There is a great deal about critics that Americans do not understand. First of all, the difference between what a critic writes for public consumption and what he is in private life. The two are hardly identical.
This comment is provoked by letters to or about me, by talk in the chat rooms, and by occasional references to me and my work in the prints. What it boils down to usually is that I am a good or witty writer, but that my criticism is too cruel or mean, and that I must be a very bitter and unhappy man indeed.
That stuff is based on two, as I see it, misconceptions. First, that criticism must never be that ferocious (I would prefer stern, strict or severe); and second, that such a critic must be a frustrated and embittered human being. Let me try to correct these egregious errors.
Why should a critic in private life be what he is on the page? Does a surgeon go to a party with a scalpel at the ready to cut up his fellow invitees? Does a gardener arrive hoe in hand and start belaboring the hostess’s Persian rugs? Is a cook wielding his spoons not only in the kitchen but also all over the house? Would a ballerina wear her tutu at the supermarket? The tools of one’s trade are not glued to one’s hands or hips.
So, too, with a critic. He (or she) experiences a play exactly the way any civilized audience member does, although he (or she) does not hoot his approval or disapproval loudly at he end, does not talk or fidget in his seat during performance, and does not leap to his feet for standing ovations—although he might if an event truly called for a standing ovation. All this as a normal human being, not as so much of today’s audiences as lunatics laughing loudly at the feeblest jokes (or even none), and beleaguering the stage door as a crowd of maniacs wielding devices for autographing or photographing.
No, the critic is just another human being, whose job it is to write a review rather than a play, short story, or political column. And one who doesn’t allow a stomach ache or spat with his spouse to color his judgment and take it out on the piece under review. If necessary, he’ll count to a hundred before starting to write. Only, please, don’t take that hundred literally; it might also be a night’s sleep.
What may set him off, though, is that he will have certain standards, certain expectations that set him off from the average theatergoer who, worse luck, may also be a reviewer.(Kindly don’t ask me to go again, for the nth time, into the difference between a mere journalistic scribe, the reviewer, and someone to whom dramatic criticism is a branch of literary criticism—who writes for a literate readership and perhaps even, he hopes, for the future.
Well, here goes anyway. The critic may make some allowances, but he cannot forget that there once was a Moliere, a Chekhov, a Wilde, a Tennessee Williams or, in criticism, a Shaw, a Beerbohm, an Eric Bentley, a Kenneth Tynan.. Clearly, I am thinking here of theater criticism; but a similar distinction obtains for criticism of all the arts. In other words, why shouldn’t a current contender be held up for measuring, mutatis mutandis, against past champions? Is there any reason why Rodgers and Hart shouldn’t be able to stand up to Gilbert and Sullivan?
Yes, yes, you say, but must a mere shortcoming be savaged? It may be all right for Edward Albee not to be up to Strindberg, for Arthur Miller not to equal Ibsen, for David Mamet not to be another O’Neill. Granted. But what if “Urinetown” cannot even compete with “Our Town”? What if “The Book of Mormon” cannot even hold its own against “Cabaret”?
And why shouldn’t the critic become outraged when drivel like “Passing Strange” or “Once” is hailed as if it were the like of “Pal Joey” or “Lady in he Dark”? But even if our reviewers did not go ape over garbage, as they all too often do, should one not tear into such unpardonables as the Sam Waterston “Lear” or a Frank Wildhorn musical? What, for heaven’s sake, was the kick in the butt invented for?
Consider, if you will, what Jacques Barzun wrote as a blurb for one of my books—it could have been for any of several others: “Not because he is violent in expression but because he feels strongly and thinks clearly about drama, about art and about conduct, I think John Simon’s criticism extremely important and a pleasure to read. And by the way, who has decreed that violence in a playwright is splendid and violence in a critic unforgivable?”
Or here is what Dwight Macdonald wrote in 1966 to the editor of Esquire about why he should hire me rather than Pauline Kael as film critic: “Simon has a much wider and deeper cultural background . . . I mean he knows and has thought more about other ‘fields’–-ugh—like books, theater, and art—and also because his work seems to me to show an interest in what I think is the point: whether the film is any good aesthetically . . . a much richer and more daring kind of criticism than Pauline’s.”
And here is Wilfrid Sheed in response to Andrew Sarris’s attack: “Sarris’s case against Simon is not so easy to make out, since Andy tends to scream and pull hair when he fights: but it seems, like most Simonology, to take off from Simon’s Transylvanian accent, and the remoteness from American reality which that implies. Simon is, to be sure, not your typical American boy. He staggers under a formidable load of cultural baggage, gathered at a time and place (middle-century Central Europe) when and where it did seem possible to grasp all that Art was doing; to make, as Mr. Simon can, a good fist at criticizing music, painting, sculpture, theater, the works.”
I rest my case, except about that jocular “Transylvanian accent,” which Sheed, incidentally, did not subscribe to but merely used as a comic summary of Sarris’s argument.. My accent is admittedly slightly foreign, but not, as Andrew would imply, Draculan or Lugosian. I would say it is more like that of an American or British actor trying to sound Continental European, and, I am happy to report, has proved rather pleasing to some charming American women who have lent an ear--and more--to it.