Refreshing the art of the common man

Light Fantastic by John Lahr, Bloomsbury, pounds 20 The Stations of the Sun Ronald Hutton Oxford pounds 19.99
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The Independent Culture
In 1992 John Lahr was invited to become the drama critic of the New Yorker magazine; Light Fantastic is a selection of his articles, reviews, essays and obituaries published there over the last few years. The poet James Fenton, before he took up the post of drama critic to the Sunday Times, had the wisdom and humility to prepare himself for his new task (he had been a foreign correspondent) by asking his friends in the theatre for tips on what pitfalls to avoid in his new job. One actress advised him, whatever else, to give it up after two years at most. Her advice sprang from a common, and all too frequently apt, perception of the theatre critic as a jaded aggrieved individual, whose work has to be produced nightly and hastily, and it often shows. In addition, the critic's meagre allotment of column inches must be taken into account - the great American critic Stark Young (an actor's critic if ever there was one) resigned his post when he found his space being squeezed.

John Lahr's conditions of employment are superior, which is one reason why they repay reproduction in book form. His editor feels, as Lahr does, that the theatre is important. He is afforded the luxury of space both on the page and across the globe. He lives in London but covers productions on Broadway as well, and in Dublin and Stockholm too. He may also enjoy the luxury of time, since some of these pieces chart the progress of a particular production, or series of productions.

Lesser critics often labour under a greater handicap than the confinements of space and time, which is not knowing a great deal about acting or directing or being able to distinguish which is which. It was Stark Young (writing in the New Republic in the 1920s) who pointed out that because, of all the arts, "acting is the closest of all things to the common man", it is the art on which everyone considers themselves experts. But in Young's view acting calls for as much study as painting or music: "One must have seen it often and intelligently, have endured boredom and ecstasy, have made comparisons through experience and repetition, have formed in one's mind ideals and models of what one thinks admirable".

Genuine enthusiasts are always engaging.Lahr comes from a theatrical background. He is steeped in the theatre but saturation has not led to satiety. He cares about his subject and his fascination and his exhilaration are catching. "I want the reader to know more about the event than just what I think about it" he states in his Introduction. This refreshing notion is rounded out by his belief that the critic is a collaborator with the makers: "They have made a metaphor; and it's my job to interpret it and to make connections to the world we bustle in." This idea of fruitful two-way nourishment and instruction lifts the heart.

Thus, in each piece, he may be severe or agog, pleased or put off, but as he examines the work of the personality in question and offers his opinion, we are treated to an additional dole of background information. This may include not just the history and origins of the work, the life of the author or the method of the performer, but the views and aims expressed by the participants. This is extra knowledge - not often to be found in ephemeral reviews - which feeds Lahr's continual absorbed and often exuberant analysis of his subject and deepens our understanding. As I read, I found my own response to some of the performances discussed, retrospectively clarified, challenged, reinforced, undermined, but always enriched. I was also made to reconsider my own stale views of performers, playwrights and productions. Lahr is not only knowledgeable, he also writes with enviable vividness and perception. In his obituary of Max Wall, for example ("The Monkey King of Comedy"), he mentions Wall's "new set of false teeth, which made the smile incandescent and alarming." He captures the man and the artist in a phrase: "an isolated, sullen, feisty man who brought his sadness on stage and dumped the hostility that came with it hilariously in the audience's lap". He pinpoints with equal facility the elements of his working methods: "Wall's game was to relax the audience with sight gags and silliness, and then goose it with honesty".

Lahr, rightly, sees the theatre as an endangered species, places it, wonderfully, at the heart of the community it serves and writes of it, as he says, "with love and passion"; but this does not blind him to its shortcomings. In his book we meet entertainers from Barry Humphries and Peter Cook to Jackie Mason and Mort Sahl; playwrights as diverse as Wilde and Rattigan and Friel, Tennessee Williams and Alan Bennett; we revisit Rodgers and Hammerstein, pause to ponder Sondheim, be dismayed by Disney and discover Savion Glover and his magical world of earthy tap dancing. We scrutinise productions by Ingmar Bergman, Ariane Mnouchkine, Peter Brook, Stephen Daldry. My one quibble with this handsomely produced book is that the dates of each piece are not given.

In his Introduction, Lahr speaks of the critic's duty to "honor the craft", and this he does handsomely. Another critic, Eric Bentley, once defined excellence in criticism thus: "Nothing a critic has can open your eyes except his own eyes: he says, Look! and you look. Which sounds facile but is not. For you had failed to look, or had not looked with sufficient concentration and discrimination. A good critic will get you to do so." John Lahr does.