Let me pose the problem of American drama criticism by quoting what passes for it nowadays. In a recent, enthusiastic review of Lincoln Center’s outstanding revival of Clifford Odets’s 1937 play “Golden Boy,” New York magazine’s current man on the aisle wrote: “There are, walking around today, whole generations of theatergoers with no firsthand experience of Clifford Odets’s plays—not in-performance, anyway. Count me among ’em. Having grown up in the Jewless, right-wing suburbs of Reagan’s South, I can sum up my precollege knowledge of Clifford Odets in two words: Barton Fink. … Odets himself was relegated, by academia and the marketplace both, to the artless wastes of polemic.”
The reviewer proclaims his ignorance, then blithely practices it. His chirpy tone is the voice not of a critic but of a “cricket,” the derogatory label theatricals sometimes apply to the critical enterprise. The writer makes noise but not meaning. He’s full of energy but not information. He knows that what he’s looking at is good; he just doesn’t know why. He makes the reader feel his opinion, but he doesn’t have the stylistic wherewithal to make the reader feel the play. His article is not criticism; it’s bluffing.
Odets, far from being forgotten after his meteoric rise to fame in the late 1930s, in addition to co-authoring the outstanding film “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957), went on to write popular non-polemical plays, such as his 1950 Broadway hit “The Country Girl,” which was made into a successful 1954 film with Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby, and “The Flowering Peach” (1954), which the 1955 Pulitzer drama jury reportedly favored but the Pulitzer board awarded the prize to Tennessee Williams’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
Even “Golden Boy” was adapted into a musical, in 1964, which ran for more than 500 performances. Since Odets’s death, in 1963, according to his son Walt, his children have shared royalties of around $4 million, making him hardly a talent forgotten by the marketplace or the public.
The reviewer and the critic have opposite objectives. Criticism treats the play as a metaphor; it interprets it and puts it in a larger historical, psychological and theatrical context. The critic is in the illumination business; the reviewer, by contrast, provides a consumer service. The reviewer treats the play as an event and reports its contents to the paying customers.
Reviewing assumes that the plot is the play; criticism, on the other hand, knows that the plot is only part of a conversation that the playwright is having about a complex series of historical and psychological issues. The job of the critic is to join that conversation, to explore the play and link it to the world. The job of the reviewer is to link the play to the box office.
The media has hijacked the word “critic” to refer to almost anyone dispensing judgment. When people use the term “critic” in reference to theater, they usually mean “reviewer.” The critic sells thought; the reviewer sells opinion: “Did Brantley like it?”
A drama critic has a historical and descriptive function; his job is to look at and look after the theater; a reviewer’s job is to look after the audience. In America’s post-war theater history, there have been very few bona fide theatre critics—theater-savvy writers of sensibility, who could mediate robustly between the stage and the page: Eric Bentley, Stark Young, Robert Brustein, Harold Clurman are a few. With the shrinking of newspapers and the shift in cultural tastes, there is less theater coverage than ever before, and almost no drama criticism—a parlous situation that is compounded by the deplorable loose talk and lazy writing of the blogosphere.
Discussion about theater and the ideas of theatricals has all but dried up in the public arena. For both the artists and the audience, this is a demoralizing problem that diminishes both sides of the theatrical equation. In the American whispering gallery, most of the people dishing out judgment about plays these days have no working experience of the theater, have never written a professional play or a sketch or even a joke, have never taken an acting class, or published any extended work of any kind. They are creative virgins. Everything they know about theater is book-learned and secondhand. Most of what they have to say is cultural gas. These are the “crickets.”
In criticism, there are two dramas on display: the play under examination and the mind of the critic engaged with it. In criticism, there is no right or wrong, just good argument; in the review, there is no argument at all. The drama in a review is the drama of the marketplace: Will it make money? Is it worth paying to see it? Is there a quote for the ad?
Reviewing does not require a style or even a precise or discriminating use of language; it requires formulas—“I urge you to see it,” “Not to be missed,” “Two thumbs up!” (Producers have so little respect for the writing used in reviews that they change the words at will, when adapting them for ads. No metaphor is too mixed for the billboard. My favorite: “Avalanche of hilarity.”)
Once the reviewer has delivered his judgment, his job is done; there is rarely sufficient narrative vigor to continue on. A few seasons ago, for instance, the British screenwriter and playwright William Nicholson’s “The Retreat from Moscow” was mounted on Broadway. The play dramatizes how destructive parents transmit the contents of their unconscious lives to their child: to me, it was a subtle and thrilling evening. Here is how The New York Times critic began his response: “Brrr. An early unforgiving and highly symbolic winter has descended upon the stage of the Booth Theater, where a dreary domestic drama called ‘The Retreat from Moscow’ opened last night.”
That’s essentially the review. Since the writer hasn’t set out the stakes of the play or the psychology of its characters, once he announces his judgment there’s no more to discover. He gives the conclusion before the hypothesis. The reviewer doesn’t think about what the characters are thinking; his only interest is in what he’s thinking. He hasn’t seen the drama, so he can make no drama out of what he’s seen. He doesn’t command a vocabulary; he commands a readership.
The critic’s purest impulse is not to scourge or to reform but to “make an articulate noise in the world,” as H.L. Mencken wrote. Although criticism may be one of the “lesser arts”—Mencken again—the critic, like any artist, has something to express; he does it through the subject he writes about. He has a personality on the page. He also has a style and a word horde. To be an intellectual entertainer, a command of vocabulary, syntax, and rhythm are essential. As the song says, “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.”
Theater is transient, which is its delight and its tragedy; no moment is repeatable, no performance is ‘in the can.’ Even the greatest stage performances and productions finally vanish. The theater’s joys are collective, alchemical, elusive and spiritual, which is why writing well about it is so challenging, so important, and so rare. Criticism is the only real record of the passing show.
When criticism pays proper attention to the craft, when theatrical knowledge and literary panache coalesce, the experience can be as exhilarating as it is vivid. Take, for instance, Kenneth Tynan’s pitch-perfect description of Vivien Leigh as Shakespeare’s Cleopatra: “Taking a deep breath and resolutely focusing her periwinkle charm, she launches another of her careful readings: ably and passionlessly she picks her way among its great challenges, presenting a glibly mown lawn where her author had a imagined a jungle.”
The wit of Tynan’s dissection, which is itself a bravura performance, traps a special dimension of Leigh’s performing energy. You see, you learn, you are amused, and you come away with a sense of the play, the player, and the critic.
One of the impediments to improving the state of criticism today is newspaper management’s fantasy of “objectivity.” To protect against any claim of vested interest, a sort of institutional glass wall has been raised between the critic and the theater world. The critic must not fraternize, befriend, associate, collaborate or be involved in any way with those he reports on. This policy not only insults the notion of intellectual integrity, it dooms drama reportage to ignorance.
The idea of critic-as-objective-amateur is a bias that flies in the face of historical reality. Over the decades, the major drama critics on either side of the Atlantic have been professional practitioners, either as writers, directors or producers. They have known what they were talking about, and they’ve had a vivid idiom with which to express it. Although some writers can manage the work of criticism in a small space—the late Walter Kerr, Michael Billington of The Guardian—it’s almost impossible to have a real discussion in a few hundred words. A simple way of adding depth and eloquence to the critical discourse would be for publications to review fewer plays at greater length.
Of course, there will always be those, such as the playwright Christopher Hampton, who don’t think the battle for a more responsible and vivacious criticism is worth the prize. “Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp-post what it feels about dogs,” Hampton famously sniffed. The distinction between “working writers” and critics, however, seems to me a false one. There is good writing and bad writing, and both can come in any shape or genre.
“If the critic … produces a piece of writing that shows sound structure, and brilliant color, and the flash of new and persuasive ideas, and civilized manners, and the charm of an uncommon personality, then he has given something to the world that is worth having,” H.L. Mencken wrote. Amen.
For 20 years, John Lahr was the senior drama critic of The New Yorker, for which he still writes profiles. He is the only critic to win a Tony Award, for co-writing 2002's "Elaine Stritch at Liberty."