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Chapter 15 – Viewpoints
VLADIMIR: Abortion!
ESTRAGON: Morpion!
VLADIMIR: Sewer-rat!
ESTRAGON: (with finality)
—Samuel Beckett, Waiting
for Godot
Chapter Summary
• Critics often add fresh dimensions to our awareness and
appreciation of theatre.
• They acquaint readers and audiences with both good
and bad productions.
• At best, they hope to connect the truly good work with
audiences and to preserve it for future generations.
• Two kinds of criticism:
– Drama criticism:
• Comments on written text from literary and
cultural-historical-theoretical perspective
– Theatre criticism (theatre reviewing):
• Deals with plays-in-performance
• Critics are real force:
– Critic from New York Times has power to close a
show with a bad review.
Audience as Critic
• Watching a play raises questions:
– Is the world a stage?
– Were the actors convincing?
– Were costumes appropriate?
– Were sound effects too loud?
• Audiences are critics (they express opinions).
• Audiences bring at least four viewpoints to theatre:
– Human significance
– Social significance
– Artistic qualities
– Entertainment value
Audience Viewpoints
• Human significance:
– Theatre connects audiences with common humanity.
– Explores what it means to be human beings.
• Social significance:
– Theatre has inherent relationship to society:
• Audience = community.
– Theatre serves as an arena for discussing social and
political issues.
Audience Viewpoints
• Entertainment:
– Great theatre is always entertaining in some way.
– Even tragedy delights:
• Catharsis
• Thrills (ghosts, witches, murders, etc.)
– Theatre is a source of pleasure.
• Aesthetic significance:
– We know what we like and what we don’t like.
– As we see more theatre, we develop a deeper
awareness of sights, words, characters, actions,
actors, sounds, and colors.
The Professional Critic:
The Critic’s Job
• Reviews published in morning newspaper following
official opening-night performance.
• Stanley Kauffmann: critic is “a kind of para-reality to the
theatre’s reality”:
– Criticism should be good, whether it’s about good or
bad theatre.
• Power and, often, hostility of critics creates backlash:
– Checkhov: critics are “horse flies . . . buzzing about
The Professional Critic:
Services Performed by Critics
• Recognize and preserve works of good artists for future
• Publicists of the good and the bad:
– Separate wheat from chaff
• Help public decide which productions to see
• Serve as mediators between artists and audiences
• Serve as historians:
– Criticism as record of theatrical times
The Professional Critic:
The Critic’s Creativity
• Are critics more than failed artists?
– Good criticism sometimes written by second-rate
– George Bernard Shaw expert critic, expert playwright
• Criticism a talent:
– Combines artistic sensibility, writing skill, insight,
knowledge of theatre
• Stanley Kauffmann: critic’s creativity is “the imaginative
rendering of experience in such a way that it can be
essentially experienced by others.”
The Professional Critic:
The Critic’s Questions
(c) Patrick Bennett /
Courtesy Seattle Repertory Theatre
• What is the playwright
trying to do?
• How well has he or she
done it?
• Was it worth doing?
A Scene from Seven Guitars by August Wilson
The Professional Critic:
Performance Notes
• Several journals publish critical descriptions of
distinguished productions.
• Provide records of productions.
• Offer impressions of trends in avant-garde theatre.
The Professional Critic:
Theatre Scholarship
• Majority of critics are university teachers and/or
professional dramaturgs.
• They analyze plays and productions within rigorously
researched critical contexts.
• Scholarly critics ordinarily write with a comprehensive
knowledge of a specific subject:
– Playwright
– Performance theories and practice
– Historical period
– Intercultural and/or gender studies
The Professional Critic:
Theatre Scholarship
• Works of great writers of dramatic criticism can be of
lasting literary value:
– Aristotle’s Poetics
– Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the
• New critical methodologies draw from variety of
– Linguistics
– Semiotics
– Structuralism
– Deconstructionism
The Professional Critic:
Critical Standards
• Developed after years of viewing theatre.
• Best critics remain open and flexible.
• Critic and director Harold Clurman:
– Whether the critic is good or bad doesn’t depend on
his opinions but on the reasons he can offer for those
Working Critics
• Brooks Atkinson on Tennessee William’s A Streetcar
Named Desire:
– Wrote two reviews:
• After opening night
• Ten days later
– Both reviews:
• Streetcar didn’t address social issues.
• Solved no problems.
• Arrived at no moral conclusions.
• It was a work of art—audience sat “in presence of
Working Critics
• Brooks Atkinson on Tennessee William’s A Streetcar
Named Desire:
– Organization of second review:
• Deals first with play’s truthfulness
• Williams’ “poetic language”
• Kazan’s directing and Mielziner’s scenic details
• Performances of the actors
• Williams’ career
Core Concepts
• For the professional critic, the play in performance is the
end product of the theatre’s creative process.
• At best, the critic enhances our understanding of the
production or theatre event by enabling us to read about
the theatrical experience from a perspective other than
our own or that of our friends.
• Theatre criticism—carefully weighed by the reader—
adds a new dimension to the discovery and
understanding of theatre.