Criticism in the Theatre
Collected lecture/discussion notes. Some parts are very fragmented, but offered here as a study aid, not a primary learning source. Citations noted where available.
Forms of Criticism
- Difference between review and critique:
- Review: Primarily a report; and immediate, journalistic response.
- Critique: In depth, an evaluation, scholarly response.
- Four types:
- Scholarly analysis
- Feedback to artists
- Social Commentary
- Shaping the art form (encourage, discourage, educate, feedback)
Conditions of Criticism
"Audience completes the event; theatre exists because an audience agrees to let it exist."
- -Reviewers give report, write for deadline, are interested in matters of taste and reaction. Part of market - consumer's guide.
- -Critic deals with play in relation to tradition of theatre, art, culture, and acts as intereter of new statements, preparing audience expectations (Have you ever seen or heard a piece, rejected it, read about it, appreciated it?).
- -Expect play to be related to life experience; authentic representation of some aspect of life as we know it.
- -Expect resolution and satisfaction in conclusions that is not found in life. We like theatre to be not like life.
- -Awareness of other audience members; expectation of collective, shared response.
- -Expect presentation in a manner and form it is used to.
- -Expectations based upon previous theatrical experiences, which include movies and video, high school musicals and community theatre. Formulas succeed because of this joy in repetition of form, predictability.
- -Also want to be surprised, moved, exhilarated.
- -"Playwright has an equally legitimate right to fulfill the truth of his or her vision as it is re-created in theatrical form, even if it means violating the audience's expectations."
- -"On the one hand the playwright gives the audience what it wants. On the other, the playwright must be true to his or her own vision of reality."
- -Box office theatre clearly is intended to satisfy audience expectations, not challenge them. Dinner theatre, community theatre, Broadway, etc.
- -Playwrights provoke new awareness through shock and beguilement: Beguiles by being furtively attractive, has unrestrained evocative power. Shocks by confronting deeply-held taboos.
- -Much audience seeks escape, evasion, diversion. Eventually means a lack of challenge to expectations, lack of shock and beguilement. They leave piece to be forgotten. Temporary satisfactions.
- -Masterpieces outlive ephemeral works through truthfullness, provocation.
Theatre mirrors society:
- -Playwright and artists very sensitive to new directions in man's transaction with the rest of the world.
- -If playwright will provoke new views he must beguile us through truth.
- -New directions often due to discovery of truth that cannot be expressed in old forms.
- -Deliberate attempt to upset the audience expectations.
- -History of artistic change is punctuated by violent violations of expectations. Especially in 20th Century, including many now-accepted modes.
- -Successful avant-garde in turn becomes mainstream and provokes new avant garde reaction.
Brocket: " a play may be deemed successful if it achieves the desired response from the audience for which it was primarily intended." Questions failure of activist drama to activate unconvinced.
-Respond to theatre non judgementally. Try to open up - don't judge or apply standards, but "read" what transpires. Reading imputes meaning to symbols or behavior. Afterwards, evaluate what you have "read".
Respond > describe > evaluate
Evaluation cannot occur while responding fully to a work. Response requires openness to stimuli, openness to associations and connections, and openness to the operation of the work itself.
Description creates the ground for evaluation, and is often more important.
Respond > Describe > Analyze > Interpret > Evaluate
Best approach to creative works.
Sensory > Formal > Expressive > Technical > Critical
Process for pulling together ideas and descriptive order.
Some Handles for the Critic
Analyzing a Play
- What is the core emotional experience of the play?
- What are the key images, the metaphors, in the play?
- What are the main character relationships in the play,(i.e. father-son, master-slave, victimizer-victimized, etc). Hint: go deeper than the obvious.
- What is the basic structure of the play? (I.E. is the play a series of vignettes, or does it follow a time and space sequential arrangement). As you know, plays may be classified structurally as both episodic and climactic according to different characteristics.
- What are the key themes of the play?
- What is the playwright's vision of reality?
- Based on the responses to all of the above, what do you think is the meaning of the play?
Writing the Theatre Review
Barranger, Milly S. Theatre: A Way of Seeing. Fourth edition. New York: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1995. Pp. 360-363.
- Human significance
- Social significance
- Aesthetic significance
- Entertainment values
- Critics questions:
- What was the Artist trying to do?
- How well has he or she done it?
- Was it worth doing?
Although there is no general agreement on criteria for judging a performance, the first step in writing theatre criticism is the ability to see. If we can describe what we see in the theatre, then we can begin to arrive at critical judgments. The play or production or both determines the approach - the structure of the review and the critical priorities. If the staging justifies a detailed account of what we observe, then the review incorporates a great deal of description. However, what we see in the theatre must connect with the play's meaning. For this reason, all theatre criticism involves both description and evaluation.
Since theatre is something perceived by the audience, writing about performance should be based on sensory impressions. As audiences, we are exposed to many significant details, sounds, and images, and only from them do we derive concepts or abstract meanings. Because we build critical concepts on the foundation of our perceptions, we can begin the process of seeing theatre critically by learning to describe our perceptions. A model for a theatre review written according to this method might take the following form (see Figure 14.3):
- Heading or logo
- Substance or meaning of play
In writing any commentary it is necessary, first, to identify the performance to be discussed. Brooks Atkinson identifies both-play and playwright in the first paragraph of his review of A Streetcar Named Desire. Frank Rich of the New York Times identifies actress, play, and playwright in the two short opening paragraphs of his review of Rockaby. Margaret Croyden identifies the Hindu poem and the clashing dynasties in Peter Brook's nine-hour production of The Mahabharata for the New York Times.
Next, commentary on the play's substance or meaning informs the reader about the playwright's particular perspective on human affairs. Third, the performance involves what J. L. Styan calls "an environment of significant stimuli": sights, sounds, color, light, movement, space. These stimuli can be described by answering questions related to setting, costumes, sound, lighting, acting, and stage business. Is the stage environment open or closed, symbolic or realistic? What are the effects of the stage shape on the actor's speech, gesture, and movement? Is the lighting symbolic or suggestive of realistic light sources? What details of color, period, taste, and socioeconomic status are established by the costumes? What use is made of music and sound or light effects? What details separate the actor-at-work from his or her character-in-situation? What do the characters do in the play's action? What stage properties do the actors use and how are they significant? Finally, what visual and aural images of human experience and society develop during the performance? How effective are they!
-Concentrates on the accuracy of the historical aspects of the source materials. In the case of literature and some kinds of theatre, it is the authenticity of the text. In the case of music, it may be the authenticity of the score and the interpretation of the markings. A similar case may be made for reconstructions of choreography, or other historic or folk-derived dance.
-Sees a work chiefly, if not exclusively, as a reflection of its author’s life and times, or the life and times of the characters in the work.
-Generally a product of the Romantics, considers artwork as a source of unique knowledge deriving from the imagination and, therefor, glorifies "self expression" as the true function of art.
-Larger function of literature is to teach morality. Purely aesthetic considerations are secondary.
-Object is to find the key to the structure and meaning of the work. "What is the literary work, what are its shape and effect, and how do these come about?"
-Search for a unifying pattern from hints and clues — it informs or shapes the work inwardly and gives its parts a relevance to the whole and vice versa. (New Criticism of 30s and 40s)
-Objected to matters outside the work for interpretation.
-Seeks meaning of everything and all allusions.
-Seeks point of view.
-Limitation is its aesthetic inadequacy; augments other approaches.
-Tendency to interpret all images in terms of sexuality.
Mythological and Archetypal approaches:
-The myth critic is concerned to seek out those mysterious artifacts built into certain literary "form" which elicit, with almost uncanny force, dramatic and universal human reactions."
-Close connection to the psychological approach.
-Myths are the symbolic projections of a people’s hopes, values, fears, and aspirations. Collective and communal. Not surface reality — more profound — archetypes - images that elicit comparable psychological responses: Images: Water, sun colors, circle, woman, wind, ship, garden, desert; Motifs/patterns: creation immortality heroes.
-Following themes; Recognition of images and symbols woven into patterns as motifs. "any interpretation must be supported logically and fully from the evidence within a literary work and that the ultimate test of the validity of an interpretation must be its self-consistency."
Sociological / Marxist:
-Examines all images and other aspects of the artwork for their assumptions about social order and class.
-Semantics, meaning, the meaning of meaning. Usually characterized by a basis in semiotics.
Impressionistic / Appreciative
-Highly subjective responses of the viewer/audience member. Often reduces critique to personal taste.
Conventional / Aristotelian:
-Greatest concern, beyond all other values, for the degree to which the work adheres to existing prescriptions and conventions.
All original content protected by copyright © Arthur L. Dirks, Taunton, MA., 2005.