Three giants of American criticism - Eric Bentley, Robert Brustein and Stanley Kauffmann - got together last October at a place called, rather charmingly, the Philoctetes Center of New York City and talked about theatre. The result, published in the current issue of American Theatre, is a conversation full of fascination for anyone interested in serious theatre or serious theatre criticism. They discuss American theatre and the "middlebrow", comment genially on the rise of the woman writer, and wonder where the new impulses in theatre will be generated in a theatre culture in which the role of the playwright is no longer as clear as it once was. Most hearteningly, they speak about theatre, without any qualifications, as an art.
The central question is raised by Kauffmann: "What’s the future for the intellectual critic?" (Blogs, obviously: but blogs are part of a decentralised and perversely counter-intuitive world that some have difficulty mapping - as Kauffmann confesses, "I’m so adrift, so bewildered, so lost in the current cultural situation.... Once there was—at least I believe there was—a structure that I could like and loathe. I have no sense of that now. I have only a sense of continual flow and whirl and change and rampant hedonism.")
A comment of Brustein's resonated particularly for me, as an expression of something that I would like to approach in my own work. It reminds me that he was one of the formative writers who shaped my critical aspirations when I began to write about theatre:
More and more, I found myself subordinating the judgment that was so necessary to criticism, and that we’re all looking for: Does he like it? Does she hate it? When I read criticism, I find that to be the least interesting part. I began to call that “Himalayan criticism” after Danny Kaye—when he was asked whether he liked the Himalayas, he said, “Loved him, hated her.” (Laughter.) It’s essentially what we’ve all been practicing—Himalayan criticism.
Especially when I began practicing as a director—as an artistic director, an actor, a playwright—I knew that that kind of criticism did me no good whatsoever. I was trying, really, to find what it was that was helpful and useful, without in any way deferring or cheating or cheapening or lying. I wanted to see what it was that could possibly help a theatre artist to advance. And so I thought my most important function as a critic was to try to find out what these artists, if they were artists, were trying to do, and then to see whether they did that successfully. But at least to try and find out what the intention was before I rejected it.
An edited transcript can be downloaded here. Thanks to Superfluities Redux for the headsup. I notice that George prefers Bentley's notion of the critic as a Shavian "crusader". We all have a little of that in us, without a doubt: although I like the word "advocate". But I suspect that my desire is less to shape theatre than to try to see what it is.