You're probably all sick to death of last week's Meyrick/Woodhead/Croggon showdown but, as is the way of these things, it is prompting some extremely interesting thoughts about theatre criticism which I feel compelled to note. The latest is from our local Augustan, Neandellus, who contemplates the notion of critical dialogue in its various forms: between critic, audience and artist. In part, he says:
The objection that a reviewer can have no opinion except his/her own, is, to me, a non-sequitur. Why must criticism be only about opinions? What happened to judgment? It almost goes without saying that I do not believe the two are synonymous.
Anyway, that’s not how I’ve been doing it, publicly, for seven months, which, in the scheme of things, is not long. Maintaining an awareness of the audience has helped me make clear the reasons behind my own opinions and helped me produce more interesting criticism.
Echoes here of the distinguished American critic Robert Brustein, one of my own models, and his dislike of what he calls "Himalayan criticism". Myself, I agree with Brustein that opinion is the least of criticism; what matters more is an accurate and perceptive analysis. Not least because an emotive opinion - “Loved him, hated her” as Brustein puts it - is simply not arguable, although of course it is always going to colour any response. Part of theatre's seduction is that it is never pure.
Neandellus also points out the pleasures of conversation as an integral part of being part of an audience.
I, as an audience member, am dead keen on talking about what I’ve seen with whomever will listen, whether that’s my companion for the night, a fellow casual audience member, a theatre industry pleb checking out the work of their colleagues, a professional reviewer or any of the long-suffering housemates I happen to cross when I get home a-nights.... The dialogue helps me better articulate my own response. Of course I don’t have to do it like that. But it’s more fun. It’s serious fun. But it’s still fun. And it doesn’t feel wrong. Why must Craven say fudge? Why not refine? And what’s wrong with messing about?
I think Craven here is not so much arguing for a critic's Olympian untouchability - though maybe that is part of it - as reacting to a common perception that a critic has a duty to reflect the majority audience response to any work, suppressing his or her own thoughts in favour of becoming a kind of consumer guide. Its not an uncommon experience to sit in a show to which everyone else is responding wildly, either rocking with laughter or weeping into their hankies, in what Michael Billington once called "mutinous isolation". In which case, a dutiful critic usually does note the audience reaction and his or her lonely rebellion against the emotional orgy. An undutiful critic would simply shape his response in line with the majority reaction. Which is quite different from refining a response through conversation with a bunch of differently thinking others.
It used to be common to see a Critic walking around after a show in a bubble of splendid solitude, with someone whispering respectfully that one shouldn't speak to said Critic in case, I suppose, their precious thoughts became ruffled or obscured. I always thought that was just odd: if the precious thoughts are so easily destroyed, what use are they in the first place? But I think these times of eager conversation - in foyers and cafes and kitchens as well as blogs - have rather shifted that model. And that's good. As Neadellus says, conversation is serious fun.
Mind you, we're still a long way from being as outspoken as the French, who disrupted a performance of Von Horvath's Casimir et Caroline at the Avignon Festival last week with a lively performance of audience outrage in the stalls. Way to go!