(Swans - October 10, 2011) A short time ago there was a lengthy discussion in The New York Times about how negative criticism had its positive side. It seemed to suggest that there were instances when shows got negative reviews and yet could be of assistance both to actors and directors; that there was a certain salutary effect that could produce a positive outcome. Extensive as the article appeared to be, it seemed to me to have missed the point of what true criticism ought to be about, but very rarely is.
If the theater critic merely tells the story of the plot, he is doing a disservice to the reader. "Telling the story" of the play under review rarely captures the attention of the prospective theatergoer. If anything it merely confuses the reader as the "story" is almost always the least important aspect of the play under review. Rather than try to reconstruct the events taking place on stage, he/she could merely, in a sentence or two, describe the gist of the narrative and proceed to interpret the larger meaning the play is attempting to relay.
If, for instance, one wanted to alert the reader to a production of Hamlet, it serves no purpose to laboriously describe the events that constitute the plot. What makes better sense is to capture the gist of the work and reveal that in a sentence or two. For example: A prince of Denmark returns to discover his father dead and his step-father ruling the kingdom. In trying to unravel his anguish he feigns madness, discovers the culprit, alienates his bride-to-be, broods on his loss, and, in trying to wreak revenge, brings about the death of everyone concerned -- his mother, stepfather, school mates, councilor, and bride-to-be.
If you contend this leaves out a good deal of what actually happens in Hamlet you would be right. But the object is not to harp on vengeance and vacillation, intrigue and revenge, but to relay the fact that we are dealing with a sturdy classic that, if one tried to condense all its contents, would take the three hours in which all of the play's nuances and mysteries would be transmitted.
The critic's role is not to condense the narrative of Shakespeare's play but to provide the theatergoer the dramatic throughline that contains its larger meanings that reverberate behind its words and actions. In short, to describe not so much the play's events but its deeper meaning; its inner self -- not merely the swivels of its plot line -- but what this classic is trying to tell us about the temporary meanings and nuances in its outer narrative.
Most critics concern themselves with individual actors' performances, set design, and costumes but rarely describe the pertinence that is -- or isn't -- in the play's intellectual fabric. Of course, when a play has no such fabric, all the critic can do is bewail its absence or suggest alternative trails the author might have taken.
Every play that is worth its salt contains three constituents; namely, subtext, ur-text, and what Peter Brook has called "the hidden play" that feeds and nourishes its outward show. It is up to the critic to discover and then reveal how such insights combine to enrich a play or, when absent, project its weakness.
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