Vengeful, moi?

The relationship between artist and critic is a delicate one, fraught with mutual need and, frequently, mutual disgust. And sometimes it turns really nasty. As the National revives the gory revenge drama 'Theatre of Blood' - in which an outraged thespian visits a terrible comeuppance on his judges - Paul Taylor watches and winces from his seat in the stalls
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The Independent Culture

Artists aren't, by and large, saints. And nor are reviewers. So it's a rare and unusual practitioner who has not wanted, at some stage, to show his or her undying appreciation of the critical community by energetic recourse to such stratagems as, ooh, murder, prolonged public torture, televised humiliation, branding, reduction to penury, or gelding - to name only the more sociable of these tit-for-tat devices. On the receiving end of a devastating review, the artist or performer has a number of ticklish options. The dignified silence of Olympian superiority is perhaps the safest bet, but there's always the danger that, well, the silence will not be heard, especially by the culprit. The private note of wounded, magisterial remonstrance to the errant reviewer is always a possibility, but there is, naturally, the attendant risk that the missive will go unanswered or be framed and hung as a tittered-over trophy in the offender's loo.

Artists aren't, by and large, saints. And nor are reviewers. So it's a rare and unusual practitioner who has not wanted, at some stage, to show his or her undying appreciation of the critical community by energetic recourse to such stratagems as, ooh, murder, prolonged public torture, televised humiliation, branding, reduction to penury, or gelding - to name only the more sociable of these tit-for-tat devices. On the receiving end of a devastating review, the artist or performer has a number of ticklish options. The dignified silence of Olympian superiority is perhaps the safest bet, but there's always the danger that, well, the silence will not be heard, especially by the culprit. The private note of wounded, magisterial remonstrance to the errant reviewer is always a possibility, but there is, naturally, the attendant risk that the missive will go unanswered or be framed and hung as a tittered-over trophy in the offender's loo.

The public j'accuse stand is a braver tactic - one that was exemplified by David Hare when he took on the monopolistic might of the New York Times's then critic, Frank "Butcher of Broadway" Rich in an open letter of rebuke for the latter's slamming review of the playwright's production of The Secret Rapture. The hazard with this approach is that the artist will let himself become too inflated with self-righteousness and weaken his argument by giving hostages to fun-loving fortune. In theory, Hare's attack on the over-concentration of power in the New York critical world was, and remains, admirable. In practice, though, it veered into mild absurdity. Rich was resoundingly informed that it was his duty to help preserve the status of the straight play on Broadway (a view that is arguably true); what was less convincing was the implication that this axiomatically involved being nice to any new work by David Hare.

There's still another, admittedly more time-consuming, but perhaps ultimately more satisfying method whereby dramatists, poets, novelists and painters can wreak the right kind of revenge on reviewers. This involves creating a self-standing work of art that specifically takes the critics to task. It's a ruse that may, if necessary, be confined to one compelling detail. For instance, when the Royal Court staged Cleansed, Sarah Kane's follow-up to her notorious Bosnia-bursts-into-a-Leeds-hotel-room debut play Blasted, it did not go unnoticed that the sadistic research doctor in the dystopian asylum for social undesirables rejoiced in the name of Tinker. This just happens to be the appellation of the then happily flourishing but now deceased Daily Mail theatre critic Jack Tinker, who had led the headline-grabbing, Newsnight-traversing, hue-and-cry against Blasted. It was a case of naming and (wishfully) shaming.

At the opposite end of the scale, a retaliatory artwork can go to the juicy lengths of dramatising, and revelling in, the protracted, fraught fantasy of practitioners achieving spectacular and systematic vengeance on the critical community.

At the National Theatre right now, the improvisation-based company Improbable are rehearsing a stage adaptation of Theatre of Blood. The original 1973 comic-horror flick starred Vincent Price as Edward Lionheart, an old ham of the sub-Donald Wolfit school. When he's denied the Best Actor gong at the Critics' Circle Awards, this barking thesp exploits a failed suicide bid and then returns as the gory nemesis of the reviewers, who are murdered in turn, each death in the manner of a shocking comeuppance in Shakespeare. There is a queasy re-enactment, for example, of the progeny-pie consumed by the hero in Titus Andronicus when Robert Morley's gourmand critic chokes to death while guzzling a pastry which incorporates his pampered pet poodles.

The theatrical adaptation retains the basic premise (Lionheart is now played by the incomparable Jim Broadbent), the ghoulish humour and the same 1973 setting. But in the reworked version, apart from a whole new piquant dimension that cannot be revealed until opening night, the material is pushed to accommodate a genuinely interesting, witty, and open-minded discussion of the troubled relationship between artist (or in this case artiste) and reviewer. It's alert to all the contradictions that hover round the area. For example, Edward Lionheart is confronted with the whopping inconsistency in his murderous concept: if he doesn't have a scrap of respect for the critics, why on earth is he so violently piqued at not winning the Critics' Circle Award?

The advent of Theatre of Blood: Mark Two prompts a consideration of this whole intriguing genre of biter-bit art: a genre which stretches across poetry (such as Pope's Dunciad and Byron's English Bards and Scotch Reviewers), visual art (one thinks of the unsettling case of Ron Kitaj's The Killer-Critic Assassinated by His Widower, Even), novels (with particularly strong instances in Philip Roth's The Anatomy Lesson and John Updike's Bech at Bay) and a whole raft of plays (from Tom Stoppard's Real Inspector Hound through David Hare's Amy's View to Conor McPherson's wonderfully funny and strangely magnanimous St Nicholas, a piece which provided a great solo turn for Brian Cox). The higher incidence of stage works may stem from the simple social fact that, given the nature of first nights, playwrights find themselves in the same space as the "enemy" far more often than other artists. Director Dominic Dromgoole, who himself turned savage critic as the author of The Full Room - a breathtakingly frank and rollicking survey of contemporary drama - once said to me: "You know, I have very good friends from school days and over the last 15 years, I've seen more of you than I have them..."

So what differentiates a really effective and worthwhile example of this kind of revenge comedy from one that miscalculates or, aiming at high dudgeon, achieves only the dudgeon without the height? To be sure, there's no formula, but when you survey the field, it's possible to detect certain principles. I'd say that the bad examples fail to make a basic distinction. It's all too patently true that being a critic can do dreadful things to the person who makes it a career. A life spent passing judgement - while never putting remotely as much of yourself on the line as artists do - is not calculated to improve the soul and is certainly a stiff test of character (and, occasionally, of forebearance: I was once punched by an actress's agent in retaliation for a harsh review). But criticism itself is vital as a practice. Without it, we would be at the mercy of money-mad hype. And ironically that would end up being bad for the arts because there would be a complete breakdown of trust. As one of the critics in the new Theatre of Blood shrewdly notes: "If we didn't exist, theatre managers would have to invent us."

It follows that the funniest and deepest of these revenge scenarios combine a headlong zest for retribution with a recognition that critics cannot easily be written off and indeed can sometimes (damn and blast them) be right. "Bech Noir", one of the stories in Updike's Bech at Bay, is a darkly hilarious novelist's equivalent of Theatre of Blood. Abetted by his much younger, nubile lover, Bech, the 74-year-old Jewish author-protagonist, embarks on a spree of killing hostile reviewers, using such arms-length tactics as poisoned glue on the stamped addressed envelope included in a supposed and pseudonymous fan letter, to the subliminal messages urging suicide that flash from the deviously doctored computer.

The buzz that Bech gets from this critical culling is infectious (and gives Updike the chance to cock a smartly cynical eye on the online literary world). But by the time he winds up in a Batman outfit (don't ask) and invades the flat and the final hours of Orlando Cohen, the seriously ancient critic who put his finger on Bech's Achilles heel, the mood is a tad more ambivalent. The asphyxiating critic wants to die. The affronted writer will be doing him a good turn. But Bech declines to deliver the coup de grâce, and his motivation is left uncertain. Is it because by not doing so he achieves consummate revenge? Or is it because he cannot murder a man who is, at some level he needs to acknowledge, the potentially salutary personification of his own deepest self-doubts?

There's a similar enriching penumbra of dubiety in Philip Roth's The Anatomy Lesson. His alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, baits Milton Appel, a fictionalised version of the author's own critical bête noire, Irving Howe. Howe's 1973 post-Portnoy reconsideration of Roth had accused him of being a shallow, vulgar, anti-Semitic traitor to the Jewish immigrant tradition celebrated in Howe's own study, World of Our Fathers. In the retaliatory novel, Appel (aka Howe) is rumbustiously slammed and apostrophised as "Milton Appel, the Charles Atlas of Goodness! Oh, the comfort of that difficult role! And how you play it! Even a mask of modesty to throw us dodos off the track! I am a 'case'. I have a 'career', you of course have a calling - President of the Rabbinical Society for the Suppression of Laughter in the Interest of Loftier Values!" There is a very funny sequence where Zuckerman, during a plane flight, calls himself Milton Appel and deliberately informs a fellow passenger that he is the editor of a pornographic magazine. And Roth, one of the great hit-back artists of our time, levitates to a rhetorical rhapsody of revenge. But again there's a strong sense that the enemy is a kind of distorted image of the artist's most scrupulous self.

The unfortunate instances tend to be those which take it as read that there is nothing to be said in favour of critics - and, by false extension, of criticism. David Hare, the author of a wonderfully insightful and empathetic review of Kenneth Tynan's Diaries, tends to be summarily dismissive of contemporary reviewers on a damned-if-they-do-damned-if-they-don't basis. You would think, reading his discursive prose that ipso facto a critic cannot either like or dislike anything in good faith. For example, in a memoir entitled Acting Up, he complains that those reviewers who praised Via Dolorosa, his one-man show about a trip to Israel, were attempting to atone for their previous dislike for The Judas Kiss, his unsuccessful play about Oscar Wilde.

This is, in fact, an intellectually and spiritually vacuous position. And the worst thing that it does is damage to Hare's own art. His play Amy's View charts the changing fortunes of a West End actress and her daughter, the state of the nation and the status of the theatre. To her family's horror, the daughter Amy marries Dominic, a go-getting critic whose luck moves in the opposite direction. The trouble with the characterisation is that, though in true Shavian fashion Hare dutifully gives the enemy some telling perceptions, Dominic is not allotted any real redeeming features. He manages to be crassly insensitive and to deliver unspeakable dialogue. ("Painters! Writers! Musicians! Truly the A-list. I'm not boasting. I'm not. We don't even have to approach them. Really. You'd be astonished. We've reached the point where nearly always they approach us.")

Dominic voices the trendy and shallow distaste for theatre that was constantly surfacing in newspaper columns in the 1990s. Hare, though, slides over the fact that these attacks were mostly made not by career critics but by estimable novelists like Martin Amis, Gilbert Adair and Sebastian Faulks. The actress-mother ranged against a theatre-hating but admired fiction writer - now that would have been an interesting opposition. Also, when Dominic turns film-maker, it would have been artistically magnanimous of Hare to let that movie be good and thereby allow his play to dismantle the lazy cliché that critics are failed, resentful artists. Instead, we are given to understand that the ex-hack's flick is a standard piece of fashionable violence-worship.

We all like to see a critic get a taste of his or her own medicine (even critics do - it is not, after all, a profession noted for its lack of one-upmanship merchants). But it won't do to suggest that by virtue (if that's the right word) of being a critic, the individual is automatically discredited. Audiences sniff out the bad faith of this. At Theatre of Blood, they will get an authentic cut-and-thrust. As Improbable's Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson reveal, their show is not so much hoveringly ambivalent as red-bloodedly in two minds - "at one moment completely on the side of the actor, and the next completely on the side of the critics."

My last example is from real life, but it's instructive because you'd swear it had been devised by a devilishly clever author. After giving Tracey Emin a thorough pasting in the The Independent ("Is it possible to be a conceptual artist and also very stupid... There's no hope for Tracey Emin."), the critic, columnist and, of course, novelist, Philip Hensher found himself the victim of a running practical joke. He received a flurry of unsolicited junk mail, addressed to a Miss Phyllis Henshaw (sic) who, it seems, had ordered incontinence pads and china figurines of Peter Rabbit and munificently offered to house a retired racehorse. No necessary connection with the Brit Art butt of his strictures; but then in an interview in The Observer, Emin fumed about "being slagged off by people whose mortgage I'm paying... Someone on The Independent called me a 'retard', which really wound me up. I responded, I'm not saying how, but I totally responded." With anonymous orders for tat? Hensher mused about the possibility of that in a subsequent Spectator piece - stinging Emin (aghast at the idea that she might be homophobic or prepared to stoop to such low methods) to thoughts of suing for defamation of character and taking out an injunction.

The situation is a trove of delicious comedy. There's the exquisite condescension of Emin's tactical treatment of Hensher - the high-minded litterateur and unapologetic polymath - as just another parasitic hack who feeds off people like her to make ends meet. There's the farce of the mutual accusations that each was unhealthily obsessed with the other. There's the fact that the man wearing the critical hat is goaded into provoking a scenario where the derided artist can appear to be injured and take the moral high ground. The presumably still-undetected person who incited the junk mail is a dramatic genius.

Hensher ended up vowing that "I have no intention of going near [Emin] or writing a word about her ever again." One hopes that he will think better of this self-denying ordinance and return to the fray, for his stance mars the perfection of the story. In the finest revenge-against-critics scenarios, it is left stimulatingly moot which party can claim to have had the last word. *

'Theatre of Blood': NT Lyttelton, London SE1 (020 7452 3000), from 9 May

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