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 première in June 2012 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, 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 went 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 — 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, 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.
Herewith, an attempt — or at least a 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.)
Narrative spoilers: 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 Ady Guirgis' The Motherfucker with the Hat and a couple of Martin McDonagh plays. Come to think of it, Mr. Burns has one, too.