Culture: Nicholas de Jongh sets himself up for a dramatic fall
Sunday 02 March 2008
What possesses a drama critic to write a play? It is one thing for a book reviewer to turn his hand to fiction — it happens all the time — but in the theatrical world such role reversals have been virtually unheard of since George Bernard Shaw gave up his day job at the
Dustin Hoffman summed up the attitude of actors towards critics when he said, "If my son was arrested for murder, I'd say 'I still love you.' If my daughter became a lesbian, I'd say, 'Whatever makes you happy, dear.' But if either of them became a critic, I'd say, 'Woah, have you really thought this through?'"
On Friday, Nicholas de Jongh, the chief drama critic of London's Evening Standard (pictured), braved the judgment of his colleagues when he unveiled a play at the Finborough Theatre in Earls Court. Called Plague Over England, its subject is John Gielgud's arrest and conviction for cottaging in 1953.
This is a particularly risky thing for de Jongh to do, since he has enjoyed a reputation as one of Britain's most waspish theatre reviewers for over 25 years. "Am I afraid of the critics?" he wrote last month. "Well, yes, of course."
De Jongh isn't alone: 35 years ago, Irving Wardle wrote a play called The Houseboy while a critic at The Times and, more recently, I wrote three plays while working as a theatre reviewer for The Spectator.
Why would someone embark on such a foolhardy venture? Part of the reason is the simple desire to express yourself. George Hook's quote about a journalist in politics – "eunuch in a brothel" – goes double for drama critics. But if you have any ambition as a writer, you cannot sit in judgment on others' plays without being tempted to have a go yourself.
There is also an element of atonement. After years of hurling brickbats from the stalls, you begin to feel guilty. It doesn't seem fair that you should be able to dish it out night after night without ever having to take it. There is only one sure way to make amends for such behaviour: put yourself in the same position as your victims.
Of course, that doesn't mean you want your colleagues to pour vitriol on your head. At the time of writing, I haven't seen any of the reviews for de Jongh's play, but I hope he doesn't suffer as much as I did during my last outing as a playwright in 2006. I can still recite the most damning verdict from memory: "Few shows of such embarrassing, authorial ineptitude can have hit the London stage since the Blitz."
Needless to say, the critic in question was Nicholas de Jongh.
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