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A Sow with Five Legs

Dateline: 3rd November, 1997

The fact is, though nobody has perceived it, that a professional play-critic is a monstrosity - a sow with five legs or a man with four thumbs. Nature did not intend him, and that is why we have to conceal our repulsion when he confronts us.

So wrote Clifford Bax.

No less bitter was Edward Albee - If Atilla the Hun were alive today, he'd be a dramatic critic.

And GBS had a lot to say on the subject:

-- A drama critic is a man who leaves no turn unstoned
-- Reviewing has one advantage over suicide; in suicide you take it out on yourself; in reviewing you take it out on other people.

And there is that lovely comment from an anonymous source: A dramatic critic is a person who gives a theatre the best jeers of his life!

The influence of critics has long been a subject of debate, revived yet again last week by Sir Cameron Mackintosh. Talking of Maddie, which is to close on 8th November after losing, so it is rumoured, more than half a million pounds, he is said to have blamed the critics, not only for its demise but also for the deaths of The Goodbye Girl and Always. The critics, he said, do not understand musicals.

But do critics really have that sort of power? Are we so easily influenced that we slavishly follow what someone writes in a newspaper?

I once knew a provincial theatre critic, who worked for a large circulation local paper, whose avowed intention was to close a local theatre (for reasons best known to himself: I think he was just drunk with the power he thought he had). He's gone, but the theatre's still there.

Possibly Sir Cameron is still smarting over the constant drubbing that Martin Guerre has been getting from the critics. I don't know about you, but I've lost count of the number of revisions the show's been through! But in spite of it all, Martin is still running.

But the main point of Mackintosh's comment, however, is the implicit suggestion that critics (a) don't know their jobs, and (b) go out of their way to be condemnatory. Perhaps a little quotation from James Agate, for so many years the respected theatre critic of the Sunday Times, might be apposite here:

Dramatic criticism has three functions. The first is to let the world know what the previous night's play has been about. There's no reason why a report of this kind should not be written by the same man who describes how in the afternoon he saw a man knocked down in Oxford Street. The second function is to tell the public whether the new play is good, bad of indifferent. This means that the critic must know his job. That is if you hold with my dictionary, which defines criticism as "The art of judging with knowledge and propriety of the beauty and faults of art". The third function is to report the theatre in terms of the art of writing.
Now I can't see how anyone can take exception to that!

Kenneth Tynan, writing nearly twenty years later in 1963, said, The sheer complexity of writing a play always had dazzled me. In an effort to understand it, I became a critic. Again, who can take exception to that?

Performers, writers, producers and directors are bound to be suspicious of critics. They are the creative ones, and they see critics as parasites who simply do not understand the nature of the creative process - unless, of course, the critic thinks the show is wonderful. In which case he is clearly intelligent, sensitive and perceptive! As Oscar Wilde remarked, Ideal dramatic criticism is unqualified appreciation - a rare moment of absolute honesty from one of the creatives!

More common is Arnold Wesker's reaction: A year to write a play, a year before it's produced, then those unassailable reviews, claiming the right to be unfair. Two years of work wiped out, two more years to wait.

The debate will go on as long as theatre exists and I doubt whether the twain will ever meet. Which is probably a good thing really: it wouldn't do for either side to have their own way - they'd get too complacent!

Let's leave the last word with E. B. White:

The critic leaves at curtain fall
To find, in starting to review it,
He scarcely saw the play at all
For watching his reaction to it.

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©Peter Lathan 2001