Theatre theory: Twenty-one Asides on Theatre Criticism

Twenty-one Asides on Theatre Criticism: 

 The following set of aphorisms can be read as one critic’s personal manifesto. They represent a series of conclusions I have come to in the course of 16 years as a professional theatre critic within Scotland, the UK and internationally. As can be seen in the footnotes, these conclusions have many influences, ranging from (their key influence) the theatre and the theoretical writings of the great, contemporary English dramatist Howard Barker, to the principles of criticism offered by the 19th-century English critic William Hazlitt (by way of his latter day disciple Tom Paulin), and the lyrics of the Australian singer-songwriter, musician, novelist and screenwriter Nick Cave.

Personal though it is, however, no manifesto worthy of the name has ever been written for an audience of one. Like Barker’s uncompromising, painfully beautiful vision for theatre (expressed, of course, in his exceptional plays, and articulated in his collections of theory Arguments for a Theatre and Death, The One and the Art of Theatre; the latter of which, I insist, is also a book of poetry and philosophy), my ‘Asides’ are addressed to the “impatient” (Barker 1997: 18).

As Barker asserts, “The critic must suffer like everyone else” (Barker: 1997: 71), and so, like all ideology, this manifesto is “the outcome of pain” (Barker 1997: 17). It is painful, and nauseating, to observe and comment upon an arena of cultural practice which is under increasing pressure to infantilise itself. We find this pressure in the commentators and practitioners who deride as “elitist” the assertion that the art of theatre must eschew the commercial and cultural pressure to “entertain”. We find it in the liberal critic who wears as a badge of honour his or her belief in the socio-political functionality of the theatre.

These ‘Asides’, therefore, are a personal response to the pain induced by this pressure. They are a cry, an ideological assertion, in defence of “radical elitism”[2] in the face of the faux democracy of cultural relativism and the puerile shibboleths of liberal humanism.

1. The critic is a privileged member of the audience.

2. The critic’s pen is a wand, a quill and a dagger.

3. Criticism exists in the discrete space between journalism and art.

4. I write here of true criticism; there are other kinds.

5. The only true critical agenda is the pursuit of quality, and so the critic is a radical elitist (Barker 1997: 32).

6. Without mercy or malice:[3] the motto of the true critic.

7. The critic is subjective. She does not deny her subjectivity. Her only responsibility is to be worthy of it.

8. The demand that the critic “reflect the collective view of the audience” nauseates.

9. When he asserts the “equal value” of all genres, the critic slits his own throat with his pen.

10. The critic is not a human “clapometer”.

11. Criticism abhors equivocation (which is distinct from nuance).

12. The bad critic: a fence sitter, deferring to personal sentiment, social propriety or cultural fashion.

13. The true critic: suspicious of consensus, prepared to be in a minority, even of one.

14. Synopsis is not criticism, although it often masquerades as such.

15. All theatre is political. So the critic is suspicious of the term “political theatre”.

16. The critic is not a doctor, she gives no prescriptions.

17. The prescription is a noose around the neck of the free artist.

18. Criticism, like poetry, is not a job, but a vocation; but the critic, like the poet, has bills to pay.

19. Polemic is for the street. The theatre is not the street.[4]

20. The critic has to be a pugilist, prepared to give and take blows.[5]

21. The critic must suffer like everyone else (Barker 1997: 71).

Works Cited

BARKER, Howard. 1997. Arguments for a Theatre (1st Ed. 1989). Manchester: Manchester University Press.


[1] Mark Brown is theatre critic of the Scottish national newspaper the Sunday Herald. He teaches in theatre studies at the University of Strathclyde and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. He is a member of the executive committee of the International Association of Theatre Critics and a member of the editorial board of the IATC’s webjournal, Critical Stages. He lives in Glasgow.

[2] An “elitism” which is based upon no factor other than the pursuit of quality, beauty and profundity in the theatre, as expressed in Barker, Arguments for a Theatre, op. cit., p.32.

[3] Nick Cave, from the lyric ‘Get Ready for Love’ (2004).

[4] Howard Barker, Death, The One and the Art of Theatre, (London: Routledge; 2005), p.3.

[5] Tom Paulin, The Guardian (London: April 4, 2004).

This piece was originally published in the webjournal Critical Stages (Issue 2) in Spring 2010

 

© Mark Brown

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