Arts: It is the critics, not the actors, who must change

Simon Callow
Friday 04 September 1998 23:02 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


CRITICS. EVEN as I write the word, a sort of hopelessness spreads over me, an inner voice whispers: "You can't win this one."

At the beginning of one's career (and in some cases, at the beginning, in the middle and at the end), one is so shocked by the whole phenomenon of criticism as it is practiced - the cavalier judgements, the slipshod reporting, the personal animus, the power of life and death over a show or an exhibition or a career - that one's instinct is to fight back, to have a show-down, to scotch the lie.

Letters to the editor follow, and are sometimes published; interviews are given in which the artist's pain is expressed; in some cases, retaliatory action is attempted.

In every case, the effect is wholly counter-productive. When the critic of a Sunday paper devoted a whole paragraph of his vitriolic review of my production of My Fair Lady to my arrogance and lack of psychological insight by re-arranging the order of numbers in the score, I wrote a mild letter pointing out that the sequence was the standard sequence. The critic in question wrote one sentence by way of reply: "I could have cried all night."

So I was now doubly in the wrong: making a fuss about nothing, and unable to take a joke. The critical response to criticism is always measured: the critic was simply expressing his opinion. To the challenge that some degree of expertise, some understanding of the matter in hand, might be appropriate, there is always the answer that the critic is the representative of the man or woman in the street, on whose behalf he or she is sending a report.

This is particularly true of drama critics, for whom there appears to be no qualification whatever. It is generally assumed that music critics have some training in music, some capacity to perform it or analyse it technically, but this is not the case with drama critics, most of whom have neither acted, nor directed nor even so much as attended a rehearsal.

Happy metier! - in which you may say anything you like with absolute impunity. Pontius Pilate is their patron saint; quod scripsi scrisum their motto: what I have written, I have written.

Does it matter? Is it not all part of the rough and tumble of what will always - we hope - be a controversial business? And was it not ever thus?

Well, no, actually, it was once different, and the difference is the key to the changes that have overcome all the performing arts in this century. In a world in which audiences have lost all contact with the performance or creation of art themselves, they depend greatly on expert opinion - but the more this has become the case, the less expert the reviews and the more purely opinionated.

Criticism has become the performing flea of journalism, an outlet for the prejudices of the critic, expressed in verbal cadenzas designed only to parade his or her coruscating brilliance; the work under review is the merest occasion for this exercise.

This is not to say that the judgement is necessarily wrong: for the most part critics are intelligent, often highly committed people. But the substance of their reviews is rarely concerned with the specifics of the performance or production, and largely filled with general adjectival elaborations - superb, exquisite, heavy-handed, dull - of the simple proposition "I liked it" or "I loathed it."

The result is that there is no longer any record of performance. Just as the art of theatrical portraiture - with the charming and very useful exception of William Hewison's cartoons in The Times - has died, the art of verbal reporting has disappeared.

Theatre and dance remain ephemeral arts; the tradition can only be passed on by direct accounts, written or oral. I don't simply want to know whether Ian McKellen was good or bad as Dr Stockmann; I want to know what he did, how he attacked the part, what physical life he gave to it, how he stretched his own resources, what new dimension he brought to our understanding of the role.

It is here too that the other crucial contribution of criticism is failing: the maintenance of standards. Hyperbolic reviewing, in which everything is either heaven or hell, has helped to create a great confusion both within the profession and in the public: things that are quite ordinary are acclaimed as great; things that are flawed but fascinating are denounced as bad. The theatre will, in the end, only ever be as good as its audience, and the critical discourse is central to what the audience brings with it to the performance.

The art of theatre-going needs to be rediscovered, and a new criticism must be an essential element of that rediscovery.

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