April 13, 1994

Critical Conditions

Filed under: Commentary


Murray Bramwell

“My criticism has not, I hope, any other fault than the inevitable one of extreme unfairness.”

So wrote George Bernard Shaw in Our Theatre in the Nineties. He was writing of his Nineties, not ours, but it is notable that many of the conventions of reviewing today are indelibly Edwardian. Or at least you might say that nothing much has changed. Except that the vigorous, impassioned, lucid criticism that Shaw produced by the boatload was both more detailed and insightful than a great deal of what is published and transmitted in today’s media.

The theatre about which Shaw wrote was a varied and vulgar thing. It was losing to the new-fangled blandishments of cinema but it was still the booming public entertainment that had attracted increasing crowds of every class since the beginning of the 19th century. Our theatre is a more pale flower with a diminished and narrowly defined clientele. It is sustained by subsidy and sensitive to market conditions. Works for the stage compete not just with films but with every other enticement in popular entertainment- music in many forms, sport (now aestheticised into a form of theatre itself) and the plethora of interactive, put-it-in-the-VCR-when-YOU-feel-like-it pleasures that derive from late 20th century electronics.

In the pace of everyday life the experience in Real Time has to take its chances- and theatre is often a case in point. You can’t set the timer if you’re not going to make it by eight o’clock. You can’t press rewind or fast-forward. There is no repeat on the late news and you can’t get it when it comes out on cassette. For theatre, like cricket at the Adelaide Oval, you have to be there. If you miss the catch or the boundary it’s too late and too bad.

So, inevitably, much gets overlooked. Everyone is aware of the phenomenon of the sleeper -the movie or book that is miscalled in its ten minutes of fame, or is ignored on release but slowly gathers a circle of admirers from which its reputation grows. It is one of the great benefits of the videocassette that audiences can revisit and reconsider a movie. Thousands of films are in constant circulation, not just the dozens which, at the programmer’s whim, might be available each week on television. These days we can read movies like books. Peruse them, re-read them, assess and memorise them at our leisure.

All this is in stark contrast to theatre. Consider the usual theatre season of say, three weeks (for non-professional productions it is much less). What can be said of the reception and evaluation process ? The lifespan of a theatre production is as finite as a dragonfly. Once it has fulfilled its life cycle from rehearsal to last night it becomes a matter of great ambiguity. What are the traces of a production ? They are as ineffable as a meal, or sex. From the moment it is over, a theatre performance becomes an approximate recollection, a rumour, it is cognitive hearsay.

There are production photographs, of course, but they can be notoriously misleading- as we well know from those shows that looked fine but turned out insufferable. Some productions are now videoed for posterity. But again, unless they are shot with more than one camera and edited with some flair, they bear the same connection to the experience as listening to a symphony concert over the telephone.

Of course we would say that productions roost in our hearts and minds – but whose heart and whose mind ? Performers, directors, writers, designers will recall their particular angle of vision, audiences will remember theirs. None of this is systematic and at least some is likely to be self-serving. Which leaves us with what the reviews have said. Or, rather, The Critics. The very plural conjures up the cliche of juiceless nitpickers, buzzards on a bough waiting for their sour feast. What do the critics say? we ask, as if they were emperors at the games, waiting with binary thumbs of approval or disdain.

It is criticism which provides the written record of the theatrical event but what is the status of commentary ? There are the often-repeated instances of work immortalised by criticism. Coleridge’s much quoted remark that watching Edmund Kean perform was like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning undoubtedly secured the actor’s place in history- but it only really tells us that Coleridge loved watching him work. Other performances have been evoked in great detail by Hazlitt and Shaw. We know of Charles Laughton because of James Agate and the young Olivier from Tynan. But these are the famous exceptions. Most reviews, like the works they describe, disappear, or are boiled down into the tallow of generalisation. They are themselves ephemera. But in their short life they can have pungent effect.

Unlike other kinds of reviews, theatre notices are more immediate and, in a sense, more intimate. Film reviewers rarely have personal contact with the movie actors, writers, and directors whose work they discuss and the distribution of thousands of prints of a film ensures that every town and publication will be part of a simultaneous, global response. A book also will have been widely distributed, nationally and internationally, and while reviewers and authors may know each other they are unlikely to regularly meet in foyers and in bistros the way reviewers and theatre workers habitually do.

This personal encounter is often difficult. After all these are real people being scrutinised in live performance, not images on celluloid or words on a page. A film actor is already on to the next project when the movie is released, the author can also take to the hills when the reviews come. But the actor has to return to the stage again that night, and tomorrow, and for the rest of the season. Many describe the impact of negative reviews as like going into shock. Many more steadfastly avoid reading them at all.

Some theatre companies are mindlessly opportunist about criticism. It is a Broadway and Shaftesbury Avenue convention to cite favourable reviews extensively as part of a show’s publicity. This is the up-side of the make-or-break principle (a notion I shall return to presently). But in smaller cities and provincial centres the citing of positive critical opinions can verge on the hypocritical when they come from reviewers who are poorly regarded generally and derided when they are negative. It is a disturbing phenomenon when the reckless and vindictive critic is suddenly embraced when a favourable notice appears- as if to suggest that intemperence is a proof of integrity and approval is a special measure of regard. It is certainly true that nobody likes a bad review and a good review is welcome from anyone. It is only human nature, to be sure, but the reflexive response to approval turns reviewers cynical in fairly short order.

The notion of the reviewer as unreliable publicist, or as tipster for the uncertain punter, is one widely held by companies and audience alike. The fact that many reviewers do little more than serve either or both of these functions doesn’t help. It is of course part of the business of reviewing that potential audiences will take soundings from their printed or broadcast opinions but it is also important to acknowledge that the dialogue between audience/reviewer and the production is much more complicated than that.

The protocols of reviewing are curious when you think about them. Companies provide free tickets, the best in the house, to critics who then will write freely of their opinions no matter how painful that might be to the collective ego of the production. It is a tribute to the courage of theatre workers that they let this be so. What, you might ask, is in it for them ? Is this a curious game of double-or-nothing. If the verdict is approving the box office flourishes like blooms in spring rain, if not an annihilating scourge is unleashed.

I don’t believe this often happens in Australia but there are instances of critics in London and New York wielding such power. The influence of New York Times critic Frank Rich has been considerable and indeed the first night party waiting for the notices is a Broadway convention. But for massive profits to be made, a hit show requires a lengthy season and relatively little competition. It is part of the Darwinian nature of things that only a few will survive. It could be argued that the task of winnowing is handed to reviewers in the absence of any other way of shortening the competition. My point is that there are other ends served when critics have such power. I don’t believe that the readership bestows it upon them since they, that is, we, decode our reviews in complex ways. We all make continuing inferences from the byline. We know who to trust and when not to. A negative response may be used, conveniently, to confirm a judgement we had already made not to attend. And history is rich with works which all the critical ardour possible could not convert to box office success.

It is clear that reviews can be damaging. They can dampen expectation, they can delay the countervailing influence of word of mouth- but they don’t destroy an event unless there is some other editorial perversity also occurring. Every now and then there is an open outbreak of hostilities and the old chestnut of critical vandals returns. The ban imposed in 1991 by Carrillo Gantner, artistic director of Melbourne’s Playbox Theatre against The Bulletin reviewer Alison Croggan was a spirited example of frustration for companies, and judging by the reply from Croggan, and Bulletin arts editor Diana Simmonds, for critics as well.

The stand-off prompted debate in The Bulletin and in June 1991 The Sunday Age printed a round-up of views on the make-or-break power of reviews. Various walking wounded were identified. John Powers described his retreat from playwrighting after attacks on his play Shindig in the mid-Seventies. Others also can be cited. Michael Gow was injured by the response to his high profile State Theatre Company production, 1841, in the Adelaide Festival. Stephen Sewell has spoken out when his work has been dispraised. Even a writer as established and apparently invincible as David Williamson has been known to fax reviewers before opening night asking for a fair go.

It is worth noting that the tenor of arts criticism in Australia reflects that of the European and North American press. The styles of Tynan, but more particularly the Algonquin banter of Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woolcott have entered theatre mythology everywhere. The damaging bon mot, the acid quip are a subspecies of entertainment itself. Charles Marowitz describes this as the critic as sit-down comedian. Many columnists still model themselves on this kind of writing, perpetuating the critic as dandy. Monty Woolley in a spotted bow tie- disparaging, conservative and desperately world weary.

For many editors this makes good copy. Readers are so unused to the expression of strong opinions (Australian libel laws make sure of that) that the only frisson is to be found in the arts and entertainment gossip and in reviews of shows they’ll never see but whose reputation is easily slighted. Most of the time this state of affairs is tolerated. But every now and then it rankles and often frustration turns to the wrong target, or at least an arbitrary one. This has to do with the lack of diversity in reviews, and the fact that they are often few in number anyway. Then any single review carries disproportionate weight and its impact can be unfairly influential.

But lurking further below all this is the recognition that we don’t have a vibrant critical climate. The quality magazines, the literate column writing, the pleasures of exacting discussion are not an enduring part of Australian life. We don’t have that valuable middle ground, the accessible intelligence of The New Republic, The New Yorker, The New York and London Reviews of Books, Time Out, The Village Voice, and so on. There are important pockets here- Peter Browne’s Editions, The Independent, 24 Hours, Meanjin, Island under the excellent stewardship of Cassandra Pybus, The Adelaide and Sydney Reviews, not to forget the consolidation of the Review section in The Australian and elsewhere. But these ventures struggle against the juggernauts of mass magazines and tabloid television which keep their arts commentary pretty much down to celebrity profiles or undisguised promotion. Vogue does more, so does Rolling Stone, but pick up say, Vanity Fair on a good day, and you see what we are missing.

The strengthening of this reading culture which is fuelled by the arts and academic community, but is not the property of either, is what will sustain and enhance critical interchange. It is the loam from which our writing and commentary must come. And the more it does, the sooner the present brittleness and triviality will disappear or at least cease to dominate.

Meanwhile there are some hard realities to consider. The most comprehensive reviewing is still performed by daily newspapers who have the resources to cover a wide range of activity and the frequency of publication to respond quickly. But while newspapers have the reach they do not have the depth. Reviews, particularly of performances, rarely exceed five hundred words and a great many are nearer three hundred. The arts pages are full of colour profiles and tie-ins with opening nights but the response to the work itself is often peremptory, quirky, and never detailed.

This only intensifies the glibness of response, confining comments to telegraphic brevity and brutal oversimplification. It is here that misunderstandings occur and injustices are done. It is also compounded by sub-editors who treat reviews like news stories. They edit for the spine of the piece- is it favourable or not ? Having established that, most qualificatory or meditative comment is removed as being mere prevarication. Any reviewer for newspapers will have experienced seeing their comments more baldly expressed than they wrote them. They will also have seen what were intended as mordant asides suddenly yanked from their context to serve as pugnacious headlines. It is does not do to be over-sensitive about such things in the boisterous world of journalism- and most regular reviewers accept these approximations stoically- but it comes like a bolt from hell to the theatre company and one might ask whether other public issues and individuals are treated quite so cavalierly.

So what do we need ? What should be happening ? Paradoxically we need to recover as much as we need to invent. George Bernard Shaw may still have as much to teach us as anyone else. We certainly need a greater profusion, and with that one hopes greater quality of commentary. We need longer reviews- not always, but more often. This would better acknowledge the complexity of the task. More space certainly places a clearer obligation on critics to explain what they mean. The hit and run tactic of the three hundred word review, the one sentence per paragraph cobbling of superficial description and scattered quips that is the common currency might be called to account.

Of course, the skillful short review can be as elegant and insightful as a sonnet when Michael Billington or others turn their hands to the job. So let those be the models, not the degenerating illiteracy of the well-meaning, never-had-a-lesson- in-my-life form of reviewing that characterises the worst of the dailies and their mutant doubles, the street and giveaway community papers.

We also need much more reviewing. Not only of theatre but of products, of the media, of our public institutions. We need to value public debate much more and set higher expectations for what that might mean. We have endless amounts of random opinion but little that is interactive and even less that pays the reader some respect for intelligence and articulacy. The level of public discussion is fairly moronic and there are plenty of reasons for thinking it will become more so. If the information superhighway is the way to go then we have to learn to change lanes and make U-turns otherwise the technology will only reinforce the collective servility to the collective half-idea.

Reviewing has to be informed, readable, stimulating- and in diverse supply. The disappointment and frustration for a theatre company may not be a crappy review but no review at all. Or so few that a range of opinions can’t be heard. No reviewer can embrace all the issues, besides they will inevitably write from their history, ideology and so on. There are commmon complaints that reviewers are white, middle-aged males despite the fact that there are many women publishing regularly and an increasing number of younger reviewers with political, multicultural and environmental perspectives.

With the nexus between critical approval and subsidy funding at the forefront of the minds of theatre companies the pressure on reviewers is greater than ever. Or so it seems. It is more than twenty-five years since Peter Brook, in The Empty Space, warned against the Deadly Theatre and its fellow traveller, the Deadly Critic. But never were the two phenomena more in evidence than currently. If there is a lack of invention in theatre, if everything is retread of a retread, if old-style show business looms too large over the landscape, then these are things that need to be said. Reviewers don’t help the situation by conspiring with mediocrity or by perpetuating a kind of infinite relativism. There is a need to look about the terrain more often, to give direction, share with the reader the breadth of the critic’s (generously subsidised) experience. That means that reviewers can’t forever burrow into the task in hand without providing some context and perspective.

It is the not the business of reviewers to be belligerent and belittling but there is a need for candour and directness. The message may not be welcomed, it may well be actively resisted, but often it is the times when it hardest to draw the line that reviewers get most confirmation from audiences, peers, and even- somewhat further down the line- from the companies and artists themselves. It is often suggested that critics should be more involved with productions, attend rehearsals, discuss objectives with the companies and writers directly. Some of this often happens anyway since reviewers are very often arts journalists as well. But it is not especially desirable. Critics don’t need any more incorporation into the event than they already have. They also have the task of sitting in the stalls on the night and calling it how they see it from there. In robust times this is how it works. If the times are not robust they will not become more so by special pleading or pretending things are better than are. Especially since it is not perplexing innovation which besets the regular reviewer, it is conservative and unimaginative repertoire. Good reviewers are rarely reactionary. They are more likely to err in favour of the new. After all, no-one wants to be like Clement Scott on Ibsen, or be the one to boo the Rite of Spring.

One of the catastrophes which besets our planet at present is the loss of species. And it is also true of the cultural landscape. The state of theatre reviewing does not require what Carlyle used to call The One Thing Needful. We need more writing and a variety of it. We need difference and the expression of that difference. We need a richer analytic language, that acknowledges the impact of postmodern theory without being deluged by it. We need a clearer sense of the politics of cultural expression, tolerance of opposing views as well as vigorous disagreement. What we don’t need is monochrome politeness, or I-know-what-I-like Grundyism.

Because the dialogue the reviewer and the performance is really that between the audience and the work, criticism has to be engaged. It has to be about things that matter. The discourse has to include audiences and acknowledge their reality and their knowledge. If the language and assumptions of criticism are excluding and elitist then we are left with a very dry argument. We should aspire, I think, to the condition of sport. There the instincts and passions of the audience interact confidently with commentary and the event itself. No-one agonises about a lack of expertise, no-one defers to official views and druidic explainers.

We must not despair of such a resumption of dialogue between the theatre and its audience, it is neither idealistic nor falsely populist to expect it. Shaw expected it as matter of course. If our Nineties cannot reivigorate our cultural conversations even more effectively then we just have to keep talking until it happens.

Meanjin 3/ 1994, Spring, pp.447-454.

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