I was discussing with my friend from college, the TV guru Wally Podrazik (curator for the Museum of Broadcast Communication), the subject of reading about plays and movies before seeing them. It turns out that he is like a Zen master when it comes to avoiding reading anything beforehand. I'm not nearly at his level, although I don’t read any reviews about movies and plays before I see them. My reasoning goes back years. I just figure, if I know that I want to see something, I simply don’t care about anyone’s opinion first before I formulate my own, and I most definitely don’t want something given away.
(A quick note about Wally. You know how as a kid, you'd sometimes have a gradeschool assignment that tangentially, sort of involved possibly watching something on TV, and you'd be so thrilled to tell your parents, "But I have to watch, it's for school!" Well, Wally has turned that into an art form and career. He's written 10 books about watching television, and his continually updated and most successful book -- written with another Northwestern classmate, Harry Castleman -- is titled...well, yeah...Watching TV. Which is the name of his website. Among other things, he's an adjunct lecturer on media at the University of Illinois at Chicago and has coordinated the media at far too many Democratic Conventions to count, But I digress...)
Anyway, like Wally, I tend not to read articles either, though sometimes I will. In part, that's because it’s my field, and so it’s important to be aware of what’s going on. But as for reviews beforehand, nah, not for me.
My stance on reviews has grown to include rarely reading them. Sometimes I'll save them to read afterwards, if my interest is just so high, but generally I've recognized over the years that it's all just opinion, even if expert opinion. This understanding began when I worked for the Ravinia Music Festival during summers in my late-college years, and one of my jobs was to clip the reviews. I specifically remember on day when I read the reviews by the critics of the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune. They were likely sitting in the exact same row. One of them wrote that the Chicago Symphony Chorus was good, but too loud. And the other wrote that the chorus was wonderful, "when you could hear them." Right then and there I recognized, well, okay, that's sure just pure, total subjective opinion. No matter how expert.
But it was one particular experience while in college at Northwestern that really drummed in the point about not reading reviews if you don't want something given away. And therein lies the tale. (Don't worry, I will not give anything away. Really. Nothing.)
It concerns the stageplay, Sleuth, by Anthony Shaffer.
(And especially because it about Sleuth, of all plays -- a play so full of twists and turns that in the programs they ask that nothing about the plot be given away -- I really, truly will not be giving a single thing away.)
The tale even starts further in the past. Back in high school, I subscribed to a wonderful, venerable old magazine, The Illustrated London News, which dated back to the 1800s. One day, they had a review of a brand new play, something called Sleuth. The first paragraph said something about it being the greatest stage mystery since The Mousetrap, and waxed eloquently on its brilliance and surprises. It even noted that the program asked people not to give anything away about the plot. And I stopped right there. I thought – “Gee, if it’s this great, it’ll come to New York. And if it does well there, it’ll come to Chicago.” So, I read nothing more about it, anywhere.
About 18 months later, it did indeed open on Broadway. Again, I refused to read anything about, thinking – “Gee, if it’s this great, and if it does well in New York, it’ll come to Chicago.” All I did was look at headlines to see if it would likely be a success, and therefore come to Chicago. The reviews were all utterly glowing. So, I continued read nothing more about it.Another 18 months or so later, Sleuth finally came to Chicago. I got my ticket immediately. And I still read nothing about it. I looked at headlines, to see if it was a good production, and they were continued raves. I read nothing else about the show. I was at Northwestern at the time, now.
I had tickets for the show the coming Wednesday matinee. The prior Sunday, I picked up the Sun-Times and saw that in their entertainment section there was an interview with one of the actors. Well, okay, I thought, it’s just a profile with the actor, not the play. And I like the guy – I think it was Donal Donnelly, who I’d seen before – so I was interested. Not a problem, I’ll read it. I got about two paragraphs in, when I stopped. “Y’know, “ I thought, “I’ve waited three years to see this play without reading a single word. Why start now? Why risk anything when I’m seeing it in three days?” So, I stopped.
I went to see Sleuth at that matinee and absolutely loved it. Just one of the great theater experiences of my life, still to this day. Well-worth the wait, and well-worth holding off reading anything for the surprises. And remarkable surprises there were, throughout the play.
I returned to my dorm room and now finally, after all these years, read the article I had started, but had put down. Putting it down was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made – because there, in the middle of the article, despite the program asking people not to give anything away about the plot…the reporter mentions, not just one of the many plot twists, but THE BIGGEST FREAKING SURPRISE in the play. (If you've seen Sleuth, you probably know what I'm referring to without saying more. It's that big. If you haven't seen it, trust me -- the surprise is that big.)
What the reporter did wasn't just talk about the plot (which, again, the program asks you not to do), the article gave away the very heart of the play! Can you imagine my reaction if, after waiting three years to see the play, waiting three years not even reading a word about the play, I had read that article just three days before seeing the play??!! Chicago might have been minus one newspaper building the next week. And I’d have been livid with myself.
As I said, this experience was one of the prime reasons I stopped reading about plays or movies before I saw them.
It is something I heartily recommend to others. But it requires a certain patience and trust, so your mileage may vary.
But if you haven't seen Sleuth, at least rent it now. Definitely not the remake, but the original 1972 version that starred Laurence Olivier and MIchael Caine, both of whom got Oscar nominations, and also, checking iMDB after all these years (because my memory of the screen credits has dimmed), they list Alec Cawthorne as 'Inspector Doppler," John Matthews, and Eve Channing. The entire cast of the original is tremendous.
And if managed to know nothing about it before watching, keep it that way. Don't start now.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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