‘All criticism, after all, is a criticism of the critic himself before it is one of the criticised’ wrote G.J. Nathan in his 1928 work, Art of the Night. It is this subtext, this implicit judgement of the critical voice that I hope to reveal and crystallise here, albeit with the fairly ham-fisted approach of reviewing a review. Assuming that the highest-paid drama critic of all time knew something about being a decent reviewer, and taking his words a shade too literally, I present a commentary on one of the pieces I wrote for EFR this August, specifically my review of A Modernist Event, which I saw on the 18th.
Structurally and stylistically, there is no glaring reason to be dissatisfied with my work. I follow a fairly rigid formula when writing a review principally because, relative novice as I am, I find a predetermined structure is invaluable in ensuring coherence. Hopefully as I grow more confident I will allow myself more freedom. Naturally there will be some that find my writing style irritatingly formal and there will be those that find it refreshingly detached. Reviewing is fundamentally subjective (a point to which I will return in a moment) but I still find using the first person biliously arrogant, and so I don’t. Likewise with the tense; the present, aside from considering the show as an ongoing production, offers an engaging immediacy that I find appropriate. Hence, in the second paragraph, ‘The majority of audiences will be unable…’, rather than the more vulnerable, and frankly childish-sounding (in my mind), ‘I was unable…’
What I am genuinely regretful over, and what provided the inspiration for this brief commentary, is the blatantly reactionary attitude that imbues the review. Reading between the lines, my criticism of the performers’ frozen positions as the audience filed in, with their ‘irritatingly false smiles and lurid costumes’ betrays my immediate distaste. It should be fairly obvious from comments such as this that I did not enjoy watching A Modernist Event. There is no problem with this in itself – as already intimated, I consider the subjective nature of criticism to be of paramount importance and I fully subscribe to the view that masking true opinion behind consolatory compliments does an injustice to both performer and audience – yet in this case my negative feelings towards it stemmed from an uncomprehending discomfort, rather than from an informed, dispassionate analysis. I did not criticise A Modernist Event from the trenches of knowledge and understanding, but from the relative no-man’s land of ignorant, and ultimately disrespectful confusion.
One sentence is particularly galling to recall: ‘…for all its high-brow pretensions, the work of Antonin Artaud, or at least this interpretation presented here, largely consists of orgiastic writhing, piercingly sharp screams and wholly ill-advised audience interaction…’ Whilst the description is undeniably apposite, I am frankly surprised that I got away with attacking the piece from a position such naivety. Antonin Artaud’s seminal manifesto,The Theatre and Its Double, was published in 1938 and, in the words of Jean-Louis Barrault, was ‘far and away the most important thing that has been written about theatre in the 20th century’. Now, having read of the arguably incomparable influence of Artaud’s theories on contemporary theatre, in particular his attacks on ‘the subjugation of the theatre to the text’ and his belief that theatre should embody the multifarious dreams of the audience, I wince when rereading my review.
As a result of my ignorance, I saw the performance and wrote the review with entirely the wrong attitude. I viewed A Modernist Event as an hour-long endurance test, to be scorned for its pretensions and vituperated for its abrasive vulgarity. I should have been prepared to embrace its evocative style, to allow it to lead me to the deepest, darkest corners of my imagination, and to relish seeing the results played out before me – this would have been an appropriate stance to adopt when reviewing it. This is not to say that were I to see A Modernist Event again I would enjoy it any more – I genuinely don’t know if I would. But if I could see it now, even with this rudimentary, yet infinitely improved awareness of its origins and ambitions, I would certainly consider it on its own terms, rather than judge it in the kangaroo court of my own inadequacy.
This, in my opinion, is the single most important requisite in writing criticism: the ability to judge a piece on its own terms – to recognise and to understand its background, its intentions and it’s aspirations, and to consider it in relation to them before judging it subjectively. Only once the question of whether or not a performance fulfils its aims can be comprehensively answered, can the critical value of those aims be addressed. It is imperative to understand a piece, or to at least comprehend its intentions, before reviewing it.
In a letter to a young R. Golding-Bright dated 30th April 1894, George Bernard Shaw briefly outlined the essentials of being a critic:
‘Remember, to be a critic, you must not only be a bit of an expert in your subject, but you must also have literary skill, and trained critical skill, too – the power of analysis, comparison, etc.’
In my review of A Modernist Event then, I singularly failed as a responsible critic. Whatever my literary and critical skills, my lack of expertise, or more appositely my incomprehension of a piece I almost immediately dismissed, has rendered my review entirely invalid as criticism. Frankly, I have let the performers down, I have let EFR down, and (oh good lord, I’m going to say it) I’ve let myself down as well. Can I be blamed, or rather, should I lambast myself so harshly? Possibly not – awareness will come with expertise, which will come with experience – but it is undoubtedly a personal regret of my time with EFR this summer that I did not treat A Modernist Event with the respect it deserved.