Theatre critics are under constant attack from two separate directions: from the practitioners whose work they critique, and from academics, who often use critics as stalking-horses. The Australasian Drama Studies Association Conference in 1993 was no exception to this. At a number of crucial points, academic speakers invoked critics for their use-value as villains. The mere mention of one prominent former critic’s name was always good for a light giggle and hiss, and another current critic was at times accorded a special kind of ridicule.
Attacks from the practitioners are similarly persistent. I know of two important directors who are particularly given to hair-trigger reactions – both directly to critics and in some cases behind their backs to arts editors, editors and/or editors-in-chief – at the first public sign of opinions they disagree with. Playwrights can be the same: some are notorious for their attempts to influence or neutralize critics both before and after the premieres of their plays. Jonathan Miller was right when he said that the only thing any theatre practitioner ever wants from a critic is an overwhelming avalanche of unadulterated praise.
One aim of these tactics is clearly to forestall adverse publicity in the press, and it can go further than direct attacks or rebuttals. A recent local example involved the premiere of a new work by a leading Australian playwright in one of the country’s bigger theatres. Shortly before the opening night, at the instigation of the theatre’s Artistic Director, the company’s press officer rather sheepishly rang the arts editor of a major national journal to suggest that, rather than using its regular local reviewer, the journal fly a critic in from another city to cover the event. This second critic, it was suggested, was the only one in the country who genuinely understood the playwright’s work. The arts editor interpreted this as an attempt to maximize the chances of a favourable review; to her credit, she said she would only agree to the theatre company’s choosing the critic if the newspaper could choose the director and cast the play.
Those who attack critics from within the profession often don’t realize that attacks also come from the opposite direction, from the theatre-going public. After I favourably reviewed the Queensland Theatre Company’s Romeo and Juliet towards the end of 1993, for example, I received a letter of stern reprimand from a member of the audience who had travelled a long distance to see the show on my recommendation, had hated it and left at half time. Michael Billington has told me of an even worse experience in Adelaide at the beginning of 1992, when a disappointed audience member wrote to him demanding reimbursement for the cost of the tickets for a show Billington had recommended.
It would be easy for critics to mouth pleasantries after a production they dislike, and I have sometimes heard this seriously advocated as a way of protecting the sensitivities of artists who are doing their best under difficult circumstances, and of safeguarding the delicate profession of theatre in this country. Negative reviewing has even been publicly blamed for some actors’ suicides and breakdowns. But ultimately timidity does no good to the critic, the audience or the profession.
As someone who has now ceased to be a publishing theatre critic, what I want to do here, in a totally partial and partisan way, is to defend and celebrate the negative achievements of a group of people who perform a function that is sometimes fun, occasionally unpleasant but clearly in demand. I would like to add that, with some spectacular exceptions, Australia seems to me very well served by the quality of its theatre critics (in terms of both their knowledge and their openness to innovation) compared with many other countries I know of.
First I’d like to pay a tribute to Deborah Jones, the arts editor of the Australian, who has an enormously difficult job fighting for space for the arts against financial pressures within the commercial environment of a newspaper. She is a real advocate of new ways of recording and celebrating the performing arts in this country. She also understands the situation of critics faced with the task of providing near-instant responses in less than 400 words, often to complex and difficult new work, without time for reflection or facilities for preparation – responses that will be recorded for posterity on microfilm and in the Australian and New Zealand Theatre Record, and possibly used in evidence against the critic in gatherings of theatre workers or academics for years to come.
For me, an extreme example of these difficulties was when I had to catch an overnight plane from an ADSA Conference in Perth back to Brisbane so that I could see and review the premiere of Williamson’s Money and Friends. The tensions were already high over the imminent appearance of this major new work by Australia’s best-known playwright, and the stakes had been raised further by a widely publicized fax war between Williamson and the critics around the country. Williamson had contacted a number of reviewers telling them how good he thought the production was going to be, and then, after being criticized for this, circulated a second message withdrawing the first one. I left Perth late on a Friday night, arriving in Brisbane bleary-eyed the next morning. I had been refused permission to see the script in advance, and had to see the production that night and file my review for the Australian by midday the next day This was the first review to appear in a national journal; I knew it was eagerly awaited around Australia, and would subsequently be quoted throughout the country and internationally – including, as it happened, on the cover of the published script.
My main point, though, is not to complain, but to defend the critic’s role as a commentator, and especially as a negative one under certain circumstances. I have been an actor and still work occasionally as a director; I know how much anxiety the prospect of a review can provoke, and how much sorrow and anger can result from negative comments. Clearly critics have a responsibility not to dismiss work lightly or in ignorance. But this is different from avoiding the negative.
It may be useful to focus on the social and political position of the critic. Many critics in Australia have tertiary education in theatre studies, and they often teach in tertiary institutions (the Australian, for one, currently has an articulated policy of preferring such critics). There are ways in which they can read, exercise and discuss the complex issues in current theatre theory more extensively and in a more up-to-date way than hard-pressed practitioners (the more traditional of whom tend, consciously or not, to work from assumptions based on the Leavisite approach to texts that was current when many of them were first developing their ideas about theatre). Critics also get to see a much wider range of theatre practice than most practitioners, and they should be able to use the results of their extensive reading, viewing and thinking to draw attention to examples of theatre practice that, for example, are outdated or unconsciously reinforce sexist, racist, homophobic or otherwise politically regressive stereotypes. In my experience it is pointing out these features of a production which attracts the greatest hostility from the people reviewed, who are often not accustomed to thinking in these terms about their work.
But the main point I want to make focuses on the industrial politics of the theatre industry. As any theatre worker in the country – especially those who are unemployed – will confirm, to work at one of the major state-subsidized theatres is a considerable privilege as well as a responsibility. The jobs available in any one year will be greatly outstripped by the numbers of experienced professionals willing and able to perform them. But many appointments to specific jobs or roles can be made through personal contact without public scrutiny; the casting couch is only an extreme example of this. This personal influence is not necessarily to be condemned, and in an area as sensitive as theatre it makes sense to choose to work with people you know you can trust, but sometimes these decisions are made out of laziness, or a desire to provide jobs for the boys.
There is also fierce competition among companies and groups of all sizes for government subsidy for new works. Under these circumstances there is a public need – which only the critics are in a position to fulfil – to scrutinize those who are given the opportunity and privilege of making these decisions or producing this work, to make sure that they are spending grant money responsibly and that they are the best people around to fulfil the tasks. The same principle applies, differently inflected, in the case of commercial managements, who are in the business of offering entertainment of variable quality to the public in return for often substantial amounts of money. Where the critic feels that all is not well, the general public needs to be told unambiguously.
Where the boards of performing arts companies lack the experience to judge the professional ability of their artistic staff, or are incompetent in anything except the analysis of the numbers on a budget, it can be left to the informed theatre critic to point out in public when things within a company are going wrong – when directors, designers or actors are habitually taking easy ways out, when those in long-term positions have passed their best or are not currently performing well, when there are younger or more capable people trying to find a foothold in spaces where the established and no-longer-talented have rusted permanently in place. It is sometimes necessary to point out that the privilege of this kind of position may be better handed on to other people. Given the lack of a career structure for theatre workers, suggesting that someone be chucked on the scrapheap can be particularly painful, but it is unavoidable when the critic feels honestly that it is time for new blood.
On the other hand I hope that I never see in this country a situation of the kind I witnessed in Germany a few years ago, when a conspiracy of critics orchestrated the dismissal of a theatre director from an important position. I was particularly disturbed by the glee with which they greeted the news of their success, even though his departure may well have been the best thing for all concerned – that is something I was not in a position to judge.
If this is to advocate the strategic use of personal and purely negative, even destructive criticism where appropriate, so be it. As a critic I have always assumed that the readers are not blank slates on whom my opinions are inscribed in an unmediated fashion. Readers have their own strategies for reading theatre criticism, like all other writing and performance. Critics have some direct influence on box-office, but audiences get to know the tastes of long-term critics and make their judgements accordingly. It is often said that ‘if Critic X hates it I’ll probably like it’, and I can think of examples of productions which have become wildly successful despite, or because of, adverse criticism from a clearly unsympathetic source.
Newspapers and magazines also carry their own traditions and mediations. For example, my writing for the Bulletin, which has a special history of self-consciously clever and often biting writing, was very different from the more sober and dutifully responsible reviews I felt I had to do for the Australian. In any case I take some refuge from counter-attack in the knowledge that, however aggressive, bitchy, vitriolic and destructive the most vicious critic’s writing may be, it is as nothing compared to the opinions expressed – and widely circulated within the profession – by other theatre workers, especially the ones who didn’t get the gig.