The Fall and Rise of the Theatre Critic. Aleksandra Jovićević La Sapienza University, Rome, Italy, - PDF

The Fall and Rise of the Theatre Critic Aleksandra Jovićević La Sapienza University, Rome, Italy, Various forms of modernism, challenged by an expansive postmodernism,

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The Fall and Rise of the Theatre Critic Aleksandra Jovićević La Sapienza University, Rome, Italy, Various forms of modernism, challenged by an expansive postmodernism, no longer represent significant developments in any of the old disciplines. Nevertheless, we still thrive on, or insist on many modernist values, trying to animate them and put them back to life. This seems to be a destiny of the theatre critic, as well. Born as métier just before the end of 19 th century, when the theatre became something more than a favorite pastime, already today theatre critic is an endangered species. In most European newspapers and cultural reviews, one finds journalists who have additional job as critics, as well as artists and theorists sometimes doubling as critics, but almost no one defines himself any longer as a theatre critic. Probably never in history has there been more suspicion of the established or professional theatre critic. What had happened to this figure that only a generation or two ago, strode through out the theatre landscape with the force of one George Bernard Show, Kenneth Tynan, Franco Quadri, or Michael Billington? On the institutional front, the critics were displaced little by little along with diminishing pages dedicated to the culture in the newspapers and also with a decision of scholarly journals to cut down any kind of critical evaluation of current productions, including their theoretical analysis. However, a decline of the modernist critic in newspapers and journals means that he has been replaced by different figures that multiplied across many different disciplines and postmodernist debates. In addition, a critical everyman grew in importance with the rise of Internet, where everyone has a right to air her own opinion. There has been the explosion of the so-called criticism and reviews by ordinary spectators ranging from the simple rating to serious reviews and essays by deeply committed theatre bloggers. For the first time, ordinary spectators are able to express their opinions about something publicly. In the trivial sense that means a pile of manure and nonsense in the blogo-sphere but also some pretty serious writing that can have a greater impact. In general, the loss of interest in theatre by the traditional publications has been more than compensated by the flowering of internet information and comment, including reviews which are published on the same night after the show opens. Most of the authors agree that the best writing about theatre now 1 could be found on the internet and not in traditional publications. 1 Therefore, one may ask, what is the use of the theatre critic in an age when everyone reviews? Etymologically, if the word to criticize comes from Greek, which means to separate good from bad, innovative from banal, and important from trivial, then almost everyone is able to do it. And if the roots of criticism lie not in judgment but in interest and reaction, then everyone upon encountering a work of art has some kind of reaction ranging from boredom and/or incomprehension to total appreciation. Almost everyone agrees that a special talent is needed to create an artwork, while any conscious person has a reaction to an artwork. In this sense, every spectator of every performance is entitled to some kind of response to what she just witnessed, which can happily bring us to the conclusion that everyone COULD BE and IS really some kind of a critic. Therefore, everyone can be a critic in a way that not everyone is an artist (although even that can be contested in the post Duchamp, Benjamin and Warhol era). A. O. Scott claims that criticism is an art of its own right and that a critic can also be a creator. (A. O. Scott, 2016) But then, one should ask what is it that which makes the theatre critic, a professional critic? Perhaps a new name is needed, since the old word sounds too notorious. This name carries on a certain level of chastiment because to be critical can also mean, to be ill disposed, hard to please, actively hostile, in short a hater. (A. Kirsch, 2015) In order to avoid that, the theatre critic should have the ability to question her own reaction in front of the performance, even if that performance could be hermetic or repulsive. To be a critic could also mean being capable to articulate the way one feels as one does in front of a certain work of art. It also requires a special skill to formalize and articulate those questions, i.e. we could call an ideal critic someone who is able to articulate a certain level of hermeneutics, someone who is able to depart from a simple appreciation, and then through analysis to arrive to an interpretation and definition of their own aesthetic experience. According to Nathan Heller, the critic should center on three qualities: attention, expertise, and eloquence. Critics can be decent writers, who can give a fair encapsulation of a work and detail their responses. And they are focused: since their job is studying and explaining the object at hand, they are especially alert to its nuances. (N. Heller, 2016: 62) In addition, Heller describes three different roles through which a critic can gain her authority: she could be the first to recognize someone s talent and promote it; a critic could be a scholar, who has the basis in academia and 1 For further development of the argument, see Critical Stages, the IATC web journal, no. 9, Special Topics: Alternative Criticism?: Blogging, Tweeting, Facebook, February 13, theory, and can have a broader perspective on an artwork; and finally she could be a charismatic person, who people tend to follow because they like the way she thinks. But is this enough to have a real impact on a theatre life? According to Ott Korulin, critics always take a double position: they are part of a theatre process (since their feedback could be part of the reflection of the audience perception and might influence the future artistic choices of the artist) but at the same time they are always looking in from outside (as model spectators who mediate the artistic intentions to the outer field, that is to the potential audiences) thus indicating the presence of the field. He points out five important functions of criticism in relation to an artwork: preserving artwork for history; interpreting it; giving a value judgment; mediating the artwork to the potential audiences and giving feedback for the artists involved with artwork. (O. Korulin, online, 2014) Richard Schechner calls everything what happens after the performance, its aftermath, which is the seventh and the last phase of his entire (seven-phase) performance sequence (training, workshops, rehearsals, warm-ups, performance itself, cool-down, and aftermath). According to Schechner, aftermath represents long-term consequences or follow-through of a performance, including reviews and criticism that can deeply influence some performances and performers. It means also commenting on the performances and a creation of certain feedback into performing and theories of practitioners. If the performance is liminal, analogous to the rite of transition, then aftermath is a post-liminal rite of incorporation. (R. Schechner, 1985:16-21) When in 1971 Richard Schechner asked Michael Kirby to replace him as a chief editor of Drama Review (TDR), Kirby wrote in his first editorial statement: We are not interested in opinions and value judgments about what is good and what is bad. We feel that the detailed and accurate documentation of performance is preferable and gives sufficient grounds for a reader to make its own value judgments. ( ) We should present a material that is useful to the people who actually work in the theatre material that provokes, stimulates and enriches that work. In part for this reason, we prefer articles by people who actually work in the theatre. (M. Kirby, 1971: 5) It seemed that Kirby wanted to abandon criticism and theory altogether in favor of what he called a documentation of trends and movements in the theatre, as well as a documentation of significant performances. He claimed that, unfortunately, much writing that would like to be taken as theory was rather a re-working of old ideas, or it was merely disguised 3 criticism that offered opinions, appreciations, and interpretations, instead of attempting objectivity. Kirby imposed his desire for a precise, descriptive and analytical style of The Drama Review during the time he edited it ( ). Indeed, Kirby s call for objectivity in performance documentation was a manifestation of a merciless hostility toward criticism. He went that far that, in one of his essays, he called theatrical criticism a kind of intellectual and emotional fascism that imposes opinions and value judgments on its subjects and victims. (M. Kirby, 1971: 5) In another essay, Kirby dismissed theatre criticism as unnecessary, as well as being naïve and primitive, arrogant and immoral and such should be eliminated. (M. Kirby, 1974: 65-66) Kirby explicitly contrasts criticism with performance documentation, which he sees as embracing positive values that are antithetical to those of a critic. His hostility toward criticism comes close to a well-known essay by Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation (1964) in which she characterizes criticism as poisonous for our sensibilities with an effusion of interpretation. They both shared a distaste for critics who would seek to impose their views on the work and its audience. In practice, both favored description over interpretation and evaluation. Kirby s ideal of criticism was a sort of thick description of a production reviewed without value judgment, a method taken out from anthropology (Clifford Geertz, 1973). According to Kirby, the document, as surrogate, stands in for the original event for an audience to whom that event is no longer available. It is the responsibility of the document to provide its audience with an experience as close as possible to that of the original event. This can be accomplished only if the performance documentarian recognizes that a concern with a history demands an accurate and objective record of the performance. If the role of a critic is mediating the artwork to the potential audiences and giving feedback for the artists involved with an artwork, as Kirby and Korulin claim, then we need many kinds of criticism just as we need many different kinds of theatre. Mainstream critics and bloggers are not in competition with each other, they are all part of widening and lively conversations in which artists frequently write like critics and critics sometimes curate and think and write about performances more like artists. (Lyn Gardner, 2013) These issues of crossing the borders and blurring the distribution of the roles come up with the actuality of the theatre and the contemporary performing arts, where all artistic competences step out of their own field and exchange their places and powers with all others. Therefore, instead of searching for a new definition of the role of a theatre critic, one should rather search for a definition of new theatre genres, like documentary theatre, digital 4 performance, dance theatre, autobiographical solo performances, community specific theatre, site specific theatre, live cinema, just to name a few. To address theatre criticism outside of the proper limits of the theatre, gives a possibility to expand theatre criticism as a privileged object of analysis in theatre studies, and to step out into other artistic disciplines, such as visual arts and music, and to re-think new possibilities for the relationships between performance artists and critics. If we are dealing with a crisis, then it is a crisis loaded with new possibilities for co-creation and cooperation. This could also lead to a revival of the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, which is supposed to be the apotheosis of art as an organic form of life but actually proves to be a diminishment of some strong artistic egos. The strategy that Richard Wagner has formulated in his essay, The Art Work of the Future (1849) is that the artists should overcome the distinction between various creative genres. Overcoming boundaries between various media would require artists to form fellowships, in which creative individuals with expertise in different media would participate. Furthermore, these artists fellowships must refuse the inclination to adopt themes and position that are merely arbitrary or subjective, while their talents should be used to express the artistic desire of the people, who are ready to collaborate with each other on equal basis, and/or represent a formation of a new multimedia artist, who is at the same time a writer, composer, theatre director, designer, choreographer, video artist, performer, and critic, or even a producer, a term coined by Walter Benjamin. According to Benjamin, only by transcending the specialization in the process of production, that in the bourgeois view, constitutes its order can one make this production politically useful; and the barriers imposed by specialization must be breached jointly by the productive forces that they were set up to divide. (W. Benjamin, 1978: 230) This gives us possibility to talk about the theatre critic as a kind of producer, who can discover solidarity with other producers. For both Wagner and Benjamin, the synthesis of artistic genres is more a means to an end: the unity of individual human beings, the unity of artists among themselves, and the unity of artists and the people. The crossing of the borders and the confusion of the roles should question the theatrical privilege of living presence and bring the stage back to a level of equality, where the different kinds of performances would be translated into one another, entering the growing, molten mass from which new forms are cast. (W. Benjamin, 1978: 231) It should always be remembered that we are dealing with a live art form, made anew each time, which creates a sort of alliance between each person there at that moment. For Fiona Maddocks, a classical music critic, criticism is a form 5 of passionate advocacy. According to her, the only way she knows how to be a good critic is by giving as much of herself as the musicians, which means a maximum of devotion and concentration during a performance. (F. Maddocks, 2016) This brings us back to the key question of what does specifically happen to the theatre spectators, which would not happen elsewhere? Is there something more interactive, more common to them than to the individuals who watch together, or at the same time a television show transmitted directly, or participate an online performance in real time on the Internet? According to Jacques Rancière this something is just the presupposition that the theatre is communitarian by itself. (J. Rancière, 2009: 4)This also recalls Alan Badiou s idea of an event, of representation, because a theatrical representation will never abolish a chance and in a chance the public must be counted. (A. Badiou, 2005: 97) The public is a part of what completes the idea. The collective power, which is common to the spectators, is not the status of members of a collective body, but it is the individual power of the spectator to translate, in her own way, what she is looking at and participating. The importance of the audience is perhaps a major change introduced into the theatre since the 60 s and is reaching its full swing nowadays. Empirical sociological analysis of the theatre and enormous influence by poststructuralism became the foundation for many major studies in the field. For example, Anne Ubersfeld in her book L école du spectateur (1982) focuses on the spectator, who is not only the object of the verbal and scenic discourse, the receiver in the process of communication, the king of the feast, but also the subject of a doing, the craftsman of a praxis which is continually developed only with the praxis of the stage. (A. Ubersfeld, 1982, 303.) Ubersfeld identifies various ways in which the spectator performs this activity generally with reference to instructions given by the text, the performance, or the performance situation and various sources of audience pleasure. There is a pleasure of discovery, of analyzing the signs of performance, of invention (when the spectator finds her own meanings for the theatrical signs), of identification, of experiencing temporarily the impossible or the forbidden, and finally there is the total pleasure suggested by the Indian notion of rasa, found in Natjasastra: [Rasa] is the union of all affective elements plus the distancing that gives peace. (A. Ubersfeld, 1982: 342) However, Ubersfeld does not conclude her book on this harmonious note, but on a suspended one of limits and desire as lack. Since rasa almost never can be attained during the performance but only after, through appreciation, memory, analysis, interpretation, and theory, then ultimately the spectator 6 must experience the absence of the performance, the lack of total fulfillment of total presence, both physical and intellectual. If one is ready to accept the role of the spectator that also means that one is ready to accept this condition of unfulfilled desire. The dynamic of desire, sketched by Ubersfeld, got its full development in postructuralism and especially through the work of Jacques Lacan. According to Lacan, both the conscious and the unconscious are linguistically structured with the eternally unfulfilled subject engaged always in a dialectic with and a search for ( desire for ) a Primal Other. In this constant search for pleasure, the spectator slowly will transform herself into a new kind of spectator/critic who has more empathy and understanding for the performance in front of her than an average, traditional, solid theatre critic: she will reclaim an individual power to translate and interpret directly, in her own way, what she is looking at and sometimes even participating in. The common power of both performer and spectator will then become the power of the equality of intelligence, as Alan Badiou concluded. This power binds individuals together to the very extent that it keeps them apart from each other, but enables them to find with the equal power their own way through a performance. This could be the principle of the emancipation of the spectator, and as a consequence of the critic. According to Jacques Rancière: Spectatorship is not the passivity that has to be turned into activity. ( ) What has to be done is not to turn spectators into performers, but into an active and participating spectators or rather critics. (J. Rancière, 2009: 4) According to Boris Groys, a tendency toward collaborative, participatory practice is certainly one of the main characteristics of contemporary arts. Emerging throughout the world are numerous artists groups that pointedly stipulate collective, even anonymous, authorship of their artistic production. (B. Groys, 2012: 197) Many of these collaborative practices are geared towards motivating the audience to join in, to activate the social milieu in which these practices unfold. 2 Obviously, we are dealing with numerous attempts to question and transform the fundamental condition of how modern art functions, precisely on the radical separation between artists and public. At the same time, the artist was but an impotent agent of the critic s good opinion. If a production did not find a good response from a critic, then it was de facto devoid of value. This was modern s art main danger: the production did not have a value by itself, it could not survive without a critic s appreciation and for that matter, of public. To achieve this it needed all the help it could get 2 See Boris Groys, Introduction to Antiphilosophy, Verso, London and New York, 2012; but also Clair Bishop, Participation, London: Cambridge, MA from the critic. The production had no inner value of its own and it had not merit other than the recognition the vi
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