Et cetera ~ theatre notes

Monday, August 03, 2009

Et cetera

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!


Anonymous said...

A very long time ago, I had the good fortune to attend the opening night of The Rocky Horror Show in Sydney as the companion of a newspaper theatre critic. After the show I started to chat away, having serious fun I suppose, but the critic's polite lack of response soon made me realise that I was Doing It Wrong. I don't thibnk it was so mucvh a matter of protecting precious thoughts, as the critic trying to allow her own responses to the play to develop without being hybridised with her responses to the indubitably callow enthusiasms of her youthful companion.

That is to say, I wouldn't dismiss out of hand a critic's need to let the play simmer in her/his head a bit after the final curtain, before engaging with other people's responses / judgements / analyses.

Anonymous said...

I was just about to write a response vehemently agreeing with the position that post-performance conversation is a good thing, and by extension all conversation about theatre, but then I remembered what happens when it comes time for me to write a review - the process that I go through:

Think. Think some more. Drink tea. Continue thinking. Write. Post.

Only after I have posted will I allow myself to look at the other reviews in the papers and online. (Something to do with keeping my response "pure", I guess.)

So I'm quite happy to talk to people about the play after the performance, but I don't look at other reviews before writing mine. Saying that now, it seems a tad hypocritical, but it works for me. (Maybe it's just that I only start to "simmer" (as Jonathan was saying) the next day, rather than immediately at the end of the play.)

Alison Croggon said...

There are many ways of skinning a cat.

I guess my ideal way of responding takes place over a few days. It varies, but certainly with more complex or powerful work, it takes that long for the resonances to work their way through. This obviously doesn't work when I have to file for a newspaper straight after seeing a play, though there is something interesting too in being forced to an immediacy of response; but on the whole, I think later is better for me. Sometimes this includes absorbing other responses (quite often I use them as dialectic, especially where I disagree, because it highlights something that I actually think or can trigger another line of thought) but not always. It always includes some degree of research or reading.

A stand up argument with a worthy interlocutor after a play - which has occasionally happened - can be confusing (what did I actually think? Or am I defending what I think just for the sake of defending it, not because I think it? Or has a forcefully put position actually erased what I thought? Etc...) But that's ultimately clarifying as well, as long as I address those questions. Whatever the conversation afterwards, I still experienced whatever it was I experienced, and that in the end is what I have to write from.

Matthew said...

I'm very much with Neandellus on at least one point: opinion, while important, is not the be-all and end-all of criticism, and should rather be teamed with (or, perhaps, buttressed by) analysis and discussion and channelled into judgement. Indeed, analysis and discussion help opinion to graduate to judgement. (Maybe opinion, in this semantic equation, is instinctual, where judgement is more considered? Or maybe not.) Personally, I fail to see how the four can be isolated from another at all without conscious effort, but there you go. (At last year's Emerging Writer's Festival, I spoke about the centrality of judgement, in particular, to the critic's role, and attacked both description- and instinctual opinion-based reviews as detrimental to the culture! Talk about precocious. Still, judgemental-analytical criticism has always been where I've most comfortable; the history-of-the-text stuff you do, Ms C, is something I couldn't hope to replicate just yet, and with you doing it so brilliantly, I admit, I've never especially felt that I should. Sure I could Wikipedia this information and pretend I know more than I do, but then...)

To some extent, however, I would disagree with Neandellus's reading of both Meyrick and Craven on same point. (Do I post about this here or on Neandellus's blog? Probably both. Stupid interwebs. Bring on Google Wave.) I agree that conversation and dialogue (before writing one's review or otherwise) helps brilliantly to refine one's opinion (and, indeed, that it is fun). Conversation, as much as solitary thought, is part of the process that turns one's instinctual response (which is still important) into a more considered one. But engaging in conversation is hardly the same as "review[ing] on behalf of the audience," which is what Craven attacked, nor the same as "framing ... the public response to a show," which is what Meyrick suggested was one of the critic's duties. Craven's choice of the word "fudge" does indeed sound a little misguided in this context, but no more than Meyrick's choice of "framing", which Neandellus interprets much more broadly than he does "fudge". In the end (in my considered opinion?), Craven is correct to suggest that one's response essentially remains one's own regardless of the influence that any post-show conversations may have upon it. As Neandellus writes, "The dialogue helps me better articulate my own response," which, it seems to me, is rather the point: it still remains one's own response, just better articulated. That still doesn't mean it's the critic's job (whether a newspaper reviewer or otherwise) to record what everyone else thought. For one thing, to presume to do so would be the height of arrogance; even more arrogant, in fact, than presuming one's subjective judgement is something others might be interested in. Everyone else, after all, can always start a blog.

Alison Croggon said...

I tend to shy away from the word "judgment", although of course that is the fact of it. But it sounds too absolute for me; I think I prefer to think of something more subtle, the making of discriminations, perhaps (discrimination is not always an evil word and can indeed be an honourable thing).

In any case, what matters most of all is that there is a range of judgments, discriminations, opinions and feelings to any work. No matter what the worth of an individual response, it's inevitably negative if it is the only one. That's why the concentration of media ownership in Australia has been fairly disastrous for arts reviewing in the mainstream press.

Matthew said...

I don't want to split hairs over the semantics (although semantics are important), but yes: whether a response, an opinion, a discrimination, or a judgement (one's capacity to shrewdly assess as much as it as an absolute ruling, after all), it helps to have many of them. As long, that is, as they are considered. For me, that is, ultimately, key. Knee-jerks have no place outside the doctor's office.

Nick said...

VLADIMIR: Abortion!
ESTRAGON: Morpion!
VLADIMIR: Sewer-rat!
ESTRAGON: (with finality): Crritic!
(He wilts, vanquished, and turns away.)

Alison Croggon said...

I love that piece of dialogue.

There is a story about Phil Motherwell being chased out of a pub by an apoplectic man, who, at a loss for suitable insults, shouted: "You... you... you... PLAYWRIGHT!!!"

Brendan said...

I think the whole dialog is wonderful. I started amateur theatre in a large regional centre, where the theatre reviewer for that town's one newspaper (when there was in fact a review, rather than the scant column space in the entertainment section being given over to some breathless spiel for the latest blockbuster at the movies) ruled supreme, wreaked havoc on egos and sensibilities alike and, pre-blogspot et al, there was no room for reasoned response.

Breathe it in - what you're smelling is cultural freedom at its finest.

Josh John said...

Did you see this one?

Josh John said...

Looking a little further down the page, yes, yes you have indeed seen that one.

David Mence said...

I really enjoyed reading Brustein & Kaufman & co on criticism.

Thanks for the link Alison -

White Whale