Amo, amas, amateur ~ theatre notes

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Amo, amas, amateur

"Amateur", it is worth remembering, derives from the Latin verb "to love". Wall St Journal theatre critic Terry Teachout reflects on the decline of newspaper arts criticism through the 20th century. We can't remember now, he says, "a time when newsprint was dirt-cheap and stylish arts criticism was considered an ornament to the publications in which it appeared. In those far-off days, it was taken for granted that the critics of major papers would write in detail and at length about the events they covered."

No, we can't... The article is mainly a clear-eyed but fond tribute to Neville Cardus, the now forgotten music critic (and sports writer) for the Guardian through a large part of the 20th century. He was, according to Teachout, a half-century too late: the perfect critic for Romanticism, the 20th century revolution in music left him cold, and finally left him out. But Teachout persuasively argues Cardus's responsiveness to and love of the art, and comments: "something vital disappears from criticism when its practitioners are unwilling to approach music in this way".

H/t: Playgoer.

13 comments:

Matthew said...

And so, then, bloggers...

Bardassa said...

I always found Cardus got the obvious points in his music crits and never anything to distinguish his understanding or point of view. Pity Shaw gave up music critisicm.

Jana said...

Without the need to dig all the way to Latin, wouldn't amateur be borrowed from French, where it already exists in this form, meaning lover? (Not that I'm incredibly well-informed of the etymology of the word. It might as well have come to English directly from Latin.)

It's interesting to remember that the word 'professional' used to have a pejorative meaning, standing for the un-aristocratic individual, tainting their activity with the hope of financial benefit, rather than engaging in it out of sheer love (and boredom). This all particularly in sport, arts, politics. The professional was assumed not to be an all-rounded, balanced mind, but professing a devotion for one field in particular, indoctrinated by its rules, and so on.

Another fascinating fact is that one of the earliest meanings of the term profession was prostitution (as in, the oldest profession).

Alison Croggon said...

I'd never heard of Cardus before reading Teachout's article. But I like TT's argument. Even though Shaw's criticism has never really been a touchstone for me.

Thanks Jana - like being in "trade", I guess... that mercantile taint. Nothing wrong with being paid, in my book. I studied Latin at school, not French, and so it's an immediate reach. Without knowing anything much about it, I'd say English and French probably got their Latinate flavours around the same time, when Latin was the lingua franca of international scholarship, etc.

Anonymous said...

There was also an Australian chapter in his career where, among other things, he reviewed for the SMH in the 1940s.

Bardassa said...

Cardus' Australian career was more a sideline to his cricket commentaries. Shaw's music writings may not have stood the test of time (with the exception of his Marxist/Fabian reading of Wagner's 'Ring' cycle). The Oxford Dictionary claims the latin'amator/lover' origin. Interestingly and in the theatre sense the distinction between professional and amateur theatre worker has become very subjective. What we call independent theatre and which is now both a complimentary as well as challenging force to (for want of a term) institutional theatre was poorly regarded when it first began to emerge.
When I first got into this game all those years ago I was working on a production by a budding young auteur named Barrie Kosky. It was his 'Treason of Images' company and it was at Theatreworks. He sent invitations to the newspapers critics and, when following up the invitation after a no-response from the then critic at The Age was told 'we don't review amateur shows.

Alison Croggon said...

Heh. Radic, I suppose, a critic never very interested in testing any boundaries. Though at this end there is the question of hours in a day and days in a week and so on, there is always more than one can see. But it's an interesting problem of significance: amateur v professional (with all those various qualities teased out by Jana); fringe v mainstream; co-op v paid ("funded") theatre. And so on, endlessly, all competing and various claims for legitimacy or illegitimacy, which all of us have ideas about and which no doubt all of us would dispute.

As one who has found herself in tears at a primary school's nativity play - not because of the cuteness, innocence or even relationship of the children involved, but because of a sudden perception of the purity of the act - how astounding, profound and ancient this notion of play is, how moving a human impulse it is, especially visible in the most naive gestures - I would hesitate to brand any kind of theatre illegitimate. Still less to observe any complacent assertion of the "proper" or any related notion. Still, one has to make one's own maps through the chaos. I guess TN - collectively speaking - is one such attempt, but it exists, as it should, among many others.

Bardassa said...

A street press I used to write for ran peer reviewed nativity plays one year. They confirmed what you say, they were a kind of innocent insight but very direct, the most naive being the most direct. But then isn't the most accomplished 'adult' acting just very polished naivity?

Jana said...

Some of these words make very funny circles around the world (sheriff, for example, came to most European languages through the Western movie, although its roots are in Arabic). Says American Heritage Dictionary: First recorded in English in 1784 [with the meaning of 'lover'], amateur is found in 1786 with a meaning more familiar to us, "a person who engages in an art, for example, as a pastime rather than as a profession," a sense that had already developed in French.

Alison, there are two political points in this that are of interest to me. First is the gender: in fields in which amateurs, dilettantes and other dabblers were mostly young women, the good light wore off faster than in those were it was mostly men who loved without getting paid (amateur lost her glory in music faster than in tennis or horse breeding). Indeed, the distinction amateur/professional was in many cases male/female.

Second, I find the noble aura of amateur's pursuit, as opposed to the need of the plebeian professional to make a living, highly problematic. Especially when applied to arts. The most interesting art, I would argue, still hasn't been made, certainly not in Australia. Because working in arts still doesn't guarantee a regular income of any sort, and as such is closed to those that do need to pay their own way around. Going through the history of art, it's embarrassing how few of the household names were anything below comfortable middle class (or the equivalent of). (At least when they started their artistic careers, wink.)

Alison Croggon said...

Jana, I find the "professionalisation" of the arts (eg, the rather pernicious MFA program in the US, which has basically throttled American poetry) equally problematic. You're right though on the gender thing about amateur. Similarly, the professions in which women have risen, like doctors, have seen a fall in status. The link between "profession" and "prostitute" meant you had to be a brave woman - like Aphra Benn - to be a professional artist.

Re Australia: you should have a look at painters like Lloyd Rees or Donald Freind and other around that time. Or read a few select Australian poets. I'll give you a list, if you're interested. Art has certainly been made here, and interesting art, often very much against the odds.

Money has always been a problem for artists. Chekhov may have become comfortable, but he certainly didn't start that way. Dostoevsky couldn't afford to buy a pair of trousers when he was discharged from the army. And any number of other stories. Those stubborn enough to ignore the financial impossibilities will do it despite the practical impossibilities. And all of them would prefer to have enough money.

Chris Boyd said...

When I first got into this game all those years ago I was working on a production by a budding young auteur named Barrie Kosky. It was his 'Treason of Images' company and it was at Theatreworks. He sent invitations to the newspapers critics and, when following up the invitation after a no-response from the then critic at The Age was told 'we don't review amateur shows.

Hey Bardassa, which production was it? (Was it The Growing Castle or the Handel oratorio?) (And, more importantly, was it the head in the bucket show?)

I was wondering if the Real Agenda might have been along the lines of: "Kenneth Hince don't review operas by Malcolm Williamson!" (Kosky's production was the Australian premiere, 22 years after the international debut.)

FYI, Alison, Williamson's opera is an adaptation of Strindberg's Dream Play .


P.S. Jana, dilettante comes to us from Latin, via Italian... it grew from the same roots as delight. No shame in that!

Alison Croggon said...

Gosh, stirring old memories there, Chris. I just remembered that I saw the Handel oratorio. Which as I remember, the Bulletin reviewed, even if the Age wouldn't. Or maybe the reviewed that one. If you didn't live in a filing cabinet I would be sore amazed.

Chris Boyd said...

The filing cabinet lives in me, too, Alison! I didn't actually go rummaging until now. Both shows were same year, same venue. Nothing in the January or February editions of ANZTR, so it looks like that august journal of record didn't deem The Growing Castle professional either.

The Age reviewed 'Shazzer' in August (Clive O'Connell went along, so I'm guessing he got the nod to review it as an oratorio)...

You're quite right, A Croggon reviewed it for the Bulletin. (As did C Boyd for the Melbourne Times.)