When Tragedy Strikes, What Does Criticism Have to Offer?

While mining for meaning, I can generally trust the principle of “Chekhov’s gun,” that in a work of art, every object and character, every violent act and death, should serve some function. Even in the bleakest stories, there’s order and logic, perhaps even justice, if not in the realm of the story itself then at least in the artist’s imagination.

As a critic, though, I reach my limit with the fall of the curtain, the last word of my review. I may sprinkle a personal anecdote into my lead, or broaden my purview to talk about history and tradition, but ultimately I feel chained to the art. For me, there’s no way to critique the joys — and, most urgently, the tragedies — of real life.

A few hours after finishing “Blindness,” I had eaten a delicious dinner, watched some TV and danced around my apartment to my Spotify playlist. I was having a good night. Then I saw the news of a grocery store shooting in Boulder, Colo., not even a full week after the shootings in Atlanta. I was surprised by the wave of sorrow that overtook me. Of course, every shooting saddens me and makes me fear the mundane public spaces that could so quickly become sites of horror. But two mass shootings in a week, just as we are starting to see the light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel, dragged me into a state of hopelessness.

Every day I’m thankful for the work I get to do. I am paid to watch, to think, to write. But this week, like so many others recently, it has felt pointless, even silly, to analyze fictional stories when real people are dying.

At this point, I’m used to seeing violence onstage. Just before the shutdown, I remember standing outside a theater with a friend after seeing “West Side Story,” firing off invective about the depiction of Anita’s assault by the Jets and the climactic battle between the gangs. I remember jumping at the callous industrial clangor of characters being executed onstage during the Druid company’s “Richard III” at Lincoln Center. The collective quiver and shrinking of the audience during the wrenching assault in “Our Dear Dead Drug Lord.” I can handle those experiences, however uncomfortable in the moment.

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