easily dismissed.
There have been examples of direct action: dumping spaghetti on a critic’s head or a quick punch-out behind the theatre, but these are few and far between, most actors realizing that though revenge is sweet, the critic still will be reviewing their work in the future. (Or is that the ploy? Since the critic, after being on the receiving end of their physical violence, obviously will be biased, he or she cannot in good conscience review that actor again.)
Well, since all this is fantasy anyway, let’s back up and put The Critic on the stand for his response to the libel charge.
Judge: Mr. Critic, you stand accused of slandering an actor by virtue of your review. How say you?
Critic: I declare myself innocent, Your Honor. Mr. Actor’s performance was unworthy, I said so, and now I’m hauled before a court.
Mr. Actor, with everything on the line and his adrenalin racing, will now deliver a command performance for the jury, and one can suppose he will be excellent. But there is no way for me to prove that on the particular night I went to the theatre, his performance was listless. The only way a critic could justify his opinions would be for him to bring a videotape camera and record each and every performance he or she sees.
And, even then, opinions would differ. What one person on a jury—who sees, let us say, one or two plays a year—would regard as satisfactory acting might be seen by a reviewer, who may go to more than 200 shows a year, as mediocre. A good critic is hired on the basis of his experience, education and writing skills. Presumably, he is able to discern the levels of quality in a performance and production. I can see the possibility for a suit of this kind—indeed, I would support the theatre artist if the critic were prejudiced and harbored malicious intent to destroy the career of an actor or director or designer or company. But few, if any, critics are so base. One can differ with their opinions—which is one of the great joys and pleasures of literate readers—but by and large, critics comprise an honorable breed, telling the truth as they see it.
Judge: But aren’t you asserting that theatre artists have absolutely no recourse to unfavorable reviews?
Critic: Not really, Your Honor. First of all, shows are reviewed by a multiplicity of critics; in most cases the actor has many chances to receive favorable notices. Second, we’ve all been to shows where the actor received warm applause or even a standing ovation, though the critics had not appreciated the performance; actors and shows do survive bad notices. Third, there are the usual outlets for anger: personal letters or calls to the critic in question, organizing protest letters to the paper, reviewing the reviewer in another medium, etc. Finally, actors who may be flat on one night, or in one show, may well be better another night or in another show, and receive good notices accordingly.
Judge: That all sounds reasonable enough, but the jury will decide whether those general remarks constitute enough of a defense against Mr. Actor’s specific charges.
See you in court?
Bernard Weiner is a theatre critic for The San Francisco Chronicle.
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