Theater Criticism Reconfigured

The Internet (unlike the Tonys) lets everyone have their say—to a point. What would Wilde think?

'Twas ever thus. Shakespeare's first audiences had no designated critics to help them sort good work from bad. Among the first pieces of theatrical chat we have is a rhymed wisecrack about someone who didn't know the difference between actor and role: "For when he would have said King Richard died/And call'd, 'A horse, a horse,'—he Burbage cried." He was the ancestor of those AllThatChat posters who get flamed for saying "soundtrack" instead of "OBCR."

Still, Shakespeare's plays outlasted that era's formless, gossipy commentary, just as they outlasted the centuries of criticism, wise or woolly-brained, that followed. Great plays have a way of outwitting both their supporters and their detractors. They may lie low during the clamorous times when criticism seems either too distracted or too helpless to light their way. The mid-19th century was such a chaos of newspaper chat, often about star actors and the trashy vehicles they toured in, that masterpieces like Woyzeck and A Month in the Country lay ignored for decades.

Our time is an exceptionally rough one for criticism. With the dizzying changes in the way we communicate altering the whole fabric of our social life, we are going through a double revolution, and revolutions are never optimal moments for integrity and clarity of thought. The critic—whether viewed by the theater as an enemy, a necessary gadfly, a creative partner, or a poor relation to be tolerated—was never more than a small part of the picture. The theater that leans on critics as a crutch, deriving its own estimate of its worth from its reviews, is probably in as unhealthy a state as the theater with no critical guidance or intellectual perspective at all. Somewhere between those two conditions, the new world that the Internet has caused will probably find a healthier middle way for the astute critical sensibility to function as part of the theater. We can't guess yet what that will be, because we can't predict what the theater will become. Today's world has abolished business as usual.

Dying in 1887 did not prevent Alexander Borodin from winning a Tony for 1953's Kismet (actors Joan Diener and Alfred Drake, pictured).
Dying in 1887 did not prevent Alexander Borodin from winning a Tony for 1953's Kismet (actors Joan Diener and Alfred Drake, pictured).

One clue for criticism's future may lie in the aspect of its essence most overlooked in the current upheavals. The instant thumbs-up or thumbs-down so beloved by the Internet is only the smallest part of a critic's job. The rest involves writing—exploring, simultaneously, the work under review and the critic's response to it. Oscar Wilde's definition of criticism applies: "the record of a soul." The habit of reading critics of the past has ebbed in recent decades. But many cultural habits have ebbed and been revived over the centuries. Phenomena like Kindle and GoogleBooks may yet bring this one back, too. The pleasures that lie in wait for readers who love theater may be ending only to begin all over again.

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