Objectivity or Multiplicity? The Changing Face of Theatre Criticism
Oscar Wilde, scribe of many a witty dictum in his time, declared in the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray that ‘the critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things’.
Rather a nice way to describe the role of a critic, I think. Two of the greatest virtues in a reviewer are clarity and insight; a piece of criticism is an act of metamorphosis, the transformation of an art form into another medium, the translation of ‘beautiful things’ – or in some cases rather ugly things – into words. A simple enough prescription of the critic’s job.
Yet as time has passed, the question of what purpose theatre criticism serves has been complicated. What is the role of the theatre critic today? A question on the lips of many as arts journalism constantly evolves and with it ideas about the purpose and shape of criticism. As a writer of theatre reviews myself, this particular conundrum is one that I’ve been mentally knocking around for some time, and I’m certainly not the only one.
This week in the Guardian’s Theatre Blog, Natasha Tripney asked a closely related question: can theatre critics ever be objective? It’s an interesting debate and one that provided the springboard for me to finally set pen to paper with some of my own thoughts. Tripney questioned whether or not critics should also be fans, throwing doubt on the assumption that critics can somehow detach themselves from what they are viewing and from their own opinions and preferences to give a truly unbiased perspective.
It seems to me that the immediate, obvious answer to Tripney’s question is a resounding no. There can never really be such a thing as an objective opinion; the very phrase is itself an oxymoron, as an opinion is something inherently subjective. Reviews are there precisely to give an opinion, a value judgement – we read a review to gauge the reviewer’s opinion of the production and decide, based on this, if we want to see the production ourselves. Without a critic giving some form of verdict, the review would be all but redundant and could no longer wear the badge of criticism.
The late, great Kenneth Tynan described a critic as ‘a man who knows the way but can’t drive the car’. Surely the navigator would also have his own favourite routes and trusted roads? Whether or not they admit it, critics are after all just ordinary human beings with their own likes, dislikes and personal bank of experiences, all of which act as a lens through which any performance they see is refracted. To pretend otherwise is futile.
Perhaps, then, the real question should not be can theatre critics ever be objective, but rather should they try to be? Attempting to achieve a degree of distance between themselves and a production is often to be desired in a critic, as it allows clear-headed judgement, but a little bias is not always an entirely bad thing. It might even make theatre criticism more engaging and vibrant if critics occasionally let their own passions peek through their prose, provided that readers were made aware from the outset of the reviewer’s own particular penchant for the theatrical offering in question.
The emergence of this matter of passions throws up yet more issues. There is no doubt that ‘passion’ is an over-used word and one that in some cases provokes the urge to temporarily confiscate it from the hands of insincere writers. Yet when used in its true sense, passion is something to be celebrated rather than derided and it is a quality that is essential to the role of a critic. ‘Fan’ is another dirty word, conjuring images of slightly unsettled individuals whose ardent enthusiasms often step over the line into outright obsession, but any reviewer of theatre should also be a fan in the purest sense of the word.
While it has been established that determining the role of the critic is far from easy, if put on the spot and asked what is important in a reviewer, one of my first responses would be a love of theatre. It depresses me that some critics appear to have fallen out of love with the art form and in a few cases even seem to border on contempt for it. This is something that I have previously discussed in response to Christopher Hart’s rather shocking comments in the Sunday Times, writing that ‘if those who should be espousing the merits of theatre are not behind the creative community then arts criticism is in a sorry state indeed’ – words that I continue to stand by.
It is of course true that nobody can love everything and that not all theatre is good; I’ve seen enough below par productions to be able to attest to the latter statement. Interestingly, some review websites have now begun to look only on the sunny side, drawing out the positive aspects of productions or restricting themselves to only publishing reviews of shows that their critics have enjoyed. The Good Review has the mantra of ‘constructive rather than destructive’ criticism, while Fringe Review only posts reviews of productions that earn three stars or more. While this could begin to tip the scales too far the opposite way and undermine the importance of pointing out when something doesn’t work, at least such approaches affirm a genuine love of and enthusiasm for theatre.
To return to the question of whether or not critics should strive to be objective, it may be time to change the way in which we think about objectivity in theatre criticism. An effort to be entirely objective tugs against the tide of human nature, so it is perhaps more valuable for critics to embrace their humanity and subjectivity rather than trying in vain to hide it. Objectivity is provided instead through a multiplicity of responses, a variety of voices that we are now able to hear thanks to the dialogue opened up by the growth of digital communications.
That naturally leads into the long-standing discussion about blogging versus traditional journalism, one that has been debated at length by writers far more capable of covering the ground than I; those particular worms can remain in the can for now. But one undeniably positive consequence of the constant widening of critical outlets is that audiences no longer have only a handful of reviewers in whom they must trust and when they disagree they can throw their own response into the critical melting pot. As a result, old ideas of critical authority are being challenged and the quality of the reviews themselves will come ever more into play.
That brings me round full circle to the central idea of what criticism consists of and, connected to this, what makes a good review. Wilde’s description, nice as it may be, is a little vague. How precisely does a reviewer ‘translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things’?
Jo Caird’s recent blog for Whatsonstage.com provides a handy starting point for thinking about the vital ingredients, but as I have learnt, there is no one-size-fits-all guide for how to write a good review and I would certainly not presume, newbie theatre reviewer that I am, to say definitively what makes a quality review. The one thought I will offer is that judgements should be justified and explained; if something doesn’t work, why not? Objectivity is less important, in my mind, than justification.
Theatre criticism is an ever evolving beast and this discussion is not one that is likely to reach an end any time soon. As with criticism itself, the dialogue must go on. There are many more facets to this argument that I have not even begun to debate, such as the role of editorial policy or the often maligned (and in my opinion vastly unhelpful) star rating system; such issues can wait for another day. I will also be looking out for reports back from Devoted and Disgruntled’s recent discussion on the matter, hosted by Guardian theatre critic Lyn Gardner and A Younger Theatre’s Jake Orr, to see where the debate goes next.
So, to conclude. Can theatre critics ever be entirely objective? No. But does this limit theatre criticism? Absolutely not.
The discussion does not finish here; please comment with your own thoughts and join the ongoing debate about the direction and future of theatre criticism.