The recent, glowing obituaries of Roger Ebert raise the question in my mind about what makes a good critic, which Ebert hardly was. What gives the question some importance is the possible influence of the critic on a certain art, in this case principally drama, though with relevance to all the others.
The perfect critic, obviously, cannot exist. There are too many differences in taste that no single critic, however astute, can subsume and satisfy. Probably preferable is the one who reaches out to educated, but not overeducated, readers. In the past, this would have meant graduates of a respectable institution of higher learning, but even among Ivy League graduates there were striking differences.
Thus a degree in chemistry was and is different from one in literature, but even within the latter, one in Romance languages was very different from one in Slavic languages, to say nothing of English, a sort of omnium gatherum for optimistic future dilettantes.
Still, let us settle on the notion that a good critic would excel at three things: thinking, taste and style in a three-pronged approach—just one or two of which virtues won’t suffice. Let me explain.
Good thinking is the ability to determine whether a play (or novel, or film) makes sense. But sense in a work of art is very different from sense in, say, physics. Or even history, where respectable practitioners will disagree about whether Gladstone of Disraeli was the better prime minister, whether the Athenian or Spartan commanders were better strategists. There is no litmus paper that can incontrovertibly decide.
Good taste is a totally unscientific criterion. A respectable drama critic like the late Clive Barnes preferred Neil Simon’s plays to Bernard Shaw’s. I find that absurd. But how do I prove that, in this instance at least, my taste is better than his? Is preferring the plays of Lanford Wilson more tasteful than preferring those of Sam Shepard? Only in extreme cases is taste demonstrable; say, in preferring Shakespeare to Tourneur or Massinger.
Now style. The theater critics of the New York Times have manifestly better style than that of reviewers for some marginal provincial publication. But however they may champion (as they sometimes do) some trendy, trumpery nonentity, of what value is their eloquent encomium? No one will dispute hat their style is superior to that of some fellow on the Mudville Clarion, but is that enough?
Yet in America today’s two main drama critics of the Times are the nearest thing to theatrical arbiters, if you discount such TV pundits as the late Roger Ebert. But how does one become a main drama critic at the Times? These chaps know how to write, which is for what the publisher or editor picked them. But said publisher or editor proceeded on the basis of mere style; it is too much to expect those journalistic powers that be to have personally inspected the garbage crowned by proficient prose or the superior work left unappreciated by labile taste and insufficient thought. But the No. 2 or 3 reviewer is never promoted to No. 1 when that post becomes vacated. The successor is always chosen from among some other successful megalopolitan reviewers, American or British, proving that even style is not as important as imported prestige.
Assuming, though, that style matters over thought and taste, what does this really mean? If I may use a tennis analogy: the stylist is like the player who has a terrific forehand (style), but not much of a backhand (taste), and definitely not much talent for volleying. Yet there are all round tennis players (I’ll throw in even lobs and overheads), but no such all round critics to speak of.
But let us get to the problem of how the best possible critic is made. Orator fit, poeta nascitur, as the old saying has it: the rhetorician is made; the poet is born. Still, even if the critic, like the poet, is innately gifted, there are acquired qualities. What truly develops him is good reading, not only in his field but also in related others. This may be acquired partly through education, but must also feature intellectual curiosity. Responsible reading should encourage not only emulation but also refutation: one learns through both approval and rejection.
Experience, too, matters—enormously. For a drama critic, this means seeing as much theater as possible, but also reading the fine plays, mostly classics, many of which remain unproduced or unrevived. Important, too, is seeing theater in more than one’s own country, which, of course, presupposes knowledge of foreign languages. But it also predicates good, inspiring teachers, and demands, however costly, travel. And it also means good human contacts and intellectual exchanges, and willingness to learn from them. No knowledge of any kind, however seemingly remote, is totally dispensable.
But, clearly, learning from the great critics of the past is of the essence. These may be as universally recognized as Aristotle and Longinus, but may also be best known merely nationally. For English speakers, this means the likes of Samuel Johnson, Hazlitt, Matthew Arnold, Ruskin and Pater, Beerbohm and Shaw. For readers of French, this might include Taine, Lanson and Brunetière, and, more recently, Albert Thibaudet and Paul Valéry. It would certainly include, besides such full-time critics as the great Sainte-Beuve and Rivière, some all-important part-time ones like Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Gide, Camus and Sartre. Forgive me for skipping more recent ones, structuralists or semiologists, whom I find unreadable.
In the German Realm, there are Goethe, Schiller, Lessing and the Schlegel brothers, but also some writers better-known for other things, such as Loerke, Benn, Mann, and Brecht. Among even more recent ones, I mention Hans Egon Holthusen, Berthold Viertel, Friedrich Torberg, and Marcel Reich-Ranicki.
Among the very recent whom I have read with profit, I signal Jacques Barzun, Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson and Dwight Macdonald, though none of them is that much concerned with drama, but all are very useful all the same.
However all along, as among some of the above, there have been occasional forays into criticism, or even dramatic criticism, by those of whom one might not necessarily think of as so inclined; take, for example, the poet Heinrich Heine, among whose superb prose writings there is much of interest for critics. Or so, currently, with the writings of the brilliant poet-essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger.
The sad thing is that criticism is considered a minor art, and, to be sure, by some of its current practitioners it is not even that. A real problem is that to be fully appreciated, it requires also some knowledge of it subject. However compelling Jacques Barzun may be about Stendhal, if you haven’t read Stendhal you may not even want to read Barzun’s essay, let alone be able to fully appreciate it. Even the wonderful Walter Pater is remembered more for a few quasi-poetic bravura passages from his book about the Renaissance than for his fine criticism as a whole.
Criticism, admittedly, lacks a certain oomph. Although Oscar Wilde’s critical essays are as dazzling as his plays, if there weren’t for the latter, the former would be paid scant heed. Even the most magnificent modern dramatic criticism—think Kenneth Tynan, who wrote as well as any novelist or playwright, is unlikely to make it into the classrooms alongside of, say, Coleridge or Yeats, and they too more likely for their poems.
I wonder how many of you will bother even reading all of this. After all, it’s only about criticism.