austin theatre review

Friday, December 16, 2005

Peter Brook on the job of the critic

Before we get going too far, I think this could be important clarification: this is from Peter Brook's The Empty Space.

"When the man in the street goes to the theatre he can claim just to serve his own pleasure. When a critic goes to a play, he can say he is just serving the man on the street, but it is not accurate. He is not just a tipster. A critic has a far more important role, an essential one, in fact, for an art without critics would be constantly menaced by far greater dangers.

For instance, a critic is always serving the theatre when he is hounding out incompetence. If he spends most of his time grumbling, he is almost always right. The appalling difficulty of making theatre must be accepted: it is, or would be, if truly practised, perhaps the hardest medium of all: it is merciless, there is no room for error, or for waste. A novel can survive the reader who skips pages, or entire chapters; the audience, apt to change from pleasure to boredom in a wink can be lost, irrevocably. Two hours is a short time and an eternity: to use two hours of public time is a fine art. Yet this art with its frightening exigencies is served largely by casual labour. In a deadly vacuum there are few places where we can properly learn the arts of the theatre - so we drop in on the theatre offering love instead of science. This is what the unfortunate critic is nightly called to judge.

Incompetence is the vice, the condition and the tragedy of the world's theatre on any level: for every good light comedy or musical or political revue or verse play or classic that we see there are scores of others that most of the time are betrayed by a lack of elementary skills. The techniques of staging, designing, speaking, walking across a stage, sitting - even listening - just aren't sufficiently known; compare the little it takes - except luck - to get work in many of the theatres of the world with the minimum level of skill demanded say in piano playing: think of how many thousands of music teachers in thousands of small cities can play all the notes of the most difficult passages of Liszt or sight-read Scriabin. Compared with the simple ability of musicians most of our work is at amateur level most of the time. A critic will see far more incompetence in his theatregoing.... Fortunately, the critic does tend to notice and in this sense, his angriest reaction is valuable - it is a call for competence. This is a vital function, but he has still another one. He is a pathmaker.

The critic joins in the deadly game when he does not accept this responsibility, when he belittles his own importance. A critic is usually a sincere and decent man acutely aware of the human aspects of his job... Still, even if he is aware of his power of destruction, he underrates his power for good. When the status quo is rotten - and few critics anywhere would dispute this - the only possibility is to judge events in relation to a possible goal. This is our eventual purpose, our shared aim, and noting all the sign-posts and footprints on the way is our common task. Our relations with critics may be strained in a superficial sense: but in a deeper one the relationship is absolutely necessary: like the fish in the ocean, we need one another's devouring talents to perpetuate the sea bed's existence. However, this devouring is not nearly enough: we need to share the endeavour to rise to the surface. This is what is hard for all of us. The critic is part of the whole and whether he writes his notices fast or slow, short or long, is not really important. Has he an image of how a theatre could be in his community and is he revising this image around each experience he receives? How many critics see their job this way?

It is for this reason that the more the critic becomes an insider, the better. I see nothing good in a critic plunging into our lives, meeting actors, talking, discussing, watching, intervening. I would welcome his putting his hands on the medium and attempting to work it himself.... The criticism that theatre people make of one another is usually of devastating severity - but absolutely precise... the vital critic is the critic who has clearly formulated for himself what the theatre could be - and who is bold enough to throw this formula into jeopardy each time he participates in a theatrical event."

I'm a theatre kid myself, and have worked in most of the areas of the theatre. I understand very well how difficult it is to mount a production in the first place: finding somewhere to rehearse, somewhere to perform, getting the rights, working through endless line runs, painting a floor all night long... I think it endlessly important, though, to keep the final idea in mind - that theatre exists because human beings have a need to dramatize.

This, then, the "mission statement:" In my mind, the ideal theatre is one that can make an audience forget themselves for even a few minutes, to "touch the infinite," as Brook would likely write. Theatre is meant to be an experience almost near that of religion, when options and ideas that aren't ours suddenly seem possible and true. Glitter and camp have their places, but what I'm looking for is something more than that: something that William Ball might call "an orgy of belief." Let's get it on, then.

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