Tuesday, April 15, 2008

50 Thoughts on Theatrical Criticism, 16-20

And you thought I'd forgotten about this. Nope -- just consumed with the book. And now trying to get back to lots and lots of things.

16. From Brooks Atkinson, writing in Brief Chronicles (1968):

Reviews written at top speed involve inexact phrasing. Although they communicate excitement, which is one of the theatre's most valuable assets, they are likely to be diffuse. If the reviewer does not have time enough to find the precise word to describe the play or the performance he habitually compromises on three: "Tallulah Bankhead gives a breezy, immensely comic and bridling performance." (That's bluffing.) "Knowledge, breadth of understanding and genius for writing." ("Genius" would have been enough.) "The style is simple, allusive and delightful." "The performance is warm, spontaneous and winning." "Meticulous, pertinent, fluent and funny." (Four adjectives!) Some of these words are pungent or colorful, but they are wild pitches at the target. It is only luck when one of them hits the bull's eye.

17. From the introduction to The American Theatre as Seen by Its Critics: 1752-1934, edited by Montrose J. Moses and John Mason Brown:

....For whatever else may be said against the dramatic critics -- and plenty has been said against them since the beginning of time -- they have at least done their playgoing in the theatre. Even when it is their recollections upon which they draw...it is clear that these memories are based upon the first-hand impressions of men who have gained them in the presence of the footlights. That matters immensely from the theatre's point of view, and gives to the most ephemeral of journalistic reactions, which have been formed in the same way, a documentary interest that time cannot dim for those who are interested in discovering what the theatre of yesterday, or of last season, or of a hundred and fifty years ago, was like when, in its own ephemeral way, it was attempting to cast its theatrical spell.

18. From the opening essay in George Jean Nathan's The Critic and the Drama, called "Aesthetic Jurisprudence":

Art is a reaching out into the ugliness of the world for vagrant beauty and the imprisoning of it in a tangible dream. Criticism is the dream book. All art is a kind of subconscious madness expressed in terms of sanity; criticism is essential to the interpretation of its mysteries, for about everything truly beautiful there is ever something mysterious and disconcerting. Beauty is not always immediately recognizable as beauty; what often passes for beauty is mere infatuation living beauty is like a love that has outlasted the middle years of life, and has met triumphantly the test of time, and faith, and cynic meditation. For beauty is a sleepwalker in the endless corridors of the wakeful world, uncertain, groping, and not a little strange. And criticism is its tender guide.

19. Elsewhere in Nathan's book, he quotes a great English theatre critic:

Arthur Bingham Walkley begins one of the best books ever written on the subject thus: “It is not to be gainsaid that the word criticism has gradually acquired a certain connotation of contempt…Every one who expresses opinions however imbecile in print calls himself a ‘critic.’ The greater the ignoramus the greater the likelihood of his posing as a ‘critic.’” An excellent book, as I have said, with a wealth of sharp talk in it, but Mr Walkley seems to me to err somewhat in his preliminary assumption. Criticism has acquired a connotation of contempt less because it is practised by a majority of ignoramuses than because it is accepted at full face value by an infinitely greater majority of ignoramuses. It is not the mob that curls a lip—the mob the lesser ignoramus at his own estimate of himself; it is the lonely and negligible minority man who, pausing musefully in the field that is the world, contemplates the jackasses eating the daisies.

20. And one from me:

Critics are gifts artists don't want, but which they'll happily regift to other, more unsuspecting artists, when the mood and the moment suits them.

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