Recently, Anne Washburn's astonishing Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play wrapped up a sold-out run at Playwrights Horizons in New York. I saw the show's world premiere in June 2012 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., where I write about theater. It was one of the most imaginative and unpredictable things I'd ever witnessed on a stage, as unconventional in form as it was in content.
Reduced to a logline, Mr. Burns is about the survivors of a Book of Revelations-grade eco-catastrophe revisiting a classic episode of The Simpsons the only way they can: by performing it live from memory. As the second of the play's three acts began, I found myself in the rare and enviable position of being as bewildered as I was captivated. I hadn't a clue where the show was going. An even more profound shock awaited me at the top of the third act.
Perhaps irresponsibly, I had dispensed with my usual review assignment research and gone into the show cold. Spoilers aren't something that drama critics tend to worry about, for many reasons, not least of which being that most plays that get staged have been around for a while. But Mr. Burns was both new and utterly extraordinary. I decided my review would divulge nothing that happens after the first act. I wanted my readers to have the same opportunity to discover the show's marvels that I'd had.
Many of my fellow local critics shared my admiration for Mr. Burns—but none of them abstained from describing what I'd thought of as its secrets, often in exhaustive detail. The New York reviews last month followed a similar pattern: Of the eight or nine I read, only Ben Brantley's in The New York Times and my editor, Alan Scherstuhl's, here in the Village Voice showed any spoiler-sensitivity. But it's hard to judge the other critics harshly when Mr. Burns' playwright, director and (here comes spoiler No. 1) composer all participated in preview coverage in Washington and later in New York that spilled their show's beans in the dutiful manner of a flight attendant demonstrating how to affix your oxygen mask. (They might've been right to think their odd show required some explanation: One theater writer friend of mine skipped Mr. Burns in D.C. because, she told me, she doesn't like The Simpsons. Which makes as much sense as ignoring our most recent national object of spoilermania, Breaking Bad, on the grounds that you do not sell or consume crystal meth.)
One possible explanation for the rampant oversharing in the reviews of Mr. Burns is that critics (Brantley and me excepted, naturally) are churlish idiots. A likelier one is that no common definition of what precisely constitutes a spoiler has emerged, nor has a sense how critics—of film, theater, books, TV or any other narrative art—should be obliged to treat them.
Thus, I offer my attempt—or at least gesture—to remedy all that. Specifically, a rough and inevitably incomplete guide to the taxonomy of spoilers, with recommended guidelines for appropriate handling by reviewers. I should clarify here that I'm talking specifically about reviews that run when the film, play or book under consideration is new or recent. In-depth critical studies that are unlikely to be used as points of entry into the work are free to spoil away. Finally, I've refrained from addressing TV criticism at all, as “recapping” or “overnights” or what-you-will has evolved into its own specialty, one with its own evolving rules.
The most prevalent and obvious kind. The Planet of the Apes is, in fact, a post-apocalyptic Earth. Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father. Tyler Durden and the unnamed narrator of Fight Club are the same person. These are revelations—often, though not exclusively, climactic ones—that force a reappraisal of everything we've witnessed up to that point in the story. No one who gives these away does so innocently.
Narrative spoilers abound in movies and TV shows but are far less common in the theater, where revelation is more often internal and emotional than plot-driven. If you've never read, seen or heard about Waiting for Godot, you might look at your program and notice that it doesn't list an actor in the role of Godot. An actor-writer friend of mine wonders why theaters give audience members a program on their way into a play instead of on their way out. It's an excellent question. I haven't seen the Playwrights Horizons program for Mr. Burns, but the one I saved from the Woolly Mammoth production contains things the audience would be better off not knowing until the play is over. Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things has a narrative spoiler. So does Stephen Adly Guirgis' The Motherfucker With the Hat and a couple of Martin McDonagh plays. Come to think of it, Mr. Burns has one, too.
Recommendation: Don't hint, don't tell. But if you have to, label them with barbed wire.
Sometimes the mere disclosure of the method by which the story is told or the genre it occupies can steal a pleasurable sense of discovery from the audience. These instances occur infrequently enough that many critics might not even think of them as spoilers. Many critics also evidently believe something I don't: that reviews should be comprehensive, addressing every aspect of the work under consideration, whether the critic has something interesting to say about it not.
These two factors probably explain why most critics over-described Mr. Burns' latter parts. The 2012 horror film The Cabin in the Woods is a good, strong example of this type of spoiler. Most critics wrote about it with appropriate caution. Movie critics seems to be better at this than theater critics are—or at least they've got more practice thinking about it.
But what about, say, the 15-minute “Dawn of Man” prologue to 2001: A Space Odyssey? Or the dinosaur interlude in Tree of Life? These are not elements audiences would have been expecting, based on these films' marketing or their directors' prior work. Or the fact that last year's terrific sci-fi thriller Looper settles down to spend its last act on a farm, just like Witness? I would have preferred not to have known about these things in advance. You can intelligently assess these films' merits without divulging these surprises.
Some measure of description—albeit far less than is frequently given, in my opinion—is required both to promote plays and movies and to critique them substantively. Writing about theater, I feel obliged to participate in the Consumer Guide function of criticism, because, for the majority of the audience, the live experience of a play or a musical is inconvenient and expensive. You can't wait for them to show up on Netflix or borrow them from the library for free. One of the things I have enjoyed about reviewing pop concerts is that the critic is completely removed from the purchasing calculus. Because most acts play only one night and then move on to the next city on the schedule, they were already gone by the time my review appeared. The piece could simply be a subjective attempt to record something of the event for posterity.
Recommendation: Say as little as you can while keeping your argument understandable. Also, be cool. If you're all, Hey, there is a big secret I'm not telling you here, tee hee, then you're kind of spoiling. Use your judgment: Reviewing art isn't a science, it's … another thing.
Recommendation: If an actor is famous but not named in the opening credits, don't name that actor in your review.
A film professor I studied under once began a class by saying, “Rosebud is the fucking sled. If you think I've just ruined Citizen Kane for you, please get out.” His point, I think, was that if you're only watching a film because you want to know how it ends, you're closing yourself off to all its other, non-narrative expressions of artistry.
My point is different: “Rosebud” is the MacGuffin in Citizen Kane. The reporter trying to discern the meeting of Kane's final deathbed utterance cares what it means, but do you? Did you care any more about it at minute 90 than you did at minute 15? The extremely low-yield reveal of Rosebud's identity tells us Kane's dying thoughts returned to his early memories, which doesn't seem at all unusual. If it's intended to illuminate Kane's character, well, we'd already seen plenty of evidence that he remained selfish and childlike as an adult. Who doesn't yearn for the simplicity of their childhood?
Moreover: Who names a sled, anyway? Now, if “Rosebud” really were, as Gore Vidal has claimed, William Randolph Heart's nickname for his mistress Marion Davies' lady parts … that would an item of interest.
To offer a more recent, less prurient example, Star Trek Into Darkness had a spoilable secret, but it wasn't the name of its antagonist. Director J.J. Abrams and his usual entourage of writer-producers wanted fans to believe for half the movie that Benedict Cumberbatch's villain was a ne'er-do-well named John Harrison. But when he monologues to Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock that he is, in fact, duh-duh-DUUUUH Khan Noonien Singh, the name is as meaningless to them as “John Harrison” is to us: In this clean-slate iteration of Trek, they've only just met the guy. He could've said, “I'm Batman,” or, “Bond, James Bond,” or, “They call me Mr. Tibbs.” Sure, some largish portion of the audience is coming in with the knowledge that in a prior telling, Khan became the franchise's most flamboyant villain. But the net effect within this movie is that a guy we thought was a bad guy is actually … a bad guy.
But not the only bad guy! I'm convinced Abrams implored critics to protect the fake secret of Cumberbatch's character as an act of misdirection, to keep the film's legitimate narrative and formal spoilers from leaking—perhaps to keep audiences from realizing it was part remake. I didn't love the movie he made. But this plea to critics not to throw his movie into the briar patch was fairly brilliant.
Recommendation: Spoil on, you crazy diamond. Your readers may cry for your head, but you'll know that you were right.
HOP, SKIP, JUMP TO THE END
The pervasive notion that knowing the end cheapens the journey calls out the way stories by their very nature distort reality, despite our deep need to use them to frame our lives.
This is a recurring theme in the films of Christopher Nolan, possibly the 21st century's most skillful cinematic wool-puller. All of his films have spoilable elements, but it's his criminally under-seen 2006 thriller The Prestige, which follows a rivalry among 19th-century illusionists, that best expresses the narrative power of withholding. With typical Nolan symmetry, the story follows the three-part structure of the illusions its characters perform, giving us a “pledge,” a “turn” and, finally, a “prestige.” The audience's natural inclination is to try to deduce the rational explanation for the seemingly impossible thing the magician has just shown them. But: “You don't really want to work it out. You want to be fooled,” Michael Caine warns us in narration that bookends the film.
It's the same when we read reviews. We read them because we think we want some context for the play or the film or whatever, but often we don't. I read them because I, like everyone else, am cursed to experience each piece of art I encounter filtered through the narrow view-slit of my own tastes, biases, education and experience. I only see what I can see. But good critics can show me what they saw. Stick with that, why don't you.