Commentary Magazine

On Reviewing Plays

When a playwright turns critic, a little bit of him dies. He may feign artistic health for a time and beguile himself with notions of a sensibility split into creative and critical halves without damage, but finally he will have to admit to some degree of spiritual erosion. Whether he is the victim of the romantic myth that decrees eternal battle between those who put passion on the boards and those who gauge their pleasure in the stalls, or of the equally potent cultural opinion that judgment of the arts requires an immoral presumptuousness and a mind forever alien to the real secrets of creation, the playwright-turned-critic must feel, like a young girl hastening to her first overnight rendezvous, a passing forever of virgin mysteries.

Of course, by criticism I do not mean theoretical writing whereby the dramatist tries to outline an aesthetic that will buttress and defend his art. Every artist is entitled to set down his philosophy of style in a leisurely, expansive manner disallowed by the compressed form of his art. Nor do I mean testimonials to greatness and to influences from the past. To write in homage of a master, even to quibble with him from time to time, has always proved, when the author himself plies the same trade as his subject, to be an essay in self-identification. Coleridge on Hamlet brilliantly defines Coleridge; Racine on Euripides argues cogently for French abstract nouns; Shaw on Shakespeare let the world know exactly what it could expect from Shaw. There is no doubt that such essays intend only to give as rich a background as possible for their own attempts at a fresh language and new attitudes.

The criticism I am talking about is of a humbler nature. When the mood is respectful, it is called “literary journalism”; in most instances, however, the less noble but more apposite “reviewing” is used. At this level of criticism, the play-wright-reviewer sets out of an evening preordained to judge not the depth of his personal sympathy with the play before him, but supposedly its worth. As a human being, of course, he is permitted prejudices, but they are not to be so idiosyncratic as to make his readers suspect that his reviews are only disguised plumpings for the mode of play he himself has written or will write. In short, press tickets in hand, he takes his place among those whom his heart has often cursed for being ungraced incompetents, and he wonders if any decent muse will cavort with him ever again.

Being a playwright-critic about to start a second season of reviewing—meaning that the condition cannot any longer be flicked away as temporary—I felt I owed myself a dialogue on just what I was up to. The form that it has taken is a concession to the dramatist in me; the argument, a pacification of my critical humors:

Playwright: After your introduction, I don’t think there need be any further discussion. You yourself acknowledged the breach of artistic ethic. A little bit of me has died.

Critic: Don’t forget that you were part author of that introduction. If there was any dramatic hyperbole, that’s your responsibility.

Playwright: There! Already turned into a quibbler. I suppose you think that pronouncing judgments on other playwrights is a laudable occupation. You know the agonies, the fears, and the prayers for some authority of style that goes into every line I put down. Who are you, or even we, to go about grading that authority in others?

Critic: When you had complete dominion over us, you had plenty of critical notions about your past and present colleagues. You also were prone to commenting on the abilities of certain actors and directors about town, weren’t you?

Playwright: Verbally, yes. I didn’t drape my ideas in judicial robes of print to give them a puffed-up air of majesty.

Critic: You assume the critic’s ever on the attack. True, the theater gives him a large opportunity to play the journalistic wag at the expense of efforts which never for a moment consider themselves art. But that’s a barren enterprise unless the critic makes his outrage interesting of itself. Even then, one is finally more intrigued by, say, what Shaw thought of Ibsen than by his sallies against plays like True Blue and The Manxman. If the critic must foam over what he considers an incidental outrage perpetrated upon art, he should always indicate strongly to the reader what general alternatives he has in the back of his mind. Otherwise his remarks are just unanchored whining.

But to get back to your distinction between written and verbal pronouncements. Which do you think pays art more respect? Some extempore saloon rhetoric, or a reasoned article for which we take open and sober responsibility with our signatures?

Playwright: Do you think all that sober effort has any value beyond self-indulgence? It never did for me. I have nothing against criticism except its irrelevance to the artist. You can wound him, but that’s the only commerce there’ll ever be between you.

Critic: You know very well that I’m not addressing myself to other playwrights. I realize that they are only interested in praise, and rightly so. Actors and directors may be a little more susceptible to quick critical remedies, but even they never swallow a review whole.

Playwright: If you talk about responsibility for enlightening the public. . . .

Critic: No, the public disposed to read me does not need any enlightenment or aesthetic “guidelines.”

Playwright: Then why squander precious energy that I could make good use of?

Critic: Suppose I said it was for money or for the feeling of power that comes when you see your opinions solidified in print?

Playwright: I’d say that you were trying to get off the hook by pretending to lowminded motives. It’s the hip style of our time for a person to shrug off charitable instincts as feelings of guilt or turn noble impulses into instances of egomania. It keeps you from being responsible for your pretensions. But I know you well enough to be certain that behind this new trade lie some embarrassingly old-fashioned ideals.

Critic: If you had been as unsparingly honest in your plays, they might have had longer runs. But you are right. I do have a shamefully proper reason for taking up theater criticism. It’s simply that I think the contemporary dramatic form is important enough to have, with some regularity, intelligent and considered responses to its best moments. Apart from the occasional remarks of general critics and the random jottings of academicians dispatched to the front lines, we don’t have so much as a handful of steady reviewers whose opinions mean anything. Though it’s no doubt the most exasperating and capricious of all the arts, the theater still merits, when on its best behavior, as complex a response as does any poem or novel. Perhaps even more so, for no book reviewer is called upon to weigh the effect on his judgment of a volume’s typesetting or to try and ferret out a sonnet’s worth while it’s being read by an adenoidal stutterer.

Playwright: That’s all very well. But you still end up rating “good” or “bad.” And that makes it very hard to live with you.

Critic: I can only emphasize again the word “complex.” That means that my whole life, with whatever cultivation and intelligence that formed it, stands behind the judgment.

Playwright: Judgment! Always judgment! Is that necessary? Can’t you simply be in awe and describe that feeling?

Critic: You’re talking about confronting a masterpiece, something so overwhelming that no ordinary life can ingest it. In such cases, awe is the proper attitude. But if critics were to wait for these phenomenal moments, their silences would be depressingly long. Whether for better or worse, artists are now conditioned to critical response, and to deny it to all but the supreme geniuses would be a cause for more chaos than an unflattering opinion could ever bring about. No, there is nothing wrong in saying “good” or “bad” so long as there is evidence that the critic has earned the right to stand spokesman for a good section of his civilization. Whether he is wrong or right is, of course, important; but more important still is that the art he respects does not drift by, entombed in silence.

Playwright: All right. The apology for criticism is all very noble. But let’s drag the argument down to the messy terrain of my workaday difficulties. After all, my name’s being tagged onto those articles too, and that must make it seem that there is a lot of pride and prejudice in these reviews.

Critic: If that’s so, if it seems that our essays are topheavy with the peculiarities of a playwright some distance away from convincing the world that he has mastered his art, then I’ll soon be out of a job and your problems will be over. But, if you’ll excuse me, I think it is only artistic vanity that causes this concern anyway.

Playwright: There’s no vanity in worrying whether or not you might be stultifying to me. Mulling over standards and “complex” observations on drama through the ages doesn’t make it easy for me to commit spontaneous mistakes as an artist. And if I don’t chance a hundred of those, you can give up all hope of my ever becoming first-rate. Another critic has said that a society unwilling to risk melodrama will never achieve tragedy. The same is true for an artist. He has to risk making a fool of himself over and over again, and the more dangers he’s aware of, the harder it is for him. I’m not championing ignorance, but you know very well that you could turn me into one of those cautious miniaturists who perfects a small area and doesn’t offend the sensibilities of anyone—that is to say a diffident artist. A gloomy contradiction in terms.

Critic: That might be true if I thought you would always be disposed to listen with detachment to me. But when you get the notion that grace has fallen upon you, that some angel has vouchsafed you a vision of a play that you uniquely can fashion, then I’ll be blotted from your mind.

Playwright: I hope so. I’d hate to have to ponder over whether each line I wrote proved you had a right to condemn or were accurate when you praised.

Critic: Don’t worry. I’ll be nudged aside. You’ll have all the freedom you want to make yourself a spontaneous fool and keep your artistic self-respect.

Playwright: I don’t know if I’m the victim of a little sweet sophistry, but I think I’m beginning to come to terms with you.

Critic: It will only be temporary. We can’t and shouldn’t live in harmony even though we need each other.

Playwright: Need? I’ve agreed to coexistence, but need is something else.

Critic: You need me to take your eyes on occasion off the details of your own art and put your observations into a common-market style. Whatever your opinion of these observations is worth, the fact that they have some exchange value means that your mind’s not locked in complete solitude. You’ll admit that it’s of some comfort to know that the next intimations of creation are the result of imagination and not of delirium tremens.

Playwright: You don’t get another assent from me for the rest of this argument. But supposing that there is mutual need, what’s in it for you?

Critic: My reward is your receptivity. At a performance of a play, your instinctive expertise forms and fertilizes my analysis. Though your main reactions—jealousy, contempt, superiority, or the desire to plagiarize instantly—are not the stuff of good criticism, they are of value because your mind moves naturally to the rhythms of drama. Of course I have to tidy up and weed out the artistic pathology from these responses, but having performed the tricks yourself, you don’t bother with all the theatrical sleight-of-hand which, were I unescorted, might entangle me. You are impatient with shenanigans that I might find diverting. You have an eye for the pure mysteries. Yes, I need you very much.

Playwright: Well, I won’t toast this condominium, but I’ll endure it. I just hope that with all your good intentions you don’t snuff out what little divine fire I have.

Critic: I too hope not, for I assure you I need its warmth every bit as much for my reviews as you do for your second acts.

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