Theatre criticism in general and theatre blogging in particular has been a hot topic of late. This is no surprise. Stephen Crittenden’s recent article for the Global Mail on Shit On Your Play’s Jane Simmons has sparked a debate on the nature of criticism which I’ve watched with some interest – both as an emerging (or, less kindly, wannabe) theatre critic and as someone who studied a little litcrit at uni. This has led to a series of interesting online responses to Crittenden’s piece and Simmons’s blog and to some events in Sydney which I was fortunate enough to attend this weekend – the criticism panel at the excellent playwriting festival curated by Kate Mulvany under the auspices of Writing NSW and the Sunday Forum on theatre criticism held at Belvoir St.
I don’t think it’s at all contentious to say that there is nothing in the world as interesting as passionate disagreement. That is one of the things I really, really liked about the festival panel in Rozelle. The critics speaking on this panel included Dianna Simmonds, John McCallum, Kevin Jackson, and Augusta Supple, and while I don’t know if I agreed with everything they said – and they certainly didn’t always agree with each other – the debate had was robust and vibrant. It certainly gave me a lot to think about. I came away feeling like I’d learned something (as well as being a little terrified about the amount of people who must come away from my writing thinking I’m a giant narcissist because of how often I say ‘I’, but maybe that terror is just my narcissism showing – I don’t know). The Belvoir panel, which included Elissa Blake, Darryn King, Alison Croggon, Jane Simmons, and Chris Hook, was, by contrast, much tamer. I’m not trying to say that they should have thrown down and thrown punches on the floor of Belvoir’s Upstairs Theatre, but I don’t think I came away with much new insight into the critical process. I know that passionate disagreement exists between the panellists – hell, Jane Simmons was on the panel, and anyone who’s read even a little theatre blogging recently knows what a polarising figure she’s been – but it didn’t show that much in discussion. Maybe it’s the part of me that loves sport, loves competition, or maybe it’s the academic in me who thrives on debate, but the reserved civility really did nothing for me.
I’ve been mulling over why the two events were so different – why I got so much out of the first and notso much out of the latter – and I can’t really come up with a satisfactory explanation. Perhaps the moderation styles were different, and that affected it: I did not, for example, really need to hear a detailed rundown of who does and who doesn’t take notes when they go to see a show. That mechanical level – for me, anyway – is really not interesting. But I didn’t intend to write this piece as a sort of review of the two events. Augusta Supple raised an excellent point on the festival panel – she said that she thinks of her reviews not as reviews, but as responses to the work, and that really resonated with me. This post is a response to the things I’ve heard over the weekend, not a review of individual reviewers or anything like that. This is a bit of a ramble on What Jodi Thinks About Criticism And Audience and Her Own Personal Critical Philosophy (feat. Jean-Paul Sartre, because I can be a wanker like that).
For me, the biggest question that was raised over the weekend – one that I feel the festival panel addressed with a lot more nuance and depth than the Belvoir panel – is the question of audience. The traditional publishing venues of reviews (ie newspapers) seem to make it clear that reviews are intended to guide audience behaviour, but ticket sales show that that isn’t always the case. As someone who has existed (and hopes to continue to exist) on the other side of the artistic/critical fence, I know that reviews can be vitally important on a personal level to artists, and that’s certainly the sense I got via some of the panels at the playwriting festival. In What is Literature?, Jean-Paul Sartre writes about the ideas of author and reader, subject and object. This is a massive simplification of a complex philosophy (I mean, come on, it’s Sartre), but basically, the reader exists outside an invented world and is able to perceive it objectively. The author, who has created the world, exists within it, and thus for them, the work is permanently subjective, never quite finished, always subject to change, a project into the future. It’s an imperfect philosophy, but it’s neat, and I think it can certainly apply to theatre: an artist necessarily perceives a work one way, an audience another, and who does the critic write for?
The problem with this kind of debate, however, is twofold. One, it homogenises ‘audience’, failing to recognise that an audience contains not only individuals but an artistic community as well; and two, it erases the fact that the critic is themselves a) part of the audience, and b) an individual. At the Belvoir panel, the question of a critic’s qualifications were raised, and a couple of the panellists responded with the idea that they’re just part of the audience. I felt like saying, ‘of course’, because who else is a critic supposed to be? The idea of a critic having to be somehow ‘qualified’ to comment on art is bullshit. Anyone can see a play, anyone can react to it, and any opinion is valid. Just because work might not be catered directly to your individual tastes does not negate your right to comment on it (and to comment on the fact that it was not to your individual taste).
I get really uncomfortable with the idea that someone is speaking for the masses. This was the biggest problem I had when the whole Shit On Your Play fracas happened – the idea that this blog spoke for a disenfranchised voice. Maybe this is very idealistic, and maybe it runs counter to all the links between criticism and commercialism that exist, but I think that as a critic, I only have the right to speak for myself. Criticism is not decentred. The person who watches theatre, who experiences any kind of art – the reader, for lack of a more inclusive word – cannot and should not divorce their experience of art from art. What is important to recognise is that one person’s experience may not be like another’s. I can speak only to my own experience. I can advise, I can warn, I can say what I did and didn’t like, but I can only ever speak from my perspective. Hell, I can call something ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and maybe people will agree with me, but does that mean that what I write is empirically true? Not so much.
Let me put my academic hat back on and get all lit-crit-y – noting that literary criticism is vast and complex and while I’ve studied it I’m certainly not any kind of authority and this is all a big, big simplification. (There is, I think, some interesting academic work to be done on the role audience and performance criticism and that kind of thing – I think it’s something that is totally under-studied.) In lit-crit’s formative years, criticism revolved around the author. The role of the critic was almost to ignore the text – to approach it as a detective might, to discern the author’s true intention. Then New Criticism became trendy, which is text-based: it essentially ignored the author and the reader and approached litcrit almost like maths. (I have many, many thoughts on why I hate New Crit, which I will not go into here.) And then along came Roman Ingarden, who gave us reception theory: reader-based crit. At the heart of reception theory is the idea that a text is incomplete until it is read. There is only one text, which can be read differently, and while a text is not the sum total of its interpretations, the meaning is dependent on the reader. In its most basic form, a text will mean different things to different people.
I think this is a useful way to approach criticism. It’s simultaneously comforting (‘I only have to speak for myself’) and complicating (‘how will we ever form any collective opinions on anything?’), but if we accept that art is incomplete until it is viewed, then centring the reader’s experience of art seems to make sense. Writing a review and offering detailed textual analysis with the artist specifically in mind might be useful for the artist but perhaps not for anyone else. There was some discussion on the Saturday panel about setting personal taste evaluating work on what it’s trying to do, which I think is a flawed idea – I feel like work should be evaluated on the merits of what it actually does, not on what it tries to do and whether it succeeds or fails, and the only yardstick a critic has to measure that is against their own experience. Divorcing ‘art’ from ‘how I feel about art’ – that is, trying to be objective? A lot, lot harder than it sounds. If a critic tries to be ‘objective’, I don’t think that really does anyone any favours. We get back to crit-by-numbers, and I don’t think anyone really wants art to be appraised that way.
There are no ciphers. There is no one out there that is just ‘audience member #5’. Every theatre audience, every night, is made up of individuals. I think it’s important to have a diverse variety of critics because audiences are not homogenous. A piece of art – whether it’s a literary text or opera or circus or theatre – is going to mean something different to every single person in an audience, and vibrant criticism should be a microcosm of that. I’m not saying that all critics will (or should) disagree, but that nuance and the individual reading should be celebrated. As a critic, as a reader, I can offer my opinion, my reading, of a play. Some people will go and see a play and love it. Some will hate it. Some will read a review and agree with it. Some will disagree. I think what I’m trying to get at here is treating any group as a group is innately dangerous and ultimately infantilising. Who is qualified to be a critic? Anyone. Anyone can have an opinion. The responsibilities of a critic? To give an opinion, as they see it, as they understand it. It’s as simple as that.
...of course, it’s not as simple as that. In an idealistic bubble it’s as simple as that, but in real terms? Of course not. We come back, once again, to the question of audience, of who the critic writes for. One really interesting question raised at the Belvoir panel was when people read reviews – before or after they see a show. Personally, I read reviews only after I’ve written my own, and like Darryn King, I feel a frisson of excitement when someone passionately agrees or passionately disagrees with my point of view. Going back to Sartre – he talks about how writing is for reading, how text is freedom to collaborate in the writer’s art, how a text needs to be read, to be concretised, and how the writer needs to respect the reader’s freedom. If a writer writes a sunset, the reader is necessary to realise it. I think this point is valid across many different forms of criticism. When I review – or respond to, as Augusta Supple put it, which I think is a far more useful set of words – theatre, I try to reflect the sunset as I saw it. Perhaps there are some sunsets I approach differently from others. As a ‘reader’ of theatrical art, perhaps I realise my sunsets in different ways sometimes. It’s exciting when someone sees the sunset in a similar way to me. It’s exciting when someone looks at what I thought was a sunset and sees a stormcloud. Diverse readings of texts are exciting, yo.
So who does a critic write for? I think everyone will have a different answer to that. Print critics, for example, are bound to write for a certain audience. For me? I could be super trite and say ‘myself’, but that wouldn’t be quite right. I do write to react, to respond, to express what I feel. I love the idea of criticism as art and there is something about art which is deeply personal. However, I come back to the wicked world of academia (as an analogy, not as an audience!). I am – if it’s not already painfully, excruciatingly obvious – an academic type, and when I write academic papers, I’m writing for my peers, to create or extend a dialogue with scholars in my field, hoping to further our collective knowledge and understanding. A point that was raised at the panel in Rozelle was the idea that theatre blogs have enabled an ongoing conversation about a show. When I write, I aspire to write for a critical community. Sartre (yeah, him again) said that we write for our contemporaries, our peers, and I think that we not only make art for them, but we provide our own readings of art for their own benefit. By ‘critical community’, I don’t just mean critics, but people who want to engage in ongoing dialogue about what a show did, how it did it, the ideas that it raised, anything. This could mean artists, companies, other critics, audience member #5 – anyone interested in continuing a conversation.
Do I succeed in doing this? Probably not. But in my ideal world, that’s what criticism looks like. (This has been a very longwinded, I’ve-had-a-few-glasses-of-wine-and-damn-it-I-have-things-to-say-I-have-a-bit-of-a-philosophy-crush-on-Jean-Paul-Sartre way of getting at it.) I’m glad that there have been so many opportunities to discuss theatre criticism and what it means and how it should be done and all those sorts of things over the past little while. Do I think these conversations have been conducted in the most productive way? Not really. I certainly felt that the Belvoir panel, for instance, danced around the issues and seemed to be terrified of offending anyone. But the fact that there are conversations happening about what it means to be a critic makes me happy. And if I think they’re not being done right... hey, that’s just my reading.