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Drama Criticism: The Old Age of an Age-Old Profession by Robert Brustein

Drama Criticism: The Old Age of an Age-Old Profession
by Robert Brustein

The Shakespeare Theatre’s decision to stage together two plays that touch on critical subjects—Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Critic and Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound—not only guarantees an evening of robust entertainment, but demonstrates how these issues keep recurring from one age to another.

People who judge the theatre have always been uneasy with one other. But in the long-running contention between the theatre reviewer and the drama critic, it is not often recognized that the two professionals are pursuing entirely separate paths. The reviewer is primarily interested in product, while the critic is more absorbed with process. The reviewer can turn out a notice between the falling of the curtain and the rising of the sun, while the critic normally has at least a week to revise, reenact, and redact first impressions.

As for the popular audience, it remains essentially produce-oriented, regarding theatre-going largely as a modern variant of bread and circuses—yeasty entertainment and aerial acrobatics. The relative indifference of the lay public to the process of artistic creation is perfectly comprehensible. Why should the average theatregoer be concerned with an author’s intentions, or how a play evolves, or where it fits in a creative career? The fact that the average price of a pair of orchestra seats can cost more than $400 discourages interest in anything other than pure unadulterated entertainment.

The necessity to change this system is one important reason why the previously subsidized, formerly not-for-profit theatre movement was created in this country during the ’50s and ’60s, partially under the auspices of the National Endowment for the Arts. The new system was intended not only to provide cities with a permanent resident company, whose progress and development could be observed over a period of time, but also to demonstrate that theatre had a purpose beyond the manufacture of hits and flops. Audiences would be more inclined to follow the progress of actors, watching their growth and development, and thus able to appreciate the importance of transformation from one role to another. As for the daily reviewers, they were being encouraged to evolve into repertory critics, assessing a whole season instead of a single play, considering the theatre itself as the work of art, and the audience (including those who evaluated it) as a part of the process. This meant breaking down the fourth wall, Pirandello-fashion, and sometimes drawing audiences onto the stage as if they were members of the cast.

Today, with the significant shrinking of subsidized support, almost all not-for-profit companies—San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, Providence’s Trinity Playhouse, and, of course, Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company being some significant exceptions—have abandoned that system in order to remount former Broadway hits or to try out New York-bound plays (with “enhancement money” from commercial producers), using stars imported from film or television. Naturally, daily reviewers have gone back to their old habits of identifying not the purpose of a theatre, or their own relationship to it, but rather what shows might bring in stacks of greenbacks and tons of Tonys.

One still hopes that those who sit in judgment on the theatre might feel a higher obligation to it than sniffing out goodies for visiting tourists and expense-account executives. Ah, but there has always been a distinction between the reviewer, who steers audiences towards shows thought worth the ticket price, and the critic, who is less concerned with sitting in judgment on a particular play than in trying to describe how it fits in a playwright’s artistic trajectory, in a company’s season, or in the history of dramatic literature.

Traditionally, the theatre reviewer worked for daily newspapers and popular magazines, while the drama critic wrote for highbrow weeklies and monthlies. Now most drama criticism—like the arts, like the humanities, indeed like higher culture in general—is becoming extinct. So are most of their print organs. A few glossies like The New Yorker and The New York Observer still cover plays. And a handful of discerning minds such as Michael Feingold and Jonathan Kalb are still functioning with distinction. But a more common development is that of The New Republic, which in its 100 year history featured such drama critics as Stark Young, Eric Bentley, Richard Gilman, Stanley Kauffmann, and myself, but has now turned into an instrument of the blogosphere, offering virtually no arts coverage whatsoever. “What is the future of the drama critic?” like “What is the future of the humanist?” is the kind of question one no longer asks. These extinct species have gone the way of the lava mouse and the triceratops.

If, in modern times, most reviewers are continuing to limit their daily workouts to thumb exercises, up or down, in the past, the process was different. In Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 18th century comedy, The Critic, for example, critical characters either try to make honest judgments or, like Puff, write commercials for half-baked plays (“the puff preliminary, the puff collateral, the puff collusive, the puff oblique, the puff by implication”). In time, Puff has managed to lend his name to the very concept of bloated praise.

But today puffery is no longer much of an issue. The question is not whether one overpraises or undervalues a play, though at some time all of us assuredly will do both, but rather how important praise or blame may be to the act of criticism in the first place. Obviously, any professional evaluating a show is obliged to express an opinion about it. But, historically, these quotes have proved the least enduring part of a review, even if such judgments are those most often seen on the sides of buses.

Critical judgments have usually proved to be the least reliable over a period of time. Apart from the more outrageous critical blunders—like the facile dismissal of Chekhov’s first Seagull production in St. Petersburg, the ludicrous rejection of Ibsen’s Ghosts as “a dirty act done publicly,” and Walter Kerr’s embarrassing back-of-the-hand to Waiting for Godot (“out of touch with the hearts and minds of the folks out front…in which nothing happens—twice”)—more discerning minds have often fumbled badly, too, in judging works of art.
As a drama critic, Bernard Shaw famously panned Oscar Wilde’s chef d’oeuvre, The Importance of Being Earnest, as leaving him with the sense of “having wasted an evening,” while Eric Bentley was equally indifferent to such late O’Neill masterpieces as The Iceman Cometh and A Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Despite the universal enthronement of William Inge or August Wilson as major writers, I myself have never been able to work up the same kind of enthusiasm for all of their plays. But if posterity ends up proving us wrong about the lasting value of certain works, one hopes our arguments might prove more informative than our opinions.

For the mistaken judgments of drama critics don’t resonate as much as the reasoning behind them. What Shaw and Bentley had to say about the masterpieces they undervalued was more intelligent and discerning than the praise of those who recognized their importance.

On the other hand, good critics also have a duty to recognize and resuscitate neglected works of the past. We value the 17th-century critic John Dryden because he understood Shakespeare’s importance during a time when Elizabethan dramatists were considered rough and rude warblers of wild native woodnotes. On the other hand, Dryden’s near contemporary, Thomas Rymer, has been doomed to philistine purgatory for the way he characterized Othello in his Short View of Tragedy: “First, This may be a caution to all Maidens of Quality how, without their Parents consent, they run away with Blackamoors. Secondly, This may be a warning to all good Wives, that they look well to their Linnen.”
Rymer’s narrow mind led him to make an historical sarcastic blooper, unmediated by any intelligent arguments. But as someone once said, “Opinions are like armpits. Everybody has them, and everyone thinks the others stink.” Danny Kaye’s response to how he liked the Himalayas—“Loved him, hated her”—is similar to how most reviewers approach a play, when it is always more valuable to learn the way these peaks and pinnacles evolved, and possibly something about their structure and shape.

Another dimension is added in those cases where the critic or reviewer decides to become a playwright. Creative artists have always been capable of discriminating criticism—Samuel Johnson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Jonathan Swift, and T.S. Eliot are obvious examples. But how many critics can you name who have also had successful artistic careers? George Bernard Shaw is an obvious example. He wrote extensively about art, music, and theatre before evolving into a playwright (his lifelong passion for discursive prose being mostly transferred to his Prefaces).

Eric Bentley’s first book, A Century of Hero Worship, was about philosophers like Carlyle and Nietzsche, not dramatists, but after publishing his revolutionary work on modern theatre, The Playwright as Thinker, Bentley’s life-long devotion to intellectual writers eventually led him into such Brechtian adaptations as Man is Man and Mother Courage, such political plays as Have You Now or Have You Ever Been, and such nightclub entertainments as The Wedekind Cabaret. Michael Feingold’s similar passion for Brecht turned this fine critic into another valuable play adaptor. Kenneth Tynan not only wrote extremely influential criticism for the London Observer, but, after serving as Literary Manager for Olivier’s National Theatre, became the force behind the avant-garde theatrical revue, Oh Calcutta! (fn. 1)

The critic who becomes a dramatist or an adaptor also becomes subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous reviewers, an uncomfortable, though sometimes maturing, experience. If a playwright continues to write criticism, his or her opinionating may become more tempered, more merciful, more compassionate. Old acrimonies soften, ancient enmities disappear. (Would that John Simon had written plays!)

This is partly what Shakespeare’s Lear had in mind when he said, “Take physic pomp; Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel…and show the heavens more just.” His wretches were not playwrights, but they might have been. And the aging process certainly had a softening effect on his nature and his judgments.

As a matter of fact, theatre critics have always had a special affinity with old age. While the life span of creative artists is often short—the composer Mozart succumbing to miliary fever (some would say poison) at 35, the playwright Georg Buechner to typhus at 26, and the poet Keats (like his Shavian counterpart, Marchbanks) to tuberculosis at 25—drama critics seem to hold the secret of eternal life.

Bernard Shaw was 94 when he died. Stanley Kauffmann was 97. Eric Bentley has just passed his 97th birthday. And John Simon is celebrating his 90th. (I am one of the runts of the litter at 88.) Indeed, it has been said that Methuselah, who lived to age 969, was sitting on the aisle with a notebook when he expired of apoplexy. Maybe the secret to long life is the critic’s version of catharsis—purgation through the discharge of acid and bile. And it may be what keeps the critics alive—or, shall we say, still locked in the process of growing old.

1. Full Disclosure: In addition to my 19 books of criticism, I have also tried my hand at 12 plays and adaptations, including two Klezmer musicals and a trilogy about Shakespeare.

Robert Brustein is a playwright, adaptor, director, actor, teacher, and critic. He is a Senior Research Fellow at Harvard University, Distinguished Scholar in residence at Suffolk University, and a past Dean of the Yale Drama School. Mr. Brustein is the founding director of the Yale Repertory Theatre and the American Repertory Theatre, where he served for 23 years. He has written 19 books and 12 plays, including his Shakespeare Trilogy, and the book and lyrics for The King of Second Avenue which was produced at the New Repertory Theatre in February, 2015. Mr. Brustein has received the George Polk Award and the George Jean Nathan Award (twice). He has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and was recently inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame.

In 2010, he received the National Medal of the Arts from President Obama at the White House.

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