A reminder ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A reminder

The more a critic becomes an insider, the better. I see nothing but good in a critic plunging into our lives, meeting actors, talking, discussing, watching, intervening. I would welcome his putting his hands on the medium and attempting to work it himself. Certainly, there is a tiny social problem - how does a critic talk to someone he has just damned in print? Momentary awkwardnesses may arise - but it is ludicrous to think that it is largely this that deprives some critics of a vital contact with the work of which they are a part. The embarrassment on his side and ours can easily be lived down and certainly a closer relation with the work will in no way put the critic into the position of connivance with the people he has got to know. The criticism that theatre people make of one another is usually of devastating severity - but absolutely precise. The critic who no longer enjoys the theatre is obviously a deadly critic, the critic who loves the theatre but is not critically clear what this means is also a deadly critic: the vital critic is the critic who has clearly formulated for himself what the theatre could be - and who is bold enough to throw this formula into jeopardy each time he participates in a theatrical event.

Peter Brook, The Empty Space

25 comments:

MW said...

Always worth reaching for that slim volume. Brook seems to have learnt a lot more every time you pick him up. I've always thought theatre crit has to involve more active engagement than lit crit because theatre is social art-making in the most ordinary sense that everyone (includng the critic) has to be in the same space a the same time. At teh risk of sounding like a local, a lot of art forms could learn from the sporting lot. Their primary position is never one of sneer. It's clear that sports commentators love the games they comment on and, usually, have been players from the top echelon, know how hard it is to get there, know what it means to stay there.

I blame Leavis.

MW./.

Alison Croggon said...

I found this quote when I was looking up something else. And I remembered it was one of the formative things I read when I was first thinking about theatre criticism. Yes, he's always worth returning to.

Alison Croggon said...

...and re the sporting analogy (with which I agree) - where it particularly has things to teach us is in the literacy of the commentators. Could you imagine a sports writer getting away with not knowing the rules of the game? Not knowing about the players? Being ignorant of its histories? And yet similar things happen in arts criticism all the time.

George Hunka said...

I don't know, though, Alison -- this quote (like all those quotes from that book, now forty years old and treated as something like gospel) is all very good to say, but is Brook actually saying anything practical -- or otherwise meaningful -- about the critical atmosphere today? Like all that "all an actor has to do to create theatre is walk across an empty space," etc. -- so long as editors still require a thumbs-up/thumbs-down, or a four-out-of-five star rating within 350 words, what does all that rhetoric mean? Except to lend an illusory credence and a sentimental self-aggrandizement to those who quote it, being able to say "As Peter Brook says, so say I"?

Nothing personal, of course, as you know, but I'm beginning to feel that appeals to Brook's rather sentimentalist and (these days) unhelpfully impressionistic attitude to theatre are all well and good, but then, where are we? Really, critics should be badgering their editors -- or going elsewhere, opening alternative avenues to the long-form criticism we all admire. Otherwise, there's a bit of hot air to it all. Not that I've never been accused of that myself. But still.

And the sports/art equivalency is nonsense, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that art is not a competition, which sport certaintly is -- indeed, it depends upon its nature as competition to build an audience and enthusiasm. All that expertise is directed towards a win/loss dichotomy. I don't see how that helps theatre.

Born Dancin' said...

My only problem with the sporting analogy is that a lot of art is about breaking "rules". And while the usual rejoinder is that you need to know the rules to break them (for artists) or know the rules in order to notice them being broken (for audiences/critics) I think there's a very important place for "uninformed" criticism... or perhaps "differently informed".

George Hunka said...

But the distinction is pointless and relies on some kind of "tabula rasa" of the observing critic, or subject, which doesn't exist. Even if they don't know much 'bout no "theatre," they know what they like. I've got nothing against "informed" criticism. But instead of sports, why not use the equivalency of economics reporter? Or Middle East expert? If one is going to have one or another, why not those?

Born Dancin' said...

I should be more specific - the important place for the uniformed critic is the internet. I don't think that someone with no understanding of economics should be editing the finance pages of a newspaper.

George Hunka said...

Speaking for a critic who works almost entirely on the Internet, Born Dancin', I disagree. But won't go further.

neandellus said...

I dont like it (Brook, that is). When Brook says 'insider', I think 'co-option'. And if theatre-makers co-opt critics into the creative process, doesn't that compromise the critic's function qua *one who reviews*? Or am I being naive, in that critics cannever be free from such compromise?

I just think that if the creative process is the vesting of *intention* in performance, and if the critic is joined as an investor in that performance, a conflict of interest naturally occurs. The critic will speak of his or her experience of the intention rather than of the performance itself. The audience, non-participants, will be excluded. The critic who is not within the creative project cannot know the intention and therefore must speak to the project as a whole. They will speak on behalf of the audience. Or am I being obtuse, reducing Brook to the instance of a single performance?

But even as a broader ambition, the embedding of critics in the theatre industry, there is the danger of insularity, I think. Take sports commentators. I have no problem with this analogy: to say that professional sport is directed only at a win/loss dichotomy is hugely simplistic. Eg it makes no sense to say that a rules committee is only interested in its win/loss ratio. But we shouldn’t hold sports commentators up as ideal critics. Sports commentators, particularly former and current participants in the game they comment on, precisely because they’re so intimate with other participants, struggle to see the game in any sort of broader context, be it social, political or, as we’ve seen recently, moral.

On the other hand, there's no harm in dialogue. Dialogue is the best way for a critic to formulate what the theatre could be. But dialogue can be conducted at arms length. It does not require an embrace.

Anonymous said...

The loathsome sport analogy is used in acting classes.

American actors talk about 'winning' a scene.

I die a little.

Anonymous said...

For me the theatre is about secret transmissions. This is what I look for as a maker and an audience member. It is a ritual – every kind of compromise is part f its making – the weather, troublesome shoelaces, misunderstandings, cost, unintended noises. etc. Everyone with an interest in it has a form of these compromises (pragmatics, crafts, lineages, expectations, weathers) to contend with and to make use of to comprehend or respond in the theatre. But each actor in the game prepares for something free of all this. something which may only ever be renamed, imagined, or held very close until it burns out.

Alison Croggon said...

Wow, a gal goes about her business and what happens...? I rather fear this will be a longish comment.

George, I think Brook is no more nor less sacred than any other thinker. In a practical sense, yes, his exhortations - or perhaps more properly, speculations - about the possibilities of theatre criticism have deeply informed my own practice. And I am absolutely part of critical practice today. For various reasons, I've been a bit thoughtful about criticism (and, yes, egocentrically, about how I came to be the kind of critic I am) over the past couple of weeks. When I was a tyro critic/poet, there were a few pieces of writing I can identify as important to me. One was The Empty Space. Another was David Mamet's impassioned address to critics in Writing in Restuarants. A third was Robert Brustein's collection of reviews, Who Needs Theatre? (Equally important, in other ways, were Randall Jarrell's and Octavio Paz's poetry criticism - both brilliant critics who were also brilliant poets - and things like Baudelaire's writings about visual art, or Mandelstam's critical essays). Why these texts should particularly interest me, as someone whose writerly practice as a poet and critic evolved side by side and closely informed each other, is probably obvious. Is it sentimental? How? What is sentimental about calling for precise and informed criticism, for demanding (as Brook does) that critics be dissatisfied and difficult, and part of an honest and robust conversation - and perhaps most pertinently, understand that as audience members they are an active part of the theatre?

I think you're misunderstanding the art/sport parallel. It's probably a local thing. No one was saying that sport is the same as art. I think that art and sport have certain interesting relationships, even aesthetically (and I cite Barthes on this for a start), but I would never claim they are the same, or that they have the same aims. Here we were simply saying that an Australian mass media sportswriter would not get away with the kind of ignorance of the practice of sport that is often demonstrated in commentaries on art. (Point taken on the "rules", Born Dancin, although I am old fashioned and still think you need to know what the rules are before you break themy). Yes, Neandellus, there are boneheads in sports writing as well: but I am thinking of writers like Gary Linnell and Martin Flanagan here, fine critics of their sports who are also very fine writers, and who for all the sophistication and detail of their commentary, would never be accused of elitism - as would an arts writer working at the same level. This is purely and simply about a literacy in the form within its commentary. I think it's desirable. I think it builds a bridge between artists and audiences, and in fact empowers both.

(tbc - blogger just got bossy)

Alison Croggon said...

...cont

And yes, there is a place for "uninformed" (even uniformed) criticism, Born Dancin, but I don't think it ought to be the default position. I'm sure you know that it sometimes seems in the media that the more you know about art, the less trustworthy you can be considered as an observer. I can't think of a single other discipline in journalism (and I've worked in a few of them myself) in which that is the case. An economics or industrial relations reporter is more valued the more she knows about economics or industrial relations... "Embedded" is entirely the wrong metaphor here, Neandellus - it suggests being held to ransom, a deal with the devil, and Brook quite explicitly isn't speaking of such a thing. (Fwiw, I don't think artistic intention has anything to do with evaluating art - as audiences we can't know it, and it's presumptuous to think that we might. Or even that the artist might. Take it from me, artists can be very wrong about their own work, and are wiser if they speak not of it).

I guess the "insider" thing might be a problem if, critically speaking, you thought artists mattered more than the art. But if you think the art is what matters most, then you are gesturing towards something larger than the critic or the artists or the audience. We can all differ on what we think the art might be, but a belief in the value of art can be the common idea from which a conversation might be extended. As for context: well, that would depend on every individual critic, surely? We all have lives that aren't to do with art. And we all live in the world. It's a risk, perhaps, but surely no worse than many others that bedevil the practice of criticism and which seem to me more damaging, such as lack of curiosity. Informed criticism would surely tend more to open art out into the world, rather than hemming it in.

George Hunka said...

Sorry to have been just a bit bossy myself in my original post -- I suppose I've just been put off by all the "me-tooing" that's gone on recently in this medium, and that's also something I can be charged with as well. I certainly am aware that you're a far more supple thinker than that and as you know deeply respect it. So mea culpa, and sincere apologies.

On the other hand, yes, I do think there's something sentimental in Brook's formulation, and not necessarily true. "The criticism that theatre people make of one another is usually of devastating severity - but absolutely precise" seems, in my experience, to be wishful thinking -- certainly to be sought after of course, and tremendously collegial, but often no more insightful, precise nor honest than those outside the theatre. (The reviews on nytheatre.com, for example, written almost entirely by practitioners, are not that much more insightful or precise to my mind than those elsewhere.) Second, although two major New York critics (Michael Feingold and David Cote) are theatre workers themselves, it's very hard to say that their criticism benefits as a result, whatever their virtues as critics. If they can be wrong about their own work, it's not so hard to be wrong about others' as well (even if their mistakes are informed mistakes).

I suppose, when it comes to sport (and more specifically the reportage attached to it), one can see it from that Barthesian angle, but there's also his nemesis Adorno, who would probably see that kind of reportage devoted to sport something of a dissipation of sport's function in a society, an absorption of serious play into the consumerist maw of the culture industry. But what else would you expect from dour Teddy?

As for me, I'm itching to get my hands on Apollonaire's book on the Cubist painters.

Alison Croggon said...

No apologies required, George. Nothing like a bit of bracing questioning to get the synapses sparking... I wonder again if we're talking cultural differences here? What Brook says about practitioners is certainly the case in my experience. Not always, of course, but often enough for me to find it unexceptional. And quite aside from the educational interest of discussing shows with a tough and intelligent practitioner, sometimes theatre makers are a lot harder on their own work than I am, which is always an interesting conversation. And often enough, I disagree with them about that, too, which kind of reverses the accepted binaries ...

George Hunka said...

Perhaps it is a cultural difference; perhaps, more, it's what the cultures do to the individuals. Ah, what oceans separate ...

Jake said...

The counter-quote would be this from George Orwell:

“When you meet anyone in the flesh you realize immediately that he is a human being and not a sort of caricature embodying certain ideas. It is partly for this reason that I don't mix much in literary circles, because I know from experience that once I have met and spoken to anyone I shall never again be able to feel any intellectual brutality towards him, even when I feel I ought to - like the Labour M.P.s who get patted on the back by dukes and are lost forever more.”

A confession of weakness, but a very human one. Speaking as someone who mostly writes about films and books, I have to say that my few efforts to comment in print on live performance have been emotionally very disconcerting. That is, I found it extremely difficult to be “objective” about actual human beings who had just been standing before me, visibly making an effort and awaiting my applause. I suppose theatre critics get over that…

Michael Magnusson said...

I think it is defiantly a cultural difference. In an Australian context the relationship between artist and critic is a bit rougher and possibly more wounding on both sides; the hostility of the Archibald Prize affair for example. It was literally wounding in what was probably the first great artist-meets-critic encounter in Australia when Lola Montez horsewhipped the editor of the newspaper that printed something unfavourable. And there was an instance when a playwright created an evil character whose name was very similar to that of a critic. (Wagner had also originally called Beckmesser, the pedantic and critical 'wanna be' master singer Hans Lick as a direct reference to Eduard Hanslick the music critic who routinely dismissed Wagner's music).
Did anyone read about that one-man-show a few years ago in London where Corin Redgrave played Kenneth Tynan? Redgrave spent a lot of time overcoming old grudges (even grudges he was carrying on his father's behalf) before he could work at creating the character for the show.

Alison Croggon said...

I'll set the idea of objectivity aside, because it's very vexed in criticism - I've never met nor read an objective critic, just more or less informed ones, and those who most robustly claim objectivity often seem to me to be concealing a hidden agenda or ideology. Re the personal thing: everyone has their own ethic. Lyn Gardner doesn't foster relationships with artists, because she feels it would be compromising, and I respect that choice. From my point of view, it would be difficult for me to not speak to artists, since I am one of them... worse, married to one, and mother to others. On the other hand, I am perhaps peculiar in that I've had glowing reviews I've despised for being nothing to do with what I perceive I'm doing, and negative reviews or responses which have, in my view, shown much more respect for my work. Perhaps because of this, I am acutely aware of my responses, and always interrogate them. (It's an ongoing thing). If anything, as some of my friends know, I tend to be more stern with those people whom I know than I might otherwise be. Perhaps I expect more of them. As the poet Yves Bonnefoy said, at the end of an essay where he harshly interrogated the poetry of Verlaine, such interrogation is a mark of the highest respect. There's no doubt it can be volatile. I've reached the conclusion that the only thing to do is to be absolutely open about one's own interests, and then as honest as possible. It doesn't mean that I won't be attacked for it. Complacency on any front is the killer, and you all have permission to shoot me if I show any signs of it. Believe me, I'll take notice.

neandellus said...

And that’s all I was saying (per Jake). I wasn’t running down sports criticism generally. The issue is not whether one or another sportswriter is good--of course there are good sports writers; I only meant that those who are commenting on their peers and recent peers can have blind spots. It’s not about anyone being a bonehead. It's about human nature.

(Though I'd say that analogising a) the mingling of critics with a troupe of performers so that they can better report on that troupe’s production to b) the embedding of a journalist with combat troops so they can better report on a conflict seems to me like less of a stretch than comparing a) said journalists to b) Faust.)

Of course it's nice to always be 'absolutely open about one's own interests', and I'm sure TN would be a standout for that, absolutely, but, y'know, human nature and all that.

Michael Magnusson said...

In the case of Bonnefoy's comment, the harsher the interrogation can only mean the more closely the work has been examined. That can only be a good thing.

Alison Croggon said...

Well, yes... up to a point, Lord Copper. There is a prevailing sense that a critic is only doing her job if she is persistently negative about everything (otherwise she is being "taken in") which leads to all sorts of problems, too. An interrogation needn't be harsh to be illuminating; what about Harold Hobson's early reviews of The Birthday Party, the first to recognise its originality and worth? But it does need to be an interrogation.

Re the blind spots - point taken, Neandellus (I think...), but doesn't this suppose that there is a criticism without blind spots? The reviewers I find most stimulating all have blind spots. Tynan on Beckett or Ionesco, for instance. Surely this is why it's a conversation...

Michael Magnusson said...

I wasn't actually thinking an interrogation need to harsh, in the same a criticism needn't mean negative criticism. I'm thinking along the lines of, for example, an panel where someone is defending their Doctoral research. It's pretty harrowing and the crator would feel"pinned and wriggling" at such an interrogation but it is at the 'end of the day' a bunch of people discussing a work in detail for the greater good of it.

Born Dancin' said...

"Uniformed"! What a wonderful typo. I stand by it. I was playing devil's avocado yesterday by trumpeting the uninformed critic's worth, really. I think that in Melbourne at least there are no theatre critics who don't have a strong engagement with, history in or relationships connected to the body of artists they critique. It's not a small field but people have an awareness of who they're talking about and who they're writing for.

I really don't think Brook's opposition of critics vs "theatre people" holds true here. Theatre critics are theatre people, in varying ways.

Alison Croggon said...

Oh, absolutely with you Michael. Yes, it's not very comfortable being under a microscope...

And BD, quite. I suspect Melbourne is a little unusual in that way; when Michael Billington visited here in the 1990s, he was quite shocked by it. And of course it has its negative aspects as well as its upside.

Although isn't Brook saying precisely that theatre critics are men of the theatre? Being of his time and place, of course.