Swans Commentary » swans.com March 14, 2005  



English vs. American Theatre Criticism


by Charles Marowitz




(Swans - March 14, 2005)   Frank Rich, unaffectionately dubbed "the Butcher of Broadway," reigned supreme as The New York Times drama critic for over a decade. During his sway, the theatre community smarted under his acrimonious notices. When he walked into theatre receptions, the actors, it is alleged, walked out en masse. There were even rumors of plots against his life but, as anyone familiar with the New York scene knows, there is no tyrant as immovable as a theatre critic who enjoys the confidence of his editorial hierarchy.

After his departure a few years ago, as with the retirement of Margaret Thatcher, Rich became the subject of a fulsome wave of nostalgia. Reading the reviews of blander and less vituperative successors, the seizures he once caused among Broadway denizens gave way to a painful sense of loss when he went on to the Op Ed pages where, in a sense, he found both his true voice ands his true subject. So is "Maggie" Thatcher remembered today as a kind of modern-day Boudicea rather than the ghoulish misanthrope she actually was.

The current critic of The New York Times (and therefore the most effective power-broker in the New York theatre) is Ben Brantlee * -- who is a smooth and urbane writer with both strong credentials and good taste, but a writer so easily pleased one feels he is like the tennis umpire who loves the game so much he is prepared to ignore the occasional foul ball or out-of-bound serve. He is too susceptible to whatever is on offer and, eschewing ire, not critical enough when the material often cries out for censure. The Times approach to theatre is, by official dicta, studiously gentlemanly. It frowns upon out-and-out kicks-in-the-pants and Brantlee's tendency, reflecting The Times editorial line, often finds virtues in what is, essentially, damaged goods. Artists love critics like that because they are perceived as "fair-minded" (read "lenient"), but discerning theatergoers lured into mediocre offerings which have been over-praised wonder if the critic and the spectator are talking about the same show. There is this notion that good criticism (like the spurious Fox Cable News) must be "fair-and-balanced," whereas anyone who has ever written criticism knows that, to be respectful of the art form, it must be blunt, unequivocal and brutally honest -- even if it gives offense. Dorothy Parker often gave offense, but she was almost always on the mark. George Jean Nathan's putdowns (long before John Simon's sneers or Frank Rich's venom) could induce suicidal tendencies on the part of vulnerable actors. On the other hand, Brooks Atkinson, the long-serving Times critic, was always judicious and restrained -- and it is hard to re-read his reviews with anything like relish or intellectual stimulation.

Rich, whatever his critical shortcomings, was cut in the Broadway mold. His blunt, acidulous, take-no-prisoners attitude was very much in keeping with the acrid climate of the city in which he worked. By and large, the New York critics are not noted for pulling their punches. The belief is that Broadway is a kind of theatrical Citadel and the most critics view their job as keeping the barbarians from the gates. This often produces a harsh, unsentimental strain of criticism which yaps at mediocrity and tears great chunks out of flaccid or banal offerings. The stringency of that tone of voice is so admired, and so habitually employed, that it militates against the fine shadings and intellectual nuances that one looks for in the best criticism. But New York has always been a hit-or-flop kind of town and, over the years, play criticism has tended to be dismissive or rhapsodic -- blithely ignoring that vast gray zone in which the niceties of criticism, when they do appear, most closely resemble art itself.

But despite their inadequacies, metropolitan American critics tend to be profoundly in love with the theatre -- which may explain the extreme ambivalence of their reactions. It is characteristic of passionate lovers that yesterday's infatuations become tomorrow's abominations and that upswings of ecstasy are invariably followed by downswings of derision.

The American drama critic, when he is not a failed playwright or actor, tends to be recruited from the ranks of journalists. The English drama critic comes to the "live theatre" after an immersion in upscale, university-bred culture. On some tacit level, play-going is always viewed as the more vulgar expression of Literature. But being better read and better educated than his American counterpart doesn't always insure more sensitive responses. Too often larger, and largely irrelevant, issues becloud his judgment and his mind is constantly distracted by generalities which are part of a political agenda, an elaborately-wrought esthetic, or merely the offshoots of an over-stuffed intellect.

In an article in New Theatre Quarterly some time ago, Irving Wardle, longtime critic of The London Times and The Independent, wrote with illuminating candor about the way in which the critics of the so-called New Wave (circa 1956-1970) felt they belonged to an ideological club devoted to strengthening the cause of the upcoming left-wing playwrights and how, given the paltriness of much of their oeuvre, they produced a coverage that tended to be "mealy mouthed." There are similar "agendas" today among many English critics. In some, it is a warped sense of "political correctness" -- a predisposition towards feminism, homosexuality or romanticized grunge; in others, a woolly-minded commitment to "innovation" and "cutting edge" modernity by means of which they persuade themselves into an enthusiasm which is neither subjectively honest nor objectively sustainable.

Although English critics occasionally change, the types seem to remain pretty uniform. We still get the oblique, quasi-academic burbling scribe who concentrates more on a play's implications than the concrete constituents of its mise-en-scene; the narky, yawn-suppressing, "I've-seen-it-all" disdain of the critic for whom reviewing is the equivalent of cleaning out the drains; the slightly confused, plodding, "regular fellow" who, in trying to be fair to all sides, produces a balanced committee report instead of an unvarnished expression of personal taste; the crypto-sentimentalist who is a sucker for pathos and tries unemotionally to convey his endorsement of a work which has actually moved him to tears; the critic whose egoistic goal is the dissemination of his own brittle wit and who sees every play simply as an invitation for him to outshine the murk he is obliged to evaluate.

Criticism, more than playwriting, is a mirror that reflects the congenital flaws of individual personality and, that being the case, you'd think most writers would try to avoid such exposure. But like acting or whoring, it becomes an addiction which it is impossible to kick and, after a while, the critic placidly accepts himself -- chancres and all -- on the dubious assumption that his public has done so as well.

Returning recently to London, I was struck by how many of the old scriveners are still at it and wondering if the old adage is true: that a drama critic, like a theatre company, can count on only about ten years of real vitality. Can a drama critic sagging into his sixties really tune himself into the zeitgeist that generates people in their 20s and 30s? The answer to that question may well be, Yes. -- I'm only asking!

The tendency of theatre criticism on both sides of the Atlantic seems to be rooted in the immemorial right of critics to express opinion without recognizing the corollary of that right which is that elucidation, analysis and insight are the elements that validate that opinion. A sparkish writing style and the assumption of a bantering, "with-it" tone of voice seem to have replaced the critical acumen that once characterized the superior critic.

It used to be that drama critics led the theatre. Writers like Shaw, Jacques Copeau, Harold Clurman, Eric Bentley and Kenneth Tynan had a clear-cut predilection for a certain kind of play and, in all their writing, one constantly got comparisons between the Quotidian and the Ideal. It often made them tendentious but at least it revealed a genuine attachment to the art form in which they labored. But as anyone who has hacked away at it season after season knows full well, journalism is the death of criticism. The obligation to convey information in order to inform consumers which shows to patronize snuffs out the waywardness and idiosyncrasy upon which great criticism depends. Both England and America are replete with "consumer guides" and theatre criticism has become a culturally-burnished version of "Which." In both countries, criticism suffers from an impoverishment of personality which, I believe, ultimately affects the caliber of the artistic product. Diversity of opinion is a great boon in drama criticism, but when none of the notices exude an intellectual authority upon which either artists or the public can depend, it suggests the entire art form is in the grips of a creeping sclerosis.

On The Observer, one of Penelope Gilliat's best lines (and I paraphrase) was that every Sunday morning in The Sunday Times, London was awakened by the sound of "Harold Hobson barking up the wrong tree." It is true that for Hobson, Samuel Beckett was the author of a series of optimistic sermons about how life could be beautiful despite its occasional despondencies, and it is equally true that a beautiful actress, especially if French, could blind him to the paucity of almost any dramatic offering. But Hobson, so different from Ken Tynan in many ways, shared one trait in common with him: there was a recognizable personality behind all that copy and an unmistakable set of values which conditioned his world view. One looks in vain for those distinguishing characteristics among most critics today -- both in London and New York. Reviewing, like the computerized engine which now produces it, has become an offshoot of technology, whereas it used to be the manifestation of personality.

It is as if we are living in a world entirely populated by "missing persons."


[Correction:  Ben "Brantlee" should read Ben Brantley. We regret the typo and thank Mr. Bill Brazell for pointing us to the error (added, March 25, 2005). ed.]  (back)

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Published March 14, 2005