Critics and "objectivity" ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Critics and "objectivity"

Fellow theatre blogger Spearbearer Down Left has a post on Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Paula Vogel (how's that for alliteration, folks?) which caught my eye, because it talks about crrrrritics.

Paula Vogel has, it seems, invited theatre critics along to a day-long "boot camp", during which they'll be asked to write plays "on the spot". This is an idea that has a history: I remember some years ago the Guardian's theatre critic Michael Billington writing about an exercise in which he was invited to direct a play, in order to understand better how difficult it is. And there are those panels (I've participated in at least two) which "criticise the critics". It's part of the endless quest by the theatre world to grapple critics to its heart, all the better to strangle them (only joking).

Spearbearer writes:

Vogel has an open, yet somewhat skeptical view of theatre criticism.  Readers of this blog will find it no surprise that it resonates with me.  She says, "I disagree with the stance of critics being objective journalists outside the theatre community.  Such an attitude is becoming destructive to our field, and I imagine it's hard for them to maintain their love of theatre as outsiders."

Linda Winer of Newsday, worries that critics writing plays poses "a slippery ethical—or appearance of ethical—problem.  If a critic's plays are circulating and productions being considered by various theatres, doesn't that critic have a conflict of interest at those theatres?"  To which my first reaction would be: with all due respect, let's talk about it once you have that problem.

Of course in theory, she does bring up a valid issue.  And full disclosure is the answer.  Such a problem doesn't seem to have prevented Robert Brustein from engaging in both criticism and theatre creation.  He simply discloses when he's discussing someone with which he may have a conflict of interest.  And readers can draw their own conclusions.  In other words, he doesn't pretend to be, in Vogel's words, "an objective journalist outside the theatre community."

Robert Brustein was an early inspiration to me, back when I was a tyro-critic doing what Clive James described once as an "iceberg on a raft" impression (the art of appearing to reveal only ten per cent of one's knowledge, when what is on show is everything that one knows). Another touchstone was David Mamet's plea to critics in his book of essays Writing in Restaurants (that was in the old days, before he became a Hollywood-bloated Guru).

That old stance of critics being objective reporters on the theatre has always seemed to me to be a load of hooey. And it is, as Vogel claims, profoundly destructive: it's the attitude at the root of the deadly criticism that has been the bane of Melbourne theatre for decades. It's an idea which hermetically seals a critic from the experience of theatre, being forced thereby to sit above it on a higher, purer plane, uncontaminated by anything that is actually going on.

Back in my Bulletin days I remember the former Age critic Leonard Radic telling me, when I innocently queried him about a play we had both just seen, that he couldn't possibly talk about it in case he was "influenced". I was amazed: what thoughts were so delicate that they could be immutably changed by a conversation? And what's so bad about being "influenced", anyway, if it means being more thoughtful?

The most profound experience of theatre - in fact, of all art - is intensely subjective; to deny that is to miss the point. This is not to say that a critic is not a privileged audience member: a critic sees more theatre than the average person, and gets to air his or her opinions about it in public. This suggests a certain responsibility: but that responsibility is not, I suggest, towards this faux objectivity, which is almost always a mask for an unacknowledged agenda. Rather than the death cap of some final "judgment", the criticism I like reading presents itself as an informed and responsive subjectivity that is part of a many-sided conversation.

Anyway, that's what I'm trying to do here. I figure that I'm part of the theatre community - as, in fact, is any person who buys a ticket and rocks up for the show. I'm an artist who thinks theatre is a brilliant art form, and I will argue with it until I turn blue, out of sheer fascination. I have my preferences and advocacies, which I hope are clear in what I write, and full disclosure of my particular interests are up there in the side bar. I hope I'm always fair, or at the least honest. And all you out there have permission to kick me if I ever pretend to be "objective".


Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jens

I don't think Mamet is soulless or a drone. And I admire a lot of his work immensely. But you're right. I don't like the recent work nearly as much.

That comment specifically comes from my bad reaction to Mamet's book "True and False: Heresy and Common Sense For the Actor". Mamet sets out to vanquish all gurus, and then you find out that he's the guru who will replace all the others. He preaches freedom from dogma for all actors; apart, that is, from his own dogma. This sleight of hand is accomplished by an ineffable sense of his own rightness, and of the rightness, always, of the Writer. As it were.

Lots of people, including actors, love that book, of course. But I found it very hard to take.

All the best


Alison Croggon said...

Dear Alison,

As an 'ex-critic', I can't resist a retort to some of this. It's dispassionate', in so far as I don't know any of the people involved.

> Paula Vogel has, it seems, invited theatre critics along to a day-long "boot camp", during which they'll be asked to write plays "on the spot".

Does that mean she thinks she can write significant plays 'on the spot'? If not, what's the big deal?

> I remember some years ago the Guardian's theatre critic Michael Billington
> writing about an exercise in which he was invited
> to direct a play, in order to understand better how difficult it is.

Please, this kind of strategy is infantile. For the most part, directors exist to project works (usually by others) into the public arena, either objectively or with a more or less personal agenda, and they have lots of time to do it. Their prestige (and how many of them don't seek prestige?) depends on the outcomes, which are necessarily judged by others. If they (are perceived to) fail, then they fail, and it's not the end of the(ir) world, unless they always fail. But if they fail, then to turn to a non-director and say "you try it" is 'at best' naive, and more typically, profoundly dishonest narcissism. Is a pianist who gives an abortive performance of a Tchaikovsky concerto entitled to turn to every critical member of the audience and say "you try it"? I don't think so. There's nothing wrong with criticising critics, but if the primary motivation is failed onanism: hmmm...

Richard Toop

Alison Croggon said...

Note: Despite appearances, I am not actually Richard Toop, the noted musicologist. He emailed this note, and I asked if I could post it here, as it's interesting.

Hi Richard

Actually, it's a little difficult to answer properly in this brief format, since caveats loom over every phrase. But I'll give it a try.

I agree with you on the idiocy of expecting critics (or anyone) to understand an artform from the inside after a day's workshop. (To be fair, Spearbearer dismisses that idea as well). And I even agree that the underlying assumption - that critics ought to feel an artist's pain before they get out their hatchets - is rather juvenile. Any artist who puts their work out in public surely can't expect a grateful public to immediately fall pole-axed with admiration (ok, some of us expect that, but only in the privacy of our bathrooms). At the least, one can expect some negative criticism, and should be prepared to wear it without the tired defence that "those who can, do; those who can't, criticise".

At the same time, I think artists have a right to expect informed, responsive and responsible criticism from professional critics. They do not have the right to expect that a critic will like their work. That seems to me to be a different issue.

I think it's fair to assume that a critic ought to feel a responsibility towards the artform they investigate, which is different from feeling a responsibility towards particular artists. The critics I most admire - to name a couple, Octavio Paz, Martin Esslin, John Berger, Jann Kott - are all passionately, actively engaged with the artforms they write about. They advocate as well as attack, and they are not, in the sense spoken about here, "objective". You are that kind of critic yourself. One doesn't have to be a practitioner (neither Kott nor Esslin were, though Paz and Berger are considerable artists) in order to be at least a little informed.

But yes, I agree, there are less shallow ways of attaining that informedness than a whistle-stop tour of ersatz creativity...

All the best