by Charles Marowitz
(Swans - May 9, 2005) The only thing worse than being a drama critic is being a theatre practitioner as well. The ire that this induces in the profession is sometimes volcanic and even when the lava doesn't flow openly, it gurgles and smolders beneath the surface. The spectacle of one person performing two acts, which in most people's minds are antithetical, remains one of the more harrowing experiences that art affords.
I started directing in the late 1950s at the Labor Temple in New York City. Round about the same time, I began writing off-Broadway criticism for the newly-hatched Village Voice. When I arrived in London in the early 1960s, I ran my own theatre company and also wrote reviews for a variety of British publications, such as Encore Magazine and Plays & Players. Throughout the next twenty years, I was regularly lodging reviews from London for The Voice and The New York Times. Often, although I blush to admit it, using drama criticism to catch the over flow of energy I was pumping into theatrical work or, in even more shameful instances, compensating for the lack of one kind of employment by engaging in the other.
One night, at a London party attended by a variety of show folk, I was physically assaulted by a large, burly actor upon whom I had once dropped a small, flat boulder of disparagement. "You're either in the kitchen or in the diningroom; you're not in both places at once!" He railed waving a hockey-stick menacingly. In a flash, I recalled that when British columnist Bernard Levin was a drama critic, he was bopped on the head by the hulking great husband of Agnes Bernelle, a cabaret singer he had previously demolished in a review, and that a disgruntled David Storey once slugged critic Michael Billington in the upstairs bar of the Royal Court Theatre for trashing his play Mother's Day. I don't remember what paltry defense I made at the time, but I do recall escalating myself to my full six foot height and being reminded that when threatened by a mountain lion, that was the recommended defensive posture. (I recalled the stance when, during the 2000 presidential campaign, I saw Al Gore bearing down on, what on TV seemed to be, a rather diminutive George W. Bush. Bush didn't draw himself up to his full height nor would that maneuver have had much effect the candidate being, as it were, elevationally-challenged.)
Irving Wardle, a critic for many years on The London Times and later The Independent, told me of letters he received after negative notices which ranged from the vituperative to the "I'm going-to-bust-your-knees" variety. An enraged actress once emptied a bowl of hot soup over John Simon's head because of a bad notice. Peter O'Toole once dispatched a couple of his myrmidons to have Kenneth Tynan beaten up in Paris. The most fatal revenge exacted against a drama critic was after Percy Hammond's negative review of Orson Welles's Julius Caesar in the 1930s. Welles's all-black cast spent the whole of that night beating tom-toms and conjuring up an evil spell against the critic who actually died the next morning.
Critics are always maligned -- either privately or publicly -- it really does go with the territory -- and if one doesn't develop a thick skin, the skin one has is in danger of being razed off the bone. But for many, there is a profound sense of betrayal when the critical culprit is also a director. It is as if the mole in a spy network suddenly decided to run for head of state as well.
As for myself, I always believed direction and criticism were two different expressions of the same creative impulse and, never for a moment did I experience any conflict of interest. I concurred with Brendan Behan's blunt observation that critics were often like eunuchs in a harem: "They know how it's done, they've seen it done every day, but they're unable to do it themselves." To avoid the pitfalls of that kind of voyeurism, I had always believed writers with practical theatre experience often made the best critics. It certainly toned up the notices of Harley Granville-Barker, Jacques Copeau, George Bernard Shaw, Stark Young, Eric Bentley, Harold Clurman and Robert Brustein.
A director is, in a sense, the critic of his production, his "notes" nourished by the same analytical feedback that fleshes out a play review. And, like the reviewer, the director's critiques of both acting and writing always assume the existence of a general public for whom the work has to be clarified, tightened, polished and perfected. The director, like the critic, is constantly engrossed in the act of rationalization, trying to justify what is being said and what is being seen. Both are trying to divine a certain logic from text, behavior, narrative and their implications. Nowadays, it is common to find dramaturgy or Literary Managers in institutional theatres drawn from the ranks of former drama critics.
There have been times when I experienced a greater glow of satisfaction from a well-written review than I have from a stage production. The act of perfectly defining precisely where a play or a performance falters or fails, germinates or blooms, carries with it that sense of blinding revelation which we often associate with the best art. It is far easier to achieve it -- one-to-one -- in a cool piece of criticism than it is through the collective heat generated by writers, directors, designers and producers all panting heavily into one another's face. That is why a great piece of theatre stands on a far higher plateau than a great piece of criticism, but the personal satisfaction in the latter is more readily achieved and yields a very special kind of high. Any writer knocking out a thousand words that perfectly embody his meaning knows the feeling -- even if, two days later, on re-reading his prose, he decides to trash it.
The unraveling of esthetics seems to me to be common to both forms. The critic, like the director, is gauging rhythms, delineating meaning, monitoring highs and lows and evaluating general comprehension. The actors often resent the director's intercessions as much as the director resents his critics. A kind of umbilical tension unites them both. But when the critic shares the director's insights in what takes the form of a perfectly modulated mise en scène, they immediately become sisters-under-the-skin. The divide closes.
One of the pitfalls of theatre criticism is that the persona of The Critic, like the character of Hamlet the Dane, is already fixed in the collective imagination. When he is displeased, the critic is supposed to be acrid, deflationary and woundingly witty. When he is pleased, he is supposed to become euphoric, hyperbolic and exclaim: "This is the greatest performance since 'So-and-So' and 'The finest new work of this or any other season!'" Some two hundred years of spinning hot copy has routinized the diction. Anyone taking up the cudgels of criticism also dons the multiple masks of the drama critic and once on, conveys an array of expressions originated by his illustrious predecessors. To a certain extent, every drama critic imitates the act of being a drama critic, replaying the attitudes, reactions and retorts they unconsciously associate with the craft. The rarest thing of all is to stumble upon a distinctive tone-of-voice; someone who isn't unconsciously reincarnating Max Beerbohm or G. Bernard Shaw, Eric Bentley or Ken Tynan, Ben Brantley or Clive Barnes. Editors, however, incline heavily towards the "masked" journalists and the readership has come to expect them.
Having written criticism for as long as I have directed plays, I tend to be hypercritical of other scribes. When I come across a fallacious piece of reasoning or an opinion I consider obtuse, I have to forcibly restrain myself from drawing my sword and throwing down the gauntlet. I have to remind myself that it is unsporting to challenge the views of fellow critics and bad taste to be seen disputing contrary opinions. But I wish that weren't the case. I wish critics would feel as free to assault the false logic and unqualified commentary of their colleagues as they do going after theatre artists whom they consider "fair game." Traditionally, artists are loath to take on critics for they believe they have an unfair advantage. Having unlimited access to the press, critics always have the last word and even the most eloquent rebuttal in the Letters pages will not be able to compete with an Olympian judgment issued on the mount. What's more, actors and writers are not trained for hand-to-hand combat. Critics, on the other hand, are polemical gladiators who can usually give as good as they get. What a marvelously charged discourse they could generate if they discarded their bogus sense of noblesse oblige. Simon would be lacing into Brantley and Heilpern savaging Lahr and we would all be viewing the theatre through a great haze of flying fur instead of, as now, a double-glazed pane of glass.
Wearing two hats, it must be said, is a fashion statement fraught with danger. In England, I lost countless directing jobs from producers who blisteringly recalled my put-downs of their former shows. And then there are those who feel that hiring a critic to direct a play is tantamount to employing scab labor -- just as there are editors who feel it is contaminating the gene pool to hire a known director to evaluate the work of other directors. It is virtually impossible to persuade observers that you can have your right foot in one discipline and your left in another and still perambulate -- although Harold Clurman did it for decades, and in fiction, John Updike, Gore Vidal and Joyce Carol Oates do it all the time.
Still, many of those reservations are legitimate and it would be hard to refute them convincingly. Then why do it? Why sit on the aisle then leap up on stage attempting to be in two places at the same time?
Apart from a barely-conscious self-destructive impulse which I grudgingly acknowledge, my only defense is that of the helpless addict: I can't help myself. What happens in a theatre is, in my mind, inextricable from what one says about it. A theatre without criticism is unthinkable, and obviously being parasitic on the art, no criticism can exist without theatre. Often, the addict's defense also takes refuge in the intense pleasure that he or she gets from the addiction, and the same is true in my case. I persist in my belief that the only thing more ecstatic than a superb opening night is a pellucid review that puts that event into crystalline perspective for both the artists and the public.
Must one then go on endlessly wearing two hats? -- No, I will craft a reversible piece of headgear which, at the flip of a drawstring, can become a critic's trilby or a director's baseball cap, and those that don't like it can lump it!