The New York Critic: Essays

On Criticism

Not long ago, Marsha Norman sat on a discussion panel on Theatre Talk, a PBS program (the particular show may have been a repeat.) She commented that critics need to learn how to discriminate between the work of the various collaborators - the playwright, the director, the actor. After all, she said, people "know the difference between a chef and a waiter."

She made an important point. One of the most difficult tasks for a critic is to discriminate between the work of the various artists. It's his job to recognize his various reactions to a show and to understand the specific elements to which he's responding.

However, it isn't always so easy. The critic can usually consider the lines of the script as separate from the performance, and he may be able to identify the actor's technique as the actor's own work. But he cannot tell whether the actor decided to play the role with a certain interpretation, or was directed to play it that way.

Indeed, he can't always attribute technique to the actor. The director might have told the actor to act with greater reserve, to be more representational, etc.... The critic has no way of knowing about that note.

What's more, the work of the director playwright and the playwright merge. Even when the script isn't called an adaptation, the director may have made choices that masquerade as the script - particularly with the classics. We often cut the work. The critic would have to be very familiar with the original script to identify cuts. In the workshop process, the director may have insisted on changes - is this the playwright's work?

As an example, take the Broadway production of Anna in the Tropics a few years ago. Jimmy Smits sat on stage throughout the play once his character had been introduced. Not knowing the script, I cannot tell if this was a choice of the playwright or of the director. And that choice was one of the most important elements of this production.

Of course, to make things more difficult, the producer can insist on whatever he wants.

And all this isn't such a bad thing. Theatre is a collaborative art; it comes from the collective artistic consciousness of the company. It can create a social/artistic truth more true than the work of any individual.

The best way for a critic to deal with the problem is to work in the theatre in other functions - as actor or director. It isn't enough to understand the collaborative process theoretically; he has to understand that, in practice, the process is much more complicated.

So pity the poor critic his demanding role. He has to taste the stew and identify which chef put in the salt.

Steve Capra
February 2007

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