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Up Next: The Critic and The Real Inspector Hound



Are you a fan of critics?

I’m a director who’s actually known to be friendly with critics. I basically like them. However, they regularly have a chance to tell me what they think of my work, and sometimes it’s happy, and sometimes it’s hurtful, and sometimes it’s annoying, and sometimes it makes me mad. So I thought I’d have a really good time doing these plays about them.

Why these plays?

Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Critic, an 18th century play, and Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound, a 20th century play, are both about critics, and they’re both beastly about critics, on one level. I’ve been so nice to them for years, and these plays are wonderful ways to have some fun with them. They’re terribly funny plays. And they’re not just beastly about critics, they’re pretty satirical about very bad writing and particular theatre styles.

The Critic
is normally a two-act play, but has rather famously been done as a one-act play, originally by Laurence Olivier, who paired it with Oedipus Rex. We’ve commissioned Jeffrey Hatcher, who did a wonderful adaptation of The Government Inspector, to rethink how you do The Critic in one act, which he’s done a brilliant job with. It’s a truly funny script.

What are the theatre styles satirized in these plays?

The Critic
mocks 18th century overacting, and The Real Inspector Hound makes fun of English country-house murder mysteries that were so popular in the 1940s and ’50s.
I’ve certainly done my research on these eras and styles, and I can draw on my own experience, too, since I did an Agatha Christie play with Joan Fontaine, The Unexpected Guest, early in my career. But the most important thing for audience members to know is that these works are there for them to have fun with. I think they’re really terrific plays.


After STC presented your adaptation of The Government Inspector in 2012, you were approached by Michael Kahn to adapt Sheridan’s The Critic. How familiar were you with the play? What did you think about it?

It seemed like a great choice. A title that a lot of people in theatre know but very few had seen performed. I knew of the famous production from the 1940s with Olivier, on a double bill with Oedipus Rex. Kind of a crazy “Look, Ma, no hands” show-off event.

I had read it sometime in the 1980s. It’s very funny, very funny. But a lot of the comedy isn’t relevant anymore. I knew that either I’d have to make things clear or cut things that only the cognoscenti from 1780 could remember.

How did you approach the adaptation?

We are doing it on a double bill so I had to cut about 50 percent of the original script. It forces you to make choices.

Sheridan himself said that the first half of The Critic was the best writing he’d ever done. I was very hesitant about what to cut and trim there. But Michael and [Dramaturg] Drew Lichtenberg have encouraged me to keep adapting.

The first point is trying to find a way for the audience to understand what it was to be a critic in the 18th century. It’s not exactly the way it is now. It had a different impact. It was like being a spy: you don’t know who the critic is.

Of all the critics working in London, we come upon Mr. Puff who not only writes reviews but is paid by playwrights to write good reviews, and doesn’t even see the plays. He has become so adept at reviewing that decides he can write his own play.

The second half of the play is all about a performance that goes wrong, and there’s nothing more entertaining in a play about theatre than to watch something go wrong. People often joke about theatre people being unable to enjoy a play because we’re too critical—we don’t go to be entertained, we go to find out what went wrong.

Trust us, the play must go on but show must fall apart.

As a playwright, how do you feel about critics?

There was a time when I thought it would be fun to be a critic, there’s a part of your brain that functions critically. Imaginatively/creatively you think one way, critically intellectually another. It’s how you look at a second draft.

If you’re a playwright you can’t help but have a few critics you want to murder, who got it wrong or they got it right and you’re upset they told everybody.

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