Thursday, 3 May 2018

In Defence of Criticism

In a recent twitter conversation, which examined the problems with a specific paragraph in a specific theatre review, the idea came up that the purpose of theatre criticism is to identify the intention of a work and comment on how effectively that had been realised in the production. While I agree that this is the purpose of theatre criticism, I'd like to develop the definition and suggest a few reasons why this might not always be the case. 

As a starter, I have to admit that this article will allude to other critics, but I only speak for myself. I am not naming names because it is just my opinion (unpick that, irony fans) and I don't want a flame war with other critics who might feel that any criticism of them is an attempt to make myself look good, which it would be.

Above all, I totally agree that the job of the critic is to review work on its own terms. A production of Long Day's Journey into Night does not depend on how hot the main actors are, or whether it is a feminist laugh-fest. A revival of a nineteenth century comedy of manners however, which announces itself as a feminist production, might justifiably be called out if the script has been rewritten by a man. That doesn't necessarily mean it fails as feminist work, but that is problematic.

However - the question of whether the artist has clearly expressed their intention is probably the biggest problem. Short of believing every word written in the press release, the intention of a production is mysterious until the final moments of the show. And if the artist messes up, it might be a week later when it becomes evident that the two second appearance of the ghost in the second art actually shifted the entire meaning. 

By extension, meaning itself is not simply an iteration of the artist's will. The medium has its own logic that dictate form and content and meaning. The easiest example of this is the political play that condemns the use of alcohol, but has a bar directly outside the auditorium and relies on the audience having a tipple in the interval. But certain genres have a language that will dictate the meaning - tragedy has a hard time with feminism (and I might develop that in a later article, but just trust me for the moment) and may undermine an intended meaning for another. 

And intention expressed may not be the only parameter of success: having a character walking about the stage shouting 'this play condemns the Conservative policy on immigration' makes the meaning explicit but fails on the whole 'subtle aesthetic' card. If the artist meant to blunt and obvious, and achieved it, does it matter that the experience of watching the production feels like a trip to the ninth circle? 

Then there is the question of the making of meaning: one thing I always feel is that the meaning itself comes from the moment of connection between art object and observer: the audience are co-creators of the experience. This is why I don't believe in objectivity: the critic always brings their personality into a review, because they are part of the creative team - as is every single audience member. It is worth remembering that judging a play is also an act of self-judgement. This might be why the previously mentioned agit-prop drama isn't likely to be much good. The lack of space for interpretation is also a lack of space for engagement with an audience. 

There are a few other spanners to throw in the works. What if the work intended to be obnoxious? What if it celebrates values that the reviewer finds objectionable? The Spectator frequently covers works that doesn't fit its conservative ideology. It generally has a crack at it on the grounds of political correctness - and the reviewers enjoy the hatchet-job a bit too much. But what if a play is deliberately racist? Can I say that its expression of the inferiority of Africans is eloquently expounded? And if I don't understand a play - is that the fault of the director or me? 

None of these are objections to the fundamental thesis that the purpose of the review is to critique on the terms of the work itself. They just allow a more nuanced appreciation of the process of meaning-making in theatre-criticism.

But now to the tough stuff. 

The 'opposite' of criticism is a consumer report. This is the reduction of a review to a simple 'is it any good?' without any other nuance. To be fair on the critics, in this case (which is the dominant mode for the review that can get the writer a bit of cash), the intended reader is the reader of the publication in which the review is published. A critic will likely play to the (assumed) prejudices of that demographic. In this context, a writer for The Telegraph won't be recommending the latest issue play about gender inequality (although, imho, the average Telegraph reader could do with seeing it). 

The reason for the preponderance of the consumer report is economic: plays and reviews are commodities, caught up in capitalism and attracting money. It cares not for the artistic aspirations of the playwright or choreographer but only for the money. It treats theatre like a washing machine: is this one going to do the job?

And so, the review is debased: but why does this happen? Space considerations, the financial value of printing a review: sometimes it might be that the printing of a review is only there to convince the theatre to take out advertising with the magazine, that they give a shit about theatre. But we all know the problems of the printed press: what about the complicity of the theatre community.

And. of course: star ratings. Who wants these? It's not the critics - they don't care, as long as they get paid. But once a star rating system is in use, the review will be a justification of the rating. Those reviews that have a three star but read like a four? Bad reviewing. 

But who wants star ratings? 

Who puts star ratings on their posters?

Who uses them as badges of approval?

Who takes the fancy quote from an otherwise moribund and ill-considered review and slaps it on the front of the theatre? 

Who retweets only the four stars reviews and up, and doesn't mention the well-crafted and thoughtful review that conforms to the principles of good criticism, but doesn't end with hearty approval?

But the same time: who is making an active effort to support those critics, like Lorna Irvine, who go out of their way to print their reviews on a blog, and do an amazing job, without pay, without thanks?

Who has ever said - I got two stars from Vile, but he is pretty fair about it?

Actually, a few people have done this, and they know how they are, and I thank them. I even thank those people who have called me out when I have been a dick about something - especially those who have done it quietly.

It's 2017: when was the last time that you chatted to a critic and had a good time? 


  1. Hey Gareth, I like what you wrote but I think you got the year a bit mixed up?

  2. That was there to check if people read to the end!

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