Who needs theatre reviews?

In the aftermath of the discussion about theatre criticism following the dog excrement attack on dance critic Wiebke Hüster, Thomas Rothschild asked about the justification of theatre criticism in a Nachtkritik commentary on an essay by Christine Wahl:

“What I miss is an explanation why actors, directors, choreographers have to endure what most professions are spared of. The fact that the arts have to face criticism is not a law of nature. It is a historically developed tradition that can be welcomed, but not necessarily.”

The following is a kind of attempt at justification of theatre criticism:

There is no criticism of rubbish collection and no applause for it. But the  fashion of ranking  is spreading everywhere, to coffee machines, software, doctors, novels, films and so on. Andreas Reckwitz has analysed this as a symptom of the society of singularities. The genre of the review is also spreading from literature into all areas. (There are teacher reviews in every high school newspaper.) But there are other reasons for theatre criticism, independent of the current change in communication structures through the internet.

For one thing, theatre criticism is art criticism. Art reception provokes aesthetic judgements. You don’t come out of an art exhibition without having found it good or bad or somehow. Aesthetic judgements (there’s no getting around Kant) are not universally valid judgements about facts, they only pretend to be universally valid, they only “sense approval”. They challenge contradiction and discussion.

On the other hand, theatre criticism is the criticism of a collectively experienced public event. One does not walk singly at one’s own pace in a space of art objects, but experiences the simultaneous presence of actors crammed in alongside other spectators. This increases the need for conversation compared to other art forms. Audiences occasionally decide on a possible theatre visit based on reviews, but they also compare their experience of a theatre visit with the evaluation by a professional critic. Making theatre performances discussable is also a rationale for theatre criticism. That is the service it provides for spectators.

It is understandable that theatre-makers, like all artists, dislike pejorative judgements about their works. Art wants affirmation. But the insight that art only has meaning when it enters into open social discourse should also be clear to every artist, even if he or she is not guided by it in the creative process. There must also be pejorative aesthetic judgements. If there were only approving judgements in public discourse, the discourse-initiating function of criticism would be limited. One can heed the old rule, slurs short, anthems long, but respect for artists should not be completely supplanted by the experiential component (i.e. the reviewer’s anger).

Incidentally, Rebekka Kricheldorf’s play„Homo empathicus“ provided an entertaining satire of the “positive society” back in 2014.

Excrement on critics – On choreographer Marco Goecke’s attack on dance critic Wiebke Hüster

On 11 February 2023, Marco Goecke, the ballet director of the Hanover State Opera, physically assaulted Wiebke Hüster, the dance critic of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), during the intermission of the premiere of the dance evening “Glaube, Liebe, Hoffnung”. In the course of an argument about Wiebke Hüster’s derogatory reviews of Goecke’s choreographies, Goecke pulled a bag of dog excrement from his dachshund Gustav out of his pocket and smeared the contents in Hüster’s face. The Hanover State Opera then suspended Goecke and banned him from the house.

Marco Goecke’s action was a performance. All the characteristics apply: in front of an audience, existential risk of the artist, crossing borders, de-fictionalisation of art. “She’s also been throwing shit at me for years,” says Marco Goecke. So it’s not only an action that seeks to repay like with like, but also the translation of a linguistic metaphor into physical action. And that, precisely, is Marco Goecke’s professional activity as a choreographer. So here someone has forgotten the difference between art and reality. And blurring this difference is one of the common strategies of contemporary art. It is a case of loss of reality. What is an effect in art is a crime in reality.

Theatre critic Tobi Müller pointed out in his commentary that the aggravation of the climate between theatre criticism and theatre art, or the aggravation of the theatre-makers’ traditional aversion to critics, also comes from the existential fears of both sides. Both sides have an increased need for public attention because the importance and regard of their activities in the public sphere is diminishing. Invective increases attention. Name-calling brings more clicks than compliments.

Karin Beier’s now frequently quoted bon mot about the “shit on the sleeve” is, in contrast, only a verbal gaffe with which she justifies why she does not read reviews. 1She is describing the effect of not only negative but also uninformed reviews. And therefor, theatre critics have to take a good look at themselves. The precarious financial position of theatre criticism also lowers its average standard. Today, there is neither the space (an available number of characters in a public medium) nor the thoroughness of description and analysis that theatre criticism by Rolf Michaelis or Hellmuth Karasek had (to stay with the Hamburg examples). Anyone who wants to write theatre criticism today cannot make a living from it. Anyone who wants to write theatre criticism today has to master the art of quick, concise, short writing. And that hardly makes you a serious interlocutor for theatre-makers.

Marco Goecke has put Karin Beier’s casual vulgarism into practice, as an act of revenge. Wiebke Hüster’s immediately preceding critique of Goecke’s dance evening “In the Dutch Mountains” in The Hague is an example of the common stylistic device of exaggeration: “While watching, one is alternately driven mad and killed by boredom. Every now and then there are two brilliant, coherent minutes. … It is an embarrassment and an impertinence, and the choreographer must be blamed for both all the more …”. (FAZ 11.2.2023)] But also a personal attack. With personal attacks on theatre-makers in reviews (“bloody” slurs) one must expect counter-reactions. But they have to remain verbal (the comment function at nachtkritik.de offers a forum for this). It is not true that Wiebke Hüster has tried to destroy Goecke journalistically for twenty years. For example, only recently she praised Goecke’s “magnificent realisation of Marguerite Duras’ novel The Lover” and combined this with an explicit advertisement for a visit to the theatre (FAZ 26.10.2022 and 01.03 2021). And in 2012, she praised Goecke’s Stuttgart choreography for “Dancer in the Dark” at length (FAZ 1.12.2012).

“Excrement on critics” is also the intensification of the principle of “mashed potatoes on art”. Symbolic communication is taking up more and more space in the public sphere. Those who have something to say say it through the flower (or through action). Demonstrations are becoming more and more similar to theatre performances (as the Federal Constitutional Court already stated in 1984 in its decision on the „Anachronistischer Zug“ ). Analogue communication, based on similarity, is more effective when it comes to affective effects than verbal communication. So Goecke has struck with the weapons at his disposal. Only he miscalculated the effect. The physical expression of his emotional state cannot count on the empathy of the audience as it does on stage. On the contrary, disgust hits him, pity the critic. Did no one really film the scene in the foyer of the Hanover theatre?


Three days after the incident, Marco Goecke has submitted a letter, which he understands as an apology. “I would like to apologise  sincerely {“ich möchte mich … aufrichtig entschuldigen”) to all those involved, first and foremost to Ms Hüster, for my action, which I absolutely do not condone. In hindsight, I clearly realise that this was a shameful act in the heat of the moment and an overreaction.”

The offender’s use of language “ich entschuldige mich” (literally “I forgive myself”, used as “I apologise”) in German is common today, but of course it should be “ich bitte um Entschuldigung” (literally “I ask to be forgiven”). Blame can only be forgiven by the one to whom evil has been done, not by the wrongdoer. Used in such a way, the phrase “Entschuldigung …” becomes a justification for effrontery. One is familiar with this when someone pushes his way forward in a queue with a muttered “excuse me”.

He also writes that it would be appropriate for all media to “reconsider a certain form of destructive, hurtful reporting that damages the entire cultural enterprise”. Cultural criticism must ask itself where it “crosses the line into insulting, denigrating works, bullying, attempting to create negative opinion and damaging business”. (SZ 14.02.23). So he justifies his attack again, shows no understanding for the fact that art only gains a social significance in the dispute of opinions.

If one wants to find “hurtful reporting” in Wiebke Hüster’s competent and balanced critique of „In the Dutch Mountains“, only the word “impudence” comes into question. This is a moral evaluation that is explicitly related to the person of the choreographer. It is not a verbal jury, not an insult, and moral judgements are permitted, even necessary, in public (politicians know a thing or two about this). Morality is also communication of respect, and that must be public. But it is a question of the critic’s self-control whether one allows oneself to be carried away by such outbursts against a person. In any case, one must (or wants to) expect reactions. However, not with dog excrement.

The clearest devaluation of Goecke by Hüster can be found, significantly, in her blog “Aufforderung zum Tanz” from 2012: “Marco Goecke, whose meaningless nullity dances are not needed by anyone”. This quote is in the context of a judgmental tour d’horizon through the German ballet scene, which does not leave a good hair on the German ballet dramaturgies, with the exception of Düsseldorf and Munich. The fact that this quote is found in an internet blog perhaps shows one of the causes of the aggravation of the tone between (some) critics and (some) theatre people. The internet is an emotion machine, the inhibition threshold for unbridled emotionality becomes lower compared to a newspaper printed on paper. Criteria for a good blog are, after all, speed of reaction, topicality, directness and subjectivity. With its comment code, nachtkritik.de is exemplary in containing such art-critical low blows.

  1. Here is the decisive section of the interview transcribed: “And there I think we don’t meet on a level that is really interesting to me. And then that in relation to what then unfortunately sticks. So really, to put it nicely in German, like shit on my sleeve, I think, no, I don’t do that.”

Friendly Fire – Part 2

Notes on interviews about the Berliner Theatertreffen

In July 2022, Berliner Festspiele, the state-funded organization responsible for a bunch of festivals taking place in Berlin every year,  announced that the new management of the Berliner Theatertreffen would consist of the team Olena Apchel, Marta Hewelt, Carolin Hochleichter und Joanna Nuckowska. The recently appointed artistic director of Berliner Festspiele, Matthias Pees , explained that this team is intended to “connect the Theatertreffen more closely with the Central and Eastern European region”.
A small flurry of public discussion followed, with many commentators expressing their lack of understanding or scepticism for this decision, e.g.  Christian Rakow. Then people looked back at an interview that Matthias Lilienthal and Amelie Deuflhard had already published on the Theatertreffen website in May. And finally, Matthias Pees himself gave two interviews, one on Nachtkritik.de, , the other in „Der Spiegel“, in which he explained his intentions.

In the following – as in “Friendly Fire – Teil 1” – some sentences from these three interviews are commented on because they are of general importance. Here (ML) stands for Matthias Lilienthal, (AD) for Amelie Deuflhard, (Pees) for Matthias Pees.

Criticism of the existing jury procedure

“‘Best of’ is not a forward-looking principle.” (AD)

The rampant expansion of ranking lists also in the theatre sector speaks for the fact that “best of” is at least a current principle. Andreas Reckwitz explains why rankings (“quantitative techniques for representing particularities”) are necessary, especially in singularity markets (such as theatre)1. In the endless competition for attention of singular productions, visibility must be generated. Rankings serve this purpose. The time-honoured principle of “Theatertreffen” of selecting ten equally remarkable productions is more cautious in this respect. The jury has always resisted any ranking among the ten invited productions. This preserves to some extent the singularity, the incomparability, of the work of art. However, any selection based on the “best of” principle is under the constraint of having to define its selection area and actually cover it completely. Hence the restriction to the German-speaking area and the intensive travelling of the jurors.

“Medium-sized and smaller theatres are visited by the jury to a much greater extent than is then reflected in the final selection”. (Pees)

This is a basic problem of the Theatertreffen. But it also has its place in the system. One can think of the German, Swiss and Austrian municipal and state theatre system as an autopoietic system that is stable in itself and can regenerate itself. It is also capable of resonance, of reacting to its environment (other social subsystems, other theatre systems). Such a system needs elements for self-observation, self-imaging subsystems. The Theatertreffen has always been such a subsystem for self-observation of the German-speaking theatre system. The Deutsche Bühnenverein, the association of all German  theatres,  is a different one, with different guiding distinctions. The specific difference of the Theatertreffen subsystem is “aesthetically remarkable/not remarkable”. The individual theatres as subsystems of the larger theatre system interact with each other in many ways. Actors change, dramaturges discuss, artistic directors go on merry-go-rounds, authors receive prizes, and so on. But how does the overall system perceive itself? Without self-observation, no readjustment of interactions, no change of structures is possible.

The theatre system is also financially controlled. Theatres in large cities have larger budgets than those in small towns. This also creates a market for actors, directors, stage managers, production managers, etc. It is therefore not surprising that the aesthetic singularity market correlates with the financial market. The best directors move to where they earn the most or at least have the best working conditions. This correlation is never perfect. The Theatertreffen owes its existence to the fact that this correlation of art and money was blurred after 1945. The aesthetic centre of theatre culture in the Federal Republic moved between 1945 and 1989 from Darmstadt (Sellner, Hering) to Bremen (Hübner, Zadek) to Bochum (Zadek, Peymann) to Berlin (Stein, Grüber). There was a need for an artificial centre to reconcile perceptions. After 1989, with the inclusion of the former GDR and the development of Berlin into the actual capital, there was a natural centre, the correlation of art and money was perfected. But still, the system needs an element of introspection as a whole system. Without a province, there is no capital. The manifold interactions, the opportunities for advancement and internal differences of the subsystems are essential for the stability of the whole. Permanent self-observation is necessary for the permeability of the overall system. The significance of the Theatertreffen for small theatre towns lies not only in the invitations (which are rare), but in the permanence of observation.

Criticism of theatre critics

“Theatre critics are no more neutral or objective than we are.” (AD)
“As a dramaturge, I also still see myself as a kind of critic.” (Pees)

Of course theatre critics do not judge objectively. Christine Wahl formulates the credo of theatre critics: “But there is one conviction that unites us all: The eternally plural attracts us.”2 Aesthetic judgements are never objective. An aesthetic judgement only suggests approval to everyone3, i.e. it must argue in order to gain persuasive power. However, this subjective generality of the critic is different from that of the dramaturg. Internally, a dramaturge may be as sharp a critic of a production as a newspaper writer. But externally, towards the audience and the public, he has to be careful. He has an interest in a positive judgement. His or her contract renewal also depends on how far he or she succeeds in contributing to audience acquisition, to a positive public reaction or to the creative climate in the house.

After all, when several media judge a production, the subjectivity of the judgements becomes clear. The fact that there were critics who hid their subjectivity behind categorical praise and slurs, writing in the tone of the authoritative ex cathedra judgement, was due to the need for self-assertion of newspaper writers in a differentiated media landscape. But the grand critics have disappeared, partly because the media landscape has thinned out and almost no newspaper can afford a full-time theatre critic any more. On the contrary, since the 1970s, the emphasis on the subjectivity of the theatre experience has become a quality feature of theatre criticism (even if the “I” in the formulations is still frowned upon). The extent to which the critic succeeds in both linguistically conveying the subjective experience and argumentatively backing up his or her own emotional reaction is decisive for the effect of a theatre review on the reader. Till Briegleb has summed up this understanding of criticism: “A critic may hate, be moved, instruct, resign, become personal or cheer, as long as he brings his feelings into an understandable relation to the subject matter.” 4

“Critics writing against the decline of theatre criticism.” (ML)
“Theatre critics’ fear of loss of significance”. (Pees)

I can’t see any fear on the part of critics of losing their own significance. Those who write theatre criticism today know the marginal importance of their work. If there is a fear among critics, it is that of the theatre’s loss of significance. And there is just as much of this fear among theatre directors, actors and curators.

“Whether there are enough critics left at all, who still want to do it – or can afford it at all.” (Pees)

This question is justified. (Almost) no one can afford to make a living from theatre criticism. The fees are pitiful or non-existent. The clamour about the poor qualifications of theatre critics is age-old:

“Yes, theatre criticism is not infrequently the last refuge of a degenerate talent, of a mentally and morally disintegrated person who finds himself excluded from all other literary activities, which require the acquisition and mastery of a rich material.”

This was written by H.Th. Rötscher, himself a theatre critic, as early as 18645. Michael Billington, the theatre critic of the British “Guardian”, provided a friendlier self-description of the type person that becomes a theatre critic:

“Critics are born, not made: possibly because of some temperamental deficiency or innate shyness, many of us discover at an early age that we prefer to be among the watchers than the watched … We find our emotional energies released by appraising the work of others.”6

But the qualifications of today`s critics are high. Most of them have a degree in theatre studies as intellectual background. But no one stays in the business for long, unless they have sufficient other income. Some become dramaturges, a few get editorial posts in the mixed feuilleton, some become lecturers at universities, others switch to curating festivals. Theatre criticism has become a sideline or a transitional occupation 7.

“I doubt that journalism still is really as independent as it was or supposedly once was.” (Pees)
“A view of journalism that is out of date.” (AD)

Frugal rewards for theatre criticism naturally encourage susceptibility to subtle attempts of corrupting critics. Till Briegleb’s iron rule “A sincere critic does not fraternise with the theatre.”8 is being softened. This applies above all to local criticism. If newspaper editors are still interested in theatre coverage, they want preliminary reports, interviews, portraits. These require closer contact with the theatre. Local theatre critics tend to be mild in their assessment of the productions of their city’s theatre anyway9.

“In times of social media, one can communicate oneself through quite a few channels. This creates the possibility of criticism of criticism.” (AD)

Nachtkritik.de is the medium that has best succeeded in using these possibilities of interactive communication on the internet for theatre criticism.10 But the social internet media accelerate the fragmentation of the public sphere through the algorithms of attention steering working in the background. The public sphere is a field in which opinions compete for attention. The media have always been segmented, newspapers had a basic political slant. Nevertheless, they were open to the reading public. Anyone who read a conservative critique of a theatre performance in the “Welt” (or “Daily Telegraph”) could have their opinion confirmed by reading a more liberal critique in the “Frankfurter Rundschau” (or “Guardian”). Back then, it was a long time ago.  What the segmentation of the public through attention-grabbing and choice architecture on the internet does, can be seen in the political development of American democracy. However, it is short-sighted to conclude from the reduction of the importance of print media that theatre criticism is dying.

Christine Wahl sees the fatal tendency to understand the task of theatre criticism as an invitation to “join in a community of values” 11. Deuflhard and Lilienthal seem to orient themselves more towards the model of the market economy. Each producer advertises his product. The theatres can criticise themselves; after all, every dramaturge is also a critic, according to Matthias Pees. After all, every expert assessment for some theatre by the management consultancy Actori, which specialises in theatre consulting, has shown that the marketing department needs to be staffed more strongly, despite or precisely because of all the theatres’ efforts to save money. So marketing departments of theatres simulate journalism in their own interest.

However, one function of theatre criticism (in addition to providing guidance on possible performance attendance, reporting) is to draw theatre into the realm of public debate. A theatre performance is an event in the simultaneous physical presence of many. Making this event debatable is also a function of criticism. This includes some kind of judgement, positive or negative, that makes a debate for-and-against possible. This debate is not only the great public one, but also the private one between spectators of the same production and between actual and potential spectators. A theatre review is not only part of a public debate, but can also be the subject of a private debate. Such micro-discussions form the root network of a pluralistic democracy. Theatre criticism is not marketing. A theatre production is more than just a commodity to be sold. Theatre criticism is debate culture. And the aesthetic debate about the value of jointly experienced representations of human conditions is the pleasurable preliminary exercise for the debates about the political regulation of social relations.


“Set an example for how we on this continent intend to live and communicate with our neighbours in the future in general.” (Pees)

That is the best intention of the whole enterprise of restructuring the Berlin Theatertreffen. But there does not yet seem to be a coherent concept for how it is to be realised.

  1. Andreas Reckwitz, Die Gesellschaft der Singularitäten. Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2017. p.175. See also my article “Theatre and Theatre Criticism in the Society of Singularities.”
  2. Christine Wahl: Zum Stand der Theaterkritik. nachtkritik.de 4 May 2022
  3. “The judgement of taste itself does not postulate everyone’s approval {…}; it only suggests this approval to everyone.” Immanuel Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft. Analytik des Schönen, §8
  4. Till Briegleb, “Kritiker und Theater. 10 Thesen” in: Dramaturgie. Zeitschrift der Dramaturgischen Gesellschaft. Resümée des Symposions ‚Radikal Sozial‘. Berlin 2006
  5. Heinrich Theodor Röscher, Die Kunst der dramatischen Darstellung in ihrem organischen Zusammenhang wissenschaftlich entwickelt. First volume. Leipzig: Otto Wiegand, 2nd edition 1864, p.50
  6. Michael Billington, One Night Stands. A Critic`s View of modern British theatre. London: Nick Hern, 1993, p. IXf
  7. I have always understood my appointment to the jury of the Theatertreffen in 2000 as the beginning of the decline of the profession of theatre critic. I was probably the first person in that position who did not earn his living as a journalist.
  8. Rule No.1, Till Briegleb op. cit.
  9. On the differences between regional and national theatre criticism, see: Vasco Bönisch, “Die Aufgaben der Theaterkritik”, in: V.B., Krise der Kritik? Was Theaterkritiker denken – und was ihre Leser erwarten. Berlin: Theater der Zeit, 2008, pp. 103-150
  10. See Christiane Wahl’s essay “Zum Zustand der Theaterkritik” nachtkritik.de 4 May 2022
  11. in: Zum Stand der Theaterkritik”  nachtkritik.de 4.5.2022