Critics: hunks or halfwits?

Why are critics portrayed as handsome hunks in Hollywood films but seedy creeps on the stage?
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The Independent Culture

You don't expect to turn up at the theatre and see a bunch of critics on the stage, but that's the fate of audiences planning to visit the new double-bill of Sheridan's The Critic and Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester.

Both of these plays – last paired at the National Theatre 25 years ago – indulge the popular idea of critics: in the Sheridan, Dangle and Sneer are supercilious half-wits who break butterflies on wheels; in the Stoppard, Moon and Birdboot are craven nonentities whose delusions of participation come hilariously alive.

And each critical couple represents opposite preconceptions of critics, as privileged flaneurs in a society of frank cultural exchanges and as sad losers traipsing around in creased trousers, their turn-ups stuffed with ticket stubs. The latter image was bitterly evoked by playwright Martin Crimp in his version of Molière's The Misanthrope, in which a vainglorious poet is re-cast as a creepy critic called Covington, a nominal amalgam of myself and the head theatre honcho on The Guardian.

Stoppard worked briefly as a critic himself, which is why his satire is so scathing. Moon is always groping for subtexts, while Birdboot is groping (in his own mind, at least) for the actresses. And even the absurd conspiracy theory pierces the dull uniformity of most critical writing these days: "Me and the lads have had a meeting in the bar and decided it's first-class family entertainment but if it goes on beyond half-past ten it's self indulgent... "

In Hollywood, they do things differently: drama critics are played by the biggest and best-looking stars: George Sanders as the poisonous but stylish Addison DeWitt in All About Eve; Cary Grant as the smoothly investigative Mortimer Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace; and David Niven as the charming socialite Larry McKay in Please Don't Eat the Daisies.

Dammit, even Henry Fonda played a critic on stage (Parker Ballantine was loosely based on the real-life critic Walter Kerr) in Ira Levin's Critic's Choice, caught on the horny dilemma of amorous intrigue and having to review a rotten play written by his wife. Most famously of all, the New Yorker critical wit Alexander Woollcott inspired the character of Sheridan Whiteside in George S Kaufman and Moss Hart's The Man Who Came to Dinner – and played the role himself on a national tour.

The only postwar British critic to tick any of these boxes of glamour, style, coruscating wit and literary pre-eminence was Kenneth Tynan, who has been represented on the London stage at least three times – but not to his advantage.

The fawning, stage-struck side of his nature was exposed in Janet Munsil's Smoking with Lulu, in which Tynan (well played by Peter Eyre) tracked an ageing Louise Brooks to her lair for a New Yorker profile. Then, five years ago, the late Corin Redgrave played the epicene spanker in a solo show based on Tynan's diaries, another reduction, but beautifully observed, with full attention paid to Tynan's emaciated physicality in later life.

In the same year, 2005, the National mounted a stage version of Theatre of Blood, in which the critics are picked off, one by one, by grudge-bearing thespians. This time, Tynan, Laurence Olivier's literary manager in the glory days of the National at the Old Vic, was identifiable as a po-faced pontificator, disaffected with the incoming National regime of Peter Hall in the new building.

Playwrights from Shaw in Fanny's First Play to N F Simpson in A Resounding Tinkle have always had fun with the pomposity and wrong-headedness of critics. No-one enjoys these broadsides more than the critics themselves, who must always cling to the idea that what they do is valuable. But what did Christopher Hampton say when asked about critics? "You may as well ask a lamp-post what it thinks about dogs." Woof woof.

'The Critic' and 'The Real Inspector Hound', Minerva Theatre, Chichester (01243 781312) to 28 August