Truth in Jest? Mocking Theatre Critics

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Glamour, an extraordinary setting, and wonderful performances…

Last Wednesday evening, I attended a very special event at Blenheim Palace. Magdalen College School were doing a production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Critic in the old orangery, a space which was originally used for amateur theatricals in the eighteenth century (rather like those attempted in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park).

It was an important occasion for the school. The production was expertly directed by R.S.C. associate artist, Joanne Pearce (wife of the former Artistic Director, Adrian Noble). She had clearly made sure that the students (who ranged from around 12 to 18) understood every word that Sheridan had scripted them to speak.

And there was the just the right amount of spectacle lavished on the staging: gorgeous regency costumes, powdered wigs, whitened faces, and on-stage string music (ending with a rousing chorus of ‘Rule Brittania’).

In addition, the evening had begun with several students presenting ten-minute lectures about the play, its cultural background, and the splendid location. There then followed some ‘on location’ playlets about David Garrick and his contemporaries in nearby rooms.

But it was the following speech from The Critic which caught my attention, especially in light of my blog last week on theatre reviewing.

In act one, scene two Mr Puff (pundit and regency master of ‘spin’), says the following about theatre reviewing:

‘A new Comedy or Farce is to be produced at one of the Theatres (though by the bye they don’t bring out half what they ought to do). The author, suppose Mr. Smatter, or Mr. Dapper -or any particular friend of mine-very well; the day before it is to be performed, I write an account of the manner in which it was received -I have the plot from the author,-and only add-Characters strongly drawn-highly coloured-hand of a master-fund of genuine humour-mine of invention-neat dialogue- attic salt! Then for the performance-Mr. Dodd was astonishingly great in the character of Sir Harry! That universal and judicious actor Mr. Palmer , perhaps never appeared to more advantage than in the Colonel ;-but it is not in the power of language to do justice to Mr. King!-Indeed he more than merited those repeated bursts of applause which he drew from a most brilliant and judicious audience! As to the scenery-The miraculous power of Mr. DeLoutherbourg’s pencil are universally acknowledged! -In short, we are at a loss which to admire most,-the unrivalled genius of the author, the great attention and liberality of the managers -the wonderful abilities of the painter, or the incredible exertions of all the performers!’

Substitute a few names of actors, authors, and theatre companies, and this surely rings true for us today, doesn’t it? Sycophancy is, alas, all too prevalent among many of the responses I hear around me, especially in response to Shakespeare productions.

The idea of theatre criticism, its necessary and vital function, it seems to me, is constructively (or at times when it’s needed destructively) to criticise. It shouldn’t accept blindly everything that a particular company (or director) serves up.

Do you agree?

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
  • Noelle

    Haha! I remember reading an article stating that good criticism neither resembles advertising slogans (one can just see the quotes on billboards) nor mean spirited personal attacks. I love writing reviews and reading well-written reviews and critical theory, so I always keep those two points in mind.

  • ajleon

    Great post, Paul!

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