50 Thoughts on Theatrical Criticism — Revisited (1 to 25)


CriticsIn 2007 and 2008, I compiled a series of personal observations and interesting quotes on theatrical criticism.

In light of the discussion ballooning all over the Interwebs regarding what does and does not constitute the “good” form of this genre (“good” being a facile, reductive term), I am reprinting the 50 thoughts in their entirety.

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First up, 1 through 25. The first five are some of my own views.

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1. The critic’s responsibility is to ricochet intelligently and conscientiously between three distinct yet interrelated constituents: practitioners, readers/browsers, and the critics’ conscience. Only the rarest of critics can interface with all three constituencies at once and with equal effectiveness, although that is the ideal.

2. In another sense, the critic speaks to the consumer (i.e., the ticket-buyer) with whom he or she may have no communion, or speaks to the artistic community, of which the critic is a part. Consumer-oriented criticism is fundamentally concerned with quantification. Aesthetic-oriented criticism is fundamentally concerned with qualification.

3. Critics teach. Critics also learn.

4. Critics evaluate the present and contextualizes it with the past. Ideally, critics synthesize past and present into expectations and proscriptions for the future.

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5. Practitioners can make ideal aesthetic critics. Aesthetic critics do not necessarily make ideal practitioners.

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6. As George Jean Nathan wrote in Passing Judgments (1935):

The quality of a critic is best to be appraised by the quality of his enemies. To analyze his worth it is only necessary to analyze the worth of those who detest him.

7. As John Mason Brown wrote in his Dramatis Personae (1963), the critic

…catechizes himself with such questions as the following, and finds asylum in the easiest answers. Is he writing to tell his public what happened and who was there? Is he only an audible member of the audience whose reaction are valuable mainly as they serve as a common denominator to what the town may think? Is he trying to help the actor and the playwright by constructive suggestions, or is he merely to describe them for prospective ticket buyers? Is he a middleman or an autocrat, a press agent or a synopsis manufacturer? Do his readers want to know what he thinks or learn about what they may like? Is he to parade his understanding or his adjectives, his knowledge or his enthusiasms? Is he to treat each production as an isolated unit, or judge it by comparative values? Is he paid to analyze technicalities or to amuse his public? Is he to turn crusader and fight for a play or a production or a group in which he believes, even when they are not ripened enough to warrant his praise, or is he to pass judgment only on the finished product? Is he to measure what he is asked to see by a general theory of the theatre, or come receptive, with his mind and body fresh for new impressions? In short-and this is more important than it may seem-is he to be a reporter, a reviewer, or a critic?

8. As Percy Hammond wrote in his But – Is It Art? (1927):

Play reviewers are the most contented of men, although, as a rule, they profess not to be so. As you see them on first nights, sitting sullen at their machines, you fear that they are the repositories of most of the human woes. While others in the audience are indulging in applause, the critic remains grim and forbidding. He smiles not, neither does he clap his hands. Nevertheless, he is having a good time. If he likes the entertainment, he is enjoying it behind his gelid mask; and if he doesn’t, he is happy in contemplating revenge. His dejected exterior is but a part of his equipment, along with his stick, his spats, and his knowledge of Life and Aristotle. An ex-dramatic critic (Max Beerbohm, perhaps) has written that the most miserable of human beings is an ex-dramatic critic, excepting, possible, an unfrocked priest or an ex-senator of the United States.

9. As John Gassner wrote in his Theatre at the Crossroads (1963):

The proposal of those who periodically suggest that reviewers confine themselves to reporting instead of reviewing is impractical. A report also reflects an attitude (it is possible to summarize even Hamlet, as Voltaire once did, and make it seem pretty dreadful). The reader of the neutral report is unlikely to be sufficient impelling to rush to the box office. He may even construe mere reporting as a patent warning to stay away, for how could a reviewer remain neutral in encountering excellence? One solution, a producer’s and press agent’s dream, is that the drama critic contribute no neutrality but a contagious enthusiasm for dramatic art that will send readers pell-mell to the theatre. But the critic whose praise is indiscriminate will not hold his followers either, for no reader is likely to be subservient enough to take guidance for long from a reviewer who persistently overrates productions.

10. More from Gassner, after discussing how the critic interfaces with playwrights, directors, actors, and the like:

An effective critic ultimately commands the respect of these creators even when his criticism is negative. He earns the right to be listened to by the closeness of his reasoning, the scrupulousness of his analysis, and the interest and originality of what he has to say. It must be evident that his condemnation is not born of mere whim, prejudice or obtuseness. If his comments are astringent it is more probably that those he hurts will be in no mood to appreciate his uninvited censure. Its salutary effects are never immediately apparent; if his criticism has any vale it will be recognized only after the wound his closed. If the critic is not heeded by those who have some vested interests in the theatre of the present, he may instruct those who have none – a new generation pressing close upon the heels of the old.

11. As Theodore Roosevelt once wrote:

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.

12. As James Huneker wrote in A Word on the Dramatic Opinions and Essays of Bernard Shaw, the preface to the anthology of Shaw’s theatre criticism:

We decry impressionistic criticism, and lift reverent eyes before them that pace academic groves. But the different is largely a fanciful one – not as real as Stendhal’s wicked definition of Classic and Romantic. Dr. William Barry wisely says that “the whole art of judgment is faithful impression.” All criticism is personal, and neither academic nor impressionistic criticism should be taken too seriously. Anatole France has proved that one may be both wise and witty while sailing his soul in quest of masterpieces. A man’s ponderous learning is of no more value than the superficial skating of some merry emotional blade over the dramatic ice. The main point is – particularly in dramatic criticism – whether the writer holds our attention. Otherwise his work has no excuse for existence. Be as profound as you please – but be pleasing. Nature abhors an absolute; and there is no absolute is dramatic criticism. It is an exotic growth and as inutile as politics. Now Shaw always holds one’s attention, nay, grips it, and at times rudely chokes it into submission. His utterances are male, forceful and modern.

13. As George Bernard Shaw wrote in his essay, “The Case for the Critic-Dramatist“:

A discussion has arisen recently as to whether a dramatic critic can also be a dramatic author without injury to his integrity and impartiality. The feebleness with which the point has been debated may be guessed from the fact that the favorite opinion seems to be that a critic is either an honest man or he is not. If honest, then dramatic authorship can make no difference to him. If not, he will be dishonest whether he writes plays or not. This childish evasion cannot, for the honor of the craft, be allowed to stand. If I wanted to ascertain the melting-point of a certain metal, and how far it would be altered by an alloy of some other metal, and an expert were to tell me that a metal is either fusible or it is not – that, if not, no temperature will melt it; and if so, it melt anyhow – I am afraid I should ask that expert whether he was a fool himself or took me for one. Absolute honesty is as absurd an abstraction as absolute temperature or absolute value. A dramatic critic who would die rather than read an American pirated edition of a copyright English book might be considered an absolutely honest man for all practical purposes on that one particular subject – I say on that one, because very few men have more than one point of honor; but as far as I am aware, no such dramatic critic exists. If he did, I should regard him as a highly dangerous monomaniac.

14. Here’s another snippet from the same Shaw piece:

The advantage of having a play criticized by a critic who is also a playwright is as obvious as the advantage of having a ship criticized by a critic who is also a master shipwright.

15. And here’s one from Edward Albee:

If Attila the Hun were alive today, he’d be a drama critic.

16. From Brooks Atkinson, writing in Brief Chronicles (1968):

Reviews written at top speed involve inexact phrasing. Although they communicate excitement, which is one of the theatre’s most valuable assets, they are likely to be diffuse. If the reviewer does not have time enough to find the precise word to describe the play or the performance he habitually compromises on three: “Tallulah Bankhead gives a breezy, immensely comic and bridling performance.” (That’s bluffing.) “Knowledge, breadth of understanding and genius for writing.” (“Genius” would have been enough.) “The style is simple, allusive and delightful.” “The performance is warm, spontaneous and winning.” “Meticulous, pertinent, fluent and funny.” (Four adjectives!) Some of these words are pungent or colorful, but they are wild pitches at the target. It is only luck when one of them hits the bull’s eye.

17. From the introduction to The American Theatre as Seen by Its Critics: 1752-1934, edited by Montrose J. Moses and John Mason Brown:

….For whatever else may be said against the dramatic critics – and plenty has been said against them since the beginning of time – they have at least done their playgoing in the theatre. Even when it is their recollections upon which they draw…it is clear that these memories are based upon the first-hand impressions of men who have gained them in the presence of the footlights. That matters immensely from the theatre’s point of view, and gives to the most ephemeral of journalistic reactions, which have been formed in the same way, a documentary interest that time cannot dim for those who are interested in discovering what the theatre of yesterday, or of last season, or of a hundred and fifty years ago, was like when, in its own ephemeral way, it was attempting to cast its theatrical spell.

18. From the opening essay in George Jean Nathan’s The Critic and the Drama, called “Aesthetic Jurisprudence”:

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Art is a reaching out into the ugliness of the world for vagrant beauty and the imprisoning of it in a tangible dream. Criticism is the dream book. All art is a kind of subconscious madness expressed in terms of sanity; criticism is essential to the interpretation of its mysteries, for about everything truly beautiful there is ever something mysterious and disconcerting. Beauty is not always immediately recognizable as beauty; what often passes for beauty is mere infatuation living beauty is like a love that has outlasted the middle years of life, and has met triumphantly the test of time, and faith, and cynic meditation. For beauty is a sleepwalker in the endless corridors of the wakeful world, uncertain, groping, and not a little strange. And criticism is its tender guide.

19. Elsewhere in Nathan’s book, he quotes a great English theatre critic:

Arthur Bingham Walkley begins one of the best books ever written on the subject thus: “It is not to be gainsaid that the word criticism has gradually acquired a certain connotation of contempt…Every one who expresses opinions however imbecile in print calls himself a ‘critic.’ The greater the ignoramus the greater the likelihood of his posing as a ‘critic.'” An excellent book, as I have said, with a wealth of sharp talk in it, but Mr Walkley seems to me to err somewhat in his preliminary assumption. Criticism has acquired a connotation of contempt less because it is practised by a majority of ignoramuses than because it is accepted at full face value by an infinitely greater majority of ignoramuses. It is not the mob that curls a lip-the mob the lesser ignoramus at his own estimate of himself; it is the lonely and negligible minority man who, pausing musefully in the field that is the world, contemplates the jackasses eating the daisies.

20. And one from me:

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Critics are gifts artists don’t want, but which they’ll happily regift to other, more unsuspecting artists, when the mood and the moment suits them.

21. From Boze Hadleigh’s Broadway Babylon, quoting Village Voice writer Arthur Bell:

Critics are snobs who only want to write about stars. It’s not about credit where credit is due. That’s why they deliberately ignored Joe Cino, who helped revitalize Off-Broadway — more than a few of its hits came out of his coffeehouse. By day he was a typist, just to pay the overhead on his productions. He called it Off-Off-Broadway, and he deserves so much credit, but didn’t get it, nor money or any glory…. When he died in 1967, a suicide, the critic still thought he wasn’t a Name and wouldn’t praise him.

22. From the same volume, quoting producer David Merrick:

…critics don’t write for their readers. They write for each other, or for what they are sure is a personal following of superior intellect.

23. From Walter Kerr’s Thirty Plays Hath November:

It is not a reviewer’s business to “sell” plays, but surely it is a playwright’s business not to write plays in such a way that the barest, most gingerly mention of the plot material in a review will kill the play dead on the spot.

24. From the same volume — two paragraphs later:

…there is something called a “money notice.” This does not in the least mean that the reviewer’s notice has been favorable. Quite the contrary. A favorable notice is a favorable notice, and let’s hear no more of it except in the ads. A “money notice,” on the other hand, is an unfavorable notice in which the reviewer has been so careless as to praise the actors extensively, or to admit that he laughed out loud three times due to surprise, or to give sufficient space to the fact that the play’s content includes a sequence in which a mulatto homosexual is castrated by a nun. The reviewer, in short, has outfoxed himself, or been outfoxed by the playwright and producers: nothing he can say against the project will counteract the impression of sheer liveliness which his passing description is bound to give off.

Conversely, there are plays which the reviewer admires but which he cannot coax down from the sixteenth-story ledge upon which their authors have perched them. The plays are suicidally inclined, and trying to help them simply calls attention to their grim determination; it probably even hastens the jump. The reviewer can genuflect in admiration, he was fawn, he can flip. And every word he utters is a push into the great beyond.

25. From the same volume, several pages later:

Reviewers are interested in persuasion. They do, in their wistful or ardent or truculent ways, hope to convince someone — anyone — that the particular pleasure or pain they took in an entertainment was a justified pleasure or pain. They wish to do so because they are themselves both passionate partisans of the theater and, on top of that, compulsive talkers — babblers, really. The theater is the one thing in the world they simply cannot shut up about. They like it so much that they are willing to sit through it (not too many people today can make that claim). And having sat through it, they must speak or explode.

They want to be part of a conversation, not a catastrophe. They want to be free to say what they think no matter what anyone else says or thinks, and they are then willing to listen — I am giving you too many surprises here — to what everyone else says and thinks. They don’t really want influence; they want exercise. The freedom to chatter on and on about the only matters that matter to them, the uninhibited opportunity to sing or to scold, is what is at stake here. It is a freedom, I should think, that could subtly be compromised. Tell a reviewer that his readers are really docile (he won’t believe you, but what if it should be true?), and he’ll right away begin to wonder if he’s leading them to perdition. Tell a reviewer that his word means a great deal to the playwright’s mother, to the producer’s future relationship with the Internal Revenue Service, or to the very survival of playhouses (they’ll all be garages someday), and he’ll feel like a cad. Reviewers always do try to brush these piteous visions aside as irrelevant, because they are irrelevant to what went on on the stage of a certain evening. But the brushing aside might very well become harder if all conversation dwindled to a whisper; whispering suggests doom. Should a man tread softly in a corpse house? And what fun is that?