The intellectual critic ~ theatre notes

Friday, February 15, 2008

The intellectual critic

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.


George Hunka said...

Well, I liked Bentley's notion, Alison; whether it's something I prefer I don't know. As different as they may be, both advocates and crusaders may be necessary. Sometimes the line is blurred.

I do like, though, in terms of the critic as advocate, Jonas Mekas' understanding of his role. He was the critic for independent American film at the Village Voice in the 1960s and 1970s, and this, from a preface to a volume of his collected reviews, was interesting:

"Though I had intended, with my first columns, to become a 'serious' film critic and deal 'seriously' with the Hollywood film, very soon I discovered that my critic's hat was of no great use. Instead, I had to take a sword and become a self-appointed minister of defense and propaganda of the New Cinema. Nobody took the new film-maker seriously. The non-narrative cinema was not looked upon as cinema. My colleagues either ignored it or hit it right between the eyes. The best
time to kill something is when it is too fragile to defend itself.
Those who give birth to life or things of art are vulnerable during the birth periods. That's why animals hide in inaccessible places when they give birth: they try to get as far as possible from the Established Movie Critics. ...

"As is illustrated in these columns, very soon after I started my Journal, I had to drop the critic's hat and become practically a midwife. I had to pull out, to hold, to protect all the beautiful things that I saw happening in the cinema and that were either butchered or ignored by my colleague writers and by the public. So I kept running around my chickens, cackling, look look how beautiful my chickens are, more beautiful than anything else in the world, and everybody thinks they are ugly ducklings! Since I had to do plenty of cackling, I couldn't afford wasting any of my space writing on commercial cinema. I invited Andrew Sarris, my
co-editor on Film Culture magazine, to do that part of the job."

Is Mekas an advocate or a crusader? Likely both, I imagine.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi George - I'm certainly not refusing that part of the critical adventure! A great part of the reason I started TN was because I thought some kinds of theatre that I thought were valuable were getting very little representation or critical nourishment in any local publications at all. A particular conversation with a particular critic after a particular show - and the subsequent review - made the lightbulb go off. Whether you call it a crusade (which I rather unfortunately associate with a horrific 16C painting of Crusaders baptising heathen babies before they cut their heads off to send them to heaven) or "advocacy", we're talking about the same desire - to argue for the worth of work that is often dismissed as worthless.

I guess what I bridle at slightly is the notion of "shaping" theatre. Surely that's the business of those who make it, not those who write about it, although I will admit there can be a complicated relationship of influence at work there. But I've never been a huge admirer of the Shaw school of theatre criticism.

George Hunka said...

Well, to be fair, that's true -- Shaw did try to do both, and perhaps that's unwise. Though Bentley as a playwright and Brustein as a director have also tried to play both sides of the net.

And the title of the program itself, "The Critic as Thinker," is a play on Bentley's "The Playwright as Thinker," which just befogs the situation more. I'm sure that that the old American ripost, "I don't pay you to think," is relevant to both critics and playwrights these days. Maybe that's where the problem has lain all along.

Alison Croggon said...

Heh. I fear that you might be correct there. Though thinking can occasionally go with being paid...

Alison Croggon said...

...and to continue that thought: I obviously don't see a great contradiction in the vocations of artist and critic, since I think critical thinking is crucial to making art, and a certain art is crucial to criticism. So I don't see a problem with the two activities taking place in the one body, as it were: most of the critics I extravagantly admire (John Berger, Octavio Paz, etc) are artists too.

But I should clarify: while I think theatre makers are responsible for shaping theatre, I think critics are largely responsible for shaping the culture around it. For all I say above, I do think that criticism is (as the poet Montale puts it, in the title of one of his books of essays) "a secondary art".

ben hjorth said...

how wonderful. i loved bentley's quip about the critic-as-investment-advisor (which seems to me the role most critics still play in our MSM):

"One thing I hadn’t absorbed completely when I wrote The Playwright as Thinker, or any of my early works, was the following: that people talk about “the drama critics.” What the term means when they use it is not clear, because there are two quite different enterprises involved...

"One is the thing that’s familiar to the general public, because they’re involved in it. It is that, if we’re taking Broadway — which was, for me, the enemy, and what for good Americans is the center of things — what the Broadway theatre needs is a consumer guide. That’s what the critics should — the so-called “critics” in quotes — should provide. The New York Times did provide it in the supplement they had until last year for television programs—for films that were on television...

"Guiding the public. The public has a right — the rich public — to get something for its riches, you know? A little guidance. That’s all right, and it is a form of criticism, just as when you come out of the movies on Saturday night and grunt, that’s a form of criticism."

Alison Croggon said...

It's a wicked comment, and absolutely true (I am saying this wihout judgment) about the values of an msm review. Editors think they should be informational - what's on? - and tell people whether the shows are worth their money. Kind of a cultural consumer advice show. And in fact there is nothing wrong with that, and it has a place; the problems arise when this is the only kind of review there is. But I am amused by the idea of reviewers estimating the worth of their entertainment next to the actual ticket prices. A $100 worth of show for $20 tickets could be a net gain of $80, while the other way around would be -$80. It would be a better guide than stars, I think.

Steve Reynolds said...

What I find refreshing here is Brustein's comment on trying to understand the intentions of artists and being interested in assessing whether or not they achieved them. I know that in literary criticism, authorial intention is usually seen as something to be rigorously ignored (after Barthes and "the death of the author", etc). Intention has nothing to do with the way we experience or interpret or value a work, because intention cannot really be known - so the theory goes. All you have are the words on the page or, in theatre, what you see on the stage. That's strictly true, but it's always struck me as a faintly ludicrous and abstract position, and certainly one that doesn't account for a lot of the pleasure I take in experiencing a piece of work. For me, a good deal of the richness in a book or a play or a film comes not only from the visceral experience of it, but from understanding its background, its genesis, the context of its creation, and hearing what the writer or director or performers were trying to do. Critics who can do this for me, or who can usefully direct my own investigations, add a great deal to the enjoyment I take from the arts.

Alison Croggon said...

The advantage with theatre, of course, is that there's a good chance that some of the artists involved will be alive. :) Well, I've never understood the formal wall between process and product, and have always felt that the more one understands about one, the more it illuminates the other (it goes both ways). But actually, I am fascinated by how things are made, not just art; it dates from way back when as a child I used to stand in the blacksmith's workshop and watch him make horse shoes.

Geoffrey said...

"I obviously don't see a great contradiction in the vocations of artist and critic, since I think critical thinking is crucial to making art, and a certain art is crucial to criticism."

This is a marvellous point Allison, which has me thinking about the value we place on the roles of the Dramaturg (mutually exclusive to Theatre?) and Script/Story Editor(s) and Story Consultants (ditto to writing for film world it would seem).

Having 'worked' in these roles with various writers over the years, I found it to be an incredibly complex and challenging relationship - quite possibly like that of a foster parent ... step-Dad.

"The formal wall" you refer to, in my mind anyway, is built of bricks made up of suspicion, the need for ownwership, insecurity, fear, ego and held together by mortar and that incredibly difficult thing it is to do: invite another critical mind into the recessess of your imagination and creativity while the words, in any form, are still dancing around on the page and in your mind.

I would be very interested in reading what you had to offer on that theme ... and the comments that I would hope might follow.