April 01, 1993

Criticising Criticism

Filed under: Archive,Commentary

By Murray Bramwell

Perhaps because theatre criticism is such a long established enterprise everyone thinks the business and purpose of it is self-evident. In fact, theatre reviewing is a rather strange, some might say barbaric, ritual. Of all reviews, theatre ones are the most intimate and immediate. A film will be widely available and screened and re-screened over a long period of time. Once made, it is infinitely repeatable and open to reconsideration. All sorts of films deemed of no consequence at first release have become fervently admired classics.

Even more so with books. Whatever the reviews say, we can browse a book for ourselves and make a decision to purchase and read it. With theatre reviews there is more of a closed circuit. The evaluation time is more immediate – and the impact of reviewers correspondingly more influential. Many productions have a lifespan of only a few days, most a few weeks, some a few months and a select (and possibly arbitrary) few, more than a year. After that they become like meals eaten – some vaguely recalled, others cloaked in exaggeration and misperception.

The historical record of a production is often sparse – a few photographic stills (notorious for misleading us), hearsay from audiences, self-promotion from the producers and, finally, the notices from critics. There are splendid instances of work immortalised by criticism. Coleridge likened Edmund Kean’s performance to reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning. Other great performances have. been recorded by Shaw, Agate, Tynan and so on. But they represent the highly visible few. Most reviews, like the works they describe, vanish or are boiled down into the tallow of historical generalisation.

Reviews, then, are ephemera – but, needless to say, during their brief presence they can have pungent effect. .It is one of the extraordinary courtesies of the theatre that the best seats on the first night are set aside for reviewers, some of whom may have been consistently negative to the company or its objectives, or shown incomprehension – or both. Nevertheless, the convention stands and when, occasionally, it is withdrawn- as when Playbox banned the Bulletin reviewer a couple of years ago there is a great hue and cry. As I’ve said theatre reviews are especially intimate and visceral- like theatre itself. There are real people being scrutinised – not images on celluloid or words on a page. Arts circles being what they are (even in a fairly large city like Adelaide), there is a likelihood is that they are well-known to the reviewer, even friends and associates. So theatre companies open themselves to the judgement of critics. Why? one might ask. Because it has always been that way? What is gained or lost by what often seems the colosseum mentality of the thumbs up or down? As a reviewer I’ve often wondered about this myself. There seems to be a kind of high stakes poker going on.

It emanates from New York and London and is reproduced in every town and province elsewhere. If you get approval from The Critics then the show is made commercially. The breathless superlatives are splashed across the posters and the mobs will follow. On Broadway the Darwinian survival of the fittest means that only a few can make it – or are allowed to because producers looking for profits can tolerate very little competition. Somehow, the winnowing is left to that row of vultures sitting on the fence -The Critics.

To an extent, companies everywhere encourage the absolutes of criticism because while loathing rejection they will always embrace approval (the more hyperbolic the better), build it into their publicity and, by implication, their self-evaluation. The Madame Lafarges of the tabloids will be beamingly quoted, those despised at other times as ignorant hacks will be enthusiastically named as arbiters of taste and quality. This is the gaping inconsistency in the face of criticism – and it is an entirely human one – that a good review is welcome from anyone and a bad review is welcome from no-one. It is understandable but it can turn reviewers into cynics, and does.

I have worked as a theatre reviewer for about eight years. I had written book, film and popular music reviews for much longer than that but I got my break in 1985 writing for The National Times. The regular reviewer for Adelaide went overseas for six months and asked me if I’d fill in. I was that lucky. I was given a few (very useful) hints and within a week I was dictating copy down the phone to Sydney.

Because reviewers are invariably slagged as ignorant know-nothings I feel inclined to defend my sudden appearance as a theatre reviewer with Whistler’s defence against Ruskin that his painting may have taken only a day to paint but it represented the experience of a lifetime. I had had a good academic training in thinking and writing, I had some grasp of the history of ideas and genres, I had seen as much theatre as a provincial could and what I hadn’t seen on the stage I made up for with film and TV drama. That was my rationalisation and still is. I suppose I feel that I was fortunate to get my first chance to review but that I earned the second one.

Much has been said about what constitutes qualifications for a reviewer. The tendency, if you are a reviewer might be to define yourself. I’ll try to resist that. Any reviewer must like what he or she does – and be looking to learn whenever possible. The Adelaide Festival gives a great opportunity to see a variety of new work and get a sense of comparisons. Reviewers need to see as much as possible – it seems to me to be highly beneficial to be able see comparable work in other centres and preferably further afield. We should not be drawing comparison with the West End or Broadway but Montreal and Detroit or Amsterdam and Athens.

But apart from a genuine curiosity about theatre and ideas reviewers also need to be able to write. This is complicated because there are many training grounds for writing – journalism, for instance, or more formal academic instruction. Reviewers may have both kinds of background or, more commonly, their allegiances may incline one way or the other. The cliche of the gardening reporter being reassigned to theatre reviewing is just that, a cliche. But it has an element of truth to it and much reviewing is superficial as a consequence.

It is also far too brief. Newpapers Invariably limit reviews to less than five-hundred words and will subedit to simplify what they see as the positive or negative bias. Telegraphic generalisations are favoured , pithy judgements preferred, racy copy always encouraged. It is one of the ironies of arts coverage in newspapers that they will print lengthy preview profiles and then give scant attention to the finished work. A further complexity is the perceived view of the critic as wit. The history of theatre is full of bristling one-liners of venomous denunciation. Alexander Woolcott, Dorothy Parker, Kenneth Tynan – all produced spicy phrases which have outlived the larger substance of their collected work. The idea that the reviewer is a sit-down comedian, as Charles Marowitz once put it, is a noxious and widespread one.

It is often forgotten that such writing occurred in a context of very direct comment on all areas of life. These days, particularly with the strictness of the libel laws in Australia, there is very little stringent criticism of public life. It seems that it is often convenient to let theatre reviewers loose to liven up the generally turgid and cautious mode of the daily newspaper. There is no single style of reviewer. It is important that they continue to come from a variety of sources – journalism, the universities, from inside and beyond the theatre profession.

There are basic precepts of courtesy and intellectual responsibility that all should share but we should remember that the readership and electronic media audience is itself a diverse one. In the Drama department at Flinders University where I work we have an honours course which examines the history and ethical basis of theatre criticism and requires students to write a number of reviews. There have been some promising writers among them and such a course may well spur some to seek publication. But I would not suggest that one would find a ready-made theatre reviewer in a tertiary course anymore than you would find a novelist or a poet.

I have preferred to use the term reviewer rather than critic. The distinction is not an easy one. I feel “critic” to be a much bandied term for something much less than that. We write individual reviews – specific accounts of specific events – but it is only when a coherent viewpoint is outlined in a body of work that that collected writing could be called criticism. The critic has become a caricature in the popular mind – bitchy, arrogant, supercilious, impossible to please, remote from the realities of theatre, somebody resembling Monty Woolley or a dandy from a Marx Brothers movie. It is a widely perpetuated fallacy and one that that far from reflects the truth of the matter.

Many reviewers are closely associated with the theatre, having formerly performed or directed. Others have academic or other general arts associations and interests. There is always a bind about this. An active association always attracts the accusation of the “failed” actor or director or playwright while the other category is that of the disappointed aspirant, the wannabe who hasn’t got the nerve to try it. It is a hard one to debate. I guess in exasperated moments one might castigate a cricket umpire for not being a player or a linesperson for a lack of compassion but it is invariably when the bails are on the ground or when we know in our bones that the team or player is not going to win.

Good criticism is prepared to take uncomfortable decisions. The umpire analogy is not perhaps quite right because it implies single crucial decisions – in or out, right or wrong. The best criticism is not concerned with good or bad but why a work is succeeding or not. The reviewer’s prejudices, beliefs and values have to be up front. A review is always putting yourself on the line. There is always the. fear of being as wrong as Clement Scott was about Ibsen or those who sneered at the Rite of Spring. Undoubtedly the fear of not recognising the next masterpiece has sometimes made reviewers gullible and evasive. It is often said that reviewers are estranged from the process and realities of theatre making, that they bombard people from thirty thousand feet without understanding what they are doing.

That happens of course, but I have never heard positive accolades criticised for being generalised or misinformed. Suggestions arise from time to time that reviewers should be closer to the preparation stages – attending rehearsals, talking with actors and so on. In fact this happens frequently. I have written dozens of preview articles and become quite enmeshed in the fortunes and tribulations of a particular production. Every play is a miracle, achieving against the odds to open on first night. Awful things happen that affect the success of a play but that is part of the business. One can too easily forget the struggle to make a play and that is not defensible – but ultimately there is no special pleading, you have to call it as you and the audience see it.

The reviewer has two loyalties and they may at times be in conflict. There is a need to acknowledge the purpose of the work and there is also a need to describe how it appears to an audience. The reviewer always writes from within an audience. Rarely does the reviewer not share the view of a substantial part of the audience. Often the reviewer is seen as someone separate when this is simply not so. Often, when I have taken what I have presumed to be an unpopular minority decision I have received the clearest affirmation from people who have seen the show. Sometimes even the misgivings of performers and directors are confided later on when the dust has settled and wounds have been sufficiently licked.

I am not suggesting that reviewers are invariably right – we are often spectacularly wrong – but it is also the case that there is often greater unanimity of view than is evident when reviews first appear. This is a vulnerable time for theatre, as for all the performing arts. Activities given substantial state funding previously are facing cutbacks and the cold glare of market forces. In a situation of diminishing resources, public approval – and, with any luck, attendant box office – is more important than ever to sustain healthy existence.

An unfavourable critical view can be damaging, a blistering one disastrous. Or so it seems. This is unfortunate because criticism needs to occur, to take place without an undue sense of the implications for a particular company or for theatre in general. A vigorous theatre needs a vigorous criticism. Not just from reviews but from all workers in the area. Theatre people. in my experience, hold passionate views about each other’s work and are often more vehement than the critics. There is no place for shallow cruelties or vindictive attitudes ‘but there is every need for lively debate.

Theatre at any time, and particularly now, needs to be resilient and aware of how it is perceived alongside other forms of spectacle and entertainment -sport, music and so on. It cannot merely assert its importance and expect to be revered. What is needed is intelligent criticism – informed and good-natured as well as candid and precise.

There also needs to be plenty of it. Not so that companies are deluged with meaningless superlatives or derision but so that a more exacting discourse of appreciation can be generated. One of the difficulties at present is that, with sometimes as few as oneor two notices appearing for individual works, disproportionate weight and significance is given to individual reviews rather than the gamut of perspectives and insights that a dozen reviews might give. Such. variety and depth will come when reviewing is better understood by the readership as a whole – not seen as glib tipsters bucketing a show or fawning all over it, but as part of the debate of a curious, intellectually active society.

We need to realise that it is positively creative to assess our products, our services, our political systems, our entertainment and, within that, our theatre. When audiences feel informed and confident enough to debate theatre the way they do movies, or the footy, then reviews will play their proper role and provoke discussion rather than replace it.

A New Zealander, Murray Bramwell came to Australia in 1972. He has taught English and Drama at a number of tertiary institutions and is currently lecturer in Drama at Flinders University. He is also a reviewer and arts journalist contributing to TheNational Times, Centre Stage, New Theatre Australia, The Advertiser, The Adelaide Review and many others. Last year his book, Wanted For Questioning: lnterviews with Australian Comic Artists (compiled in collaboration with David Matthews) was published by Allen and Unwin.

“Criticising Criticism” Lowdown, Vol.15, No.2, April, 1993, pp.17-19.

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