I’ve had a play running in Salt Lake City for a couple of weeks now, and we’ve gotten lots of reviews. Really really really positive reviews. It’s really gratifying, to get good reviews, and especially when they’re from people I respect and think of as particularly astute. I’ve had a season of my work in production in Salt Lake this year, and all the shows got great reviews. I’m like anyone else; I enjoy being praised for my work. I like it a lot.
But I got to thinking about reviews, and what they mean in terms of box office. And I think that while a good review may help sell tickets, they’re probably a fairly negligible factor. I think bad reviews can hurt ticket sales. What happens to me occasionally is that I’ll see a preview for a movie and think ‘that looks interesting. I’d like to see that.’ And I’ll talk it up to my wife, and we’ll make plans to see it. And then I’ll check Rottentomatoes.com, and see that it’s gotten a 20% positive rating. And I’ll read a few reviews. And rethink my plans. By the same token, if there’s a movie I never would have imagined liking, but it gets tremendous reviews, I may change my mind. That happened recently, for example, with The Lego Movie. I would never in a million years go to see something called The Lego Movie, but it got fabulous reviews, great word-of-mouth from friends, and we finally saw it and loved it. So that happens.
But there’s a certain kind of bad review that’s probably better for box office than any good review ever could be. I was thinking about this recently in relation to Ibsen. My Dad asked me to write something up about Ibsen for the Sons of Norway, and I did, but I got to thinking about Ibsen’s play Ghosts (which I have translated and directed, and which I absolutely love). When the Independent Theatre in London produced the play in 1890, it got gloriously awful reviews. George Bernard Shaw, who was involved with the production, later gathered some of the worst reviews and published them in his Quintessence of Ibsenism. The play was “an open drain”; “a dirty act done publically”; “a loathesome sore unbandaged”; a “mass of vulgarity, egotism, coarseness and absurdity.” Ibsen himself was described as “a crazy fanatic”; “Ugly, nasty and dull”; “A gloomy sort of ghoul, bend on groping for horrors by night, and blinking like a stupid old own when the warm sunlight of the best of life dances into his wrinkled eyes.” And Ibsen’s admirers were described as “lovers of prurience and dabblers in impropriety, eager to gratify their illicit tastes under the pretense of art.” “Effeminate men and male women.” “Muck-ferreting dogs”. And (this is my personal favorite), “ninety-seven percent of the people who go to see Ghosts are nasty-minded people who find the discussion of nasty subjects to their taste in exact proportion to their nastiness.” Of course, all those negative reviews did nothing except make Ghosts the hottest ticket in town. And people who saw the play saw a powerful, somber tragedy, and a magnificent portrayal of one of the great female characters in theatre history, Mrs. Alving.
Those Ghosts reviews were so extreme, so over-the-top, that people correctly recognized that something else was going on with that show. It was a cultural event. Every critic in London had to go see it, and had to condemn it in the strongest possible terms, because otherwise they might be thought of as ‘not up-to-date,’ but also as ‘not moral.’ You had to see it, and you had to blast it; it was just essential to do both. And of course, now, looked at through the lens of history, all those earnest critics look ridiculous. ‘Please. It’s Ghosts. What’s your deal?’
I think the same dynamic is at play with Obamacare. Conservatives hate the Affordable Care Act. Hate it. The House has voted to repeal it, like, forty times. And it’s like they’ve been competing to see who can denounce Obamacare in the strongest terms. A future Shaw is going to have a jolly old time assembling a compilation album. ‘Worse than the Holocaust.’ ‘Calculated to destroy America.’ ‘Worse than slavery.’ It’s pretty hilarious.
Meanwhile, over seven million people have enrolled in the ACA exchanges, and many more have signed up for the Medicaid expansion. And I have to think a lot of younger people looked at the overblown rhetoric opposing Obamacare and thought ‘okay, that’s nuts. What’s going on? I’m going to find out for myself.’
I thought about this, as well, in relation to conservative reviews I’ve read of Darren Aronovsky’s Noah film. ‘A gratuitous insult to Christianity!’ Well, no, it’s not. It’s a film, and a darn good one. I think the negative reviews were, again, so extreme, all they did was make people want to see it.
So this weekend, Ordain Women is planning to go to Temple Square, and politely request tickets for the Priesthood session. Their requests will be refused, and they will calmly and reasonably step away. It’s a protest, of course, but a very mild one.
But I’ve seen the response on social media to Ordain Women. Ferocious. Even violent. A lot of it has a ‘what do those dizzy dames want?’ kind of vibe, only in many cases much more strongly expressed.
And I think it’s going to backfire. I think that when people actually meet the women involved in OW, they’ll be shocked to see that they’re reasonable, thoughtful, smart, funny women. I know quite a few OW members, and I’ve never met one I didn’t like, immensely. I think it’s pretty obvious that the letter from the Church’s PR department, essentially inviting OW members to quietly sit themselves in the back of the bus (or more accurately, actually outside the bus on the pavement), was, uh, tactically unsound. I think that when people meet Ordain Women women, they’ll like ’em. And when they listen to what they have to say, they’ll be even more impressed.
I think so far that OW have gotten some over-the-top bad reviews. And, historically, that tactic really doesn’t work very well.