Michael Coveney is an author and theatre critic
When I was a tyro drama critic on the Financial Times 30 years ago, the newspaper's chairman, Lord Drogheda, threw a party each Christmas in his London home in Lord North Street. He would introduce me to some bigwig or other with the same line every year, "This is young Coveney who writes about the sort of plays nobody wants to go and see." Why did he say this? Because I had been employed by his arts editor, the drama critic BA Young, to cover the burgeoning fringe theatre that had sprouted in the wake of the cultural explosion at the end of the 1960s. Why did he put up with my writing about such plays? Because he knew that new work mattered as much, if not more, than classic revivals and west end comedies.
In the early 1970s, the FT used three theatre critics, four or five music critics, a dance critic (the evergreen, still inimitable Clement Crisp), and gradually established regular weekly columns on television, radio, cinema, architecture and (acknowledging Mammon's place in the order of artistic things) the saleroom. What is more, this page was not tucked away out of sight. Throughout the 1970s arts occupied the whole of the FT's page three.
Every single debutant at the Wigmore Hall was reviewed, every new play at the Bush or the Theatre Upstairs or the ICA. London is still the music capital of the world; in those days, the arts pages, led by the FT, treated it as such. Lord Drogheda was chairman not only of the FT, but also of the Royal Opera House. When looking for the paper's first music critic in the early 1950s, he found Andrew Porter, a critic of an authority and brilliance to rival George Bernard Shaw and Ernest Newman. There is no one else quite like Porter, who today writes mainly in the Times Literary Supplement. Great critics are rare birds; rare birds, though, need a welcoming aviary, and the zookeepers are not on the lookout for such special—and specialist—breeds of plumage any more.
The priorities have shifted towards "personality" writers with no background in their subject. The long, slow haul of a career as a critic, with its period of apprenticeship, dedication and accumulation of wisdom and experience—as exemplified by Porter—is suddenly becoming a thing of the past.
Before arriving at the FT, Porter wrote reviews for the Daily Express edited by Arthur Christiansen, where he learned about concision. Kenneth Tynan, the greatest drama critic since Shaw, was employed by the same newspaper, as well as by Lord Beaverbrook's Evening Standard, before hitting his stride on the Observer of David Astor in the mid-1950s.
More recently, drama critics of real weight like Irving Wardle of the Times (1963-89) and Michael Billington of the Guardian (since 1971) have prospered because of committed editors and supportive arts editors. But not just because of that. The importance of the job corresponded with the critic's sense of the importance of what was happening in the art form. Just as Tynan ushered in the revolution of Brechtian staging and the Royal Court writers led by John Osborne, so Wardle and Billington have done the consolidating work of monitoring the emergent National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company, charting the astonishing age of new English drama since Osborne, and celebrating the careers of great actors Olivier, Ashcroft, Richardson, Gielgud, Dench, the Redgraves, Gambon, Walter, Sher, Russell Beale and McCrory.
So the job had a status in the first place, a purpose in the second and a historical continuity in the third. Today, it is harder to see exactly what the tasks of a theatre critic are. Certainly, the notion of the critic as a campaigner of any sort has died a slow death over the years. In a recent interview in the Stage, the playwright David Hare remarked that, "Since the days when Ronald Bryden 'discovered' Tom Stoppard via Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead on the Edinburgh fringe, there has not been a single critic whose name can be identified with a single writer in the way that Tynan championed Osborne and Harold Hobson supported Beckett."
This may well be true. But there are mitigating factors. Although the theatre is the most vital arena of British culture, it has had to accept a more limited role for itself in the overall picture. It is no longer regarded as important as it was in relation to the other arts, and so the innovative work of, say, the director Simon McBurney with Complicite, or the playwright Martin McDonagh, is not seen as any more significant than a good new film, or a popular television series like The Office or Little Britain. And the growth of cultural punditry in magazines and other media has often left the serious critics at the back of the queue, still waving but drowning in a sea of bromide.
My time on the Daily Mail from 1997 to 2004 was on the whole happy, but it is uncontroversial to claim that theatre had less claim on the affection, and attention, of my editor, Paul Dacre, than it had had on his predecessor, David English. And when you read most theatre critics today, you get a sense of everyone chugging along a bit of physical theatre here, a moderate As You Like It there, a contempt for pantomime, a pious approval of some wacky troupe, a glib acceptance of drab mediocrity at the once essential Royal Court and middlebrow competence at the National and in the west end. My successor at the Mail, Quentin Letts, the parliamentary sketch writer, is not so much a voice of the theatre in the Mail as a voice of the Mail in the theatre. Similar recent appointments to the theatre critic job—Victoria Segal on the Sunday Times, Rebecca Tyrell on the Sunday Telegraph—suggest that theatre is now fair game for anyone who can turn a phrase. Would a sports editor hire a soccer reporter who had not been immersed in the sport since his earliest years and never been to Old Trafford or Goodison Park?
Weeks before he died in July 1980, Tynan wrote to his old sparring partner on the Sunday Times, Harold Hobson "The trouble with our successors is that nothing seems at stake for them." Hobson felt that their "weekly battle over the plays" was part of some legendary Homeric past. What was never in dispute was the centrality of theatre in their day, both in the national culture and in newspapers themselves.
One of the big changes came with the advent of Clive James on the Observer in the early 1970s. Here was the most readable and intelligent critic since Tynan, and just as Tynan once said that if he had started his career 20 years later television would have been his prime subject, so it was for James. The best new high-profile critics of the 1970s and 1980s—the writers Julian Barnes and Martin Amis, the columnists on the new Independent like Thomas Sutcliffe and Mark Lawson—did not place theatre at the top of their critical agendas. Theatre critics acquired a dinosaur image and the job imperceptibly began to change from being a rabble-rouser for art to being a defender of the faith. Theatre critics were increasingly placed on the back foot by newspapers that squeezed their space to make room for more coverage of films, television and pop music.
My generation harked back to Tynan so often not only because of his brilliance but because his best work was so supremely the best writing about any art form at the time. Tynan was our man, not because he was necessarily "right" about anything—though he was, and far more often than Hobson (the characteristic sound of a Sunday morning, said Penelope Gilliatt, was of Harold Hobson barking up the wrong tree)—but because he wrote so scintillatingly well and "into" our times and culture, and indeed age group. He made theatre matter, and he made it sexy.
And of course he had been up to no good in the stalls for a very long time. The theatre was coursing through his veins from adolescence in Birmingham. He wrote his first, precocious book, He That Plays the King, in 1950, describing it as "a book of enthusiasms, written by an aficionado, out of an almost limitless capacity for admiration." (Can you imagine such a declaration recommending its writer to any newspaper editor today? Enthusiasm and admiration for actors, let alone anyone else in the arts, is infra dig in journalism.) Orson Welles wrote an introduction to the book, stressing that Tynan's future should be as a critic despite his ambitions at that time to be an actor and director himself "You, with your fine capacity for violent opinion, are solely needed out front… You know how to cheer, you are not afraid to hiss, you are audible (to put it mildly), and transparently in love."
The feeling persists that theatre is yesterday's news, though yesterday's news has paradoxically become the stuff of contemporary theatre to a far greater extent than television. Last year's one big new BBC television drama, Blackpool, peddled a dated view of seaside criminality while revisiting some tired old karaoke musical techniques lifted from Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective. Meanwhile, every other play in London seemed (and seems) to be about the war in Iraq, or detainees in Guantánamo bay, or the collapse of the railways, or problems with multiculturalism (see my "Liberal dramatics," Prospect, September 2004). And, of course, when a play at the Birmingham Rep offended some sections of that city's Sikh community, their disgraceful violence caused the theatre to withdraw the play.
Did you get any idea of these upheavals and the sudden, raw necessity of British theatre in a world of political correctness, distorting puff, hype and moral and political indolence from reading the theatre critics? Up to a point, Lord Copper. Theatre critics have found themselves more than usually drawn into the real world in the past couple of years. But when this happens, editors now turn to their political commentators rather than their critics. David Hare's Iraq war play, Stuff Happens, for instance, was reviewed by a galaxy of star commentators long before Michael Billington's definitive remarks saw the light of day.
As regards the Birmingham fracas, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's play, Behzti, was withdrawn before the critics had a chance to review it. Or was it? The play was about sexual abuse and murder in a Sikh temple. The press night was on 13th December 2004 and the police were called to a protest outside the theatre on the 16th. Further protests, including an attempt to storm the theatre, took place on the 18th, a Saturday. Behzti was only playing in the theatre's small studio, but the entire theatre, including a seasonal show on the main stage, was besieged.
The wheels of daily reviewing grind exceeding slow these days. But it is astonishing that the editor of Theatre Record, Ian Shuttleworth, who collates all the national reviews, could only find one review of the play, in the Times. Hardly any critics had bothered to see the play, let alone read it, and the discussion in the press revolved around only general issues of freedom of expression and whether this involved the right to be insulted or not insulted. We may never know whether the play is any good, as a planned reading at the Royal Court has also been cancelled.
This example shows just how easy it is for a significant event to slip critical scrutiny, and who now knows how the whole debate might have been enlivened by the impassioned intervention of a critic who had seen the play. For it is surely the critic's task to funnel discussion of big issues through the mediating experience of the work of art itself.
Instead, too many theatre reviews do little more than describe something as "great" or "awful." Even when the writing is stylish, reviews will often lack the knowledge that was taken for granted a generation ago. And increasingly, editors are sending in the critical clowns in the true joke spirit of contemporary journalism. These witty fellows are best, and worst, represented by Toby Young in the Spectator, a magazine whose theatre columns were once graced by such well informed critics as Alan Brien, Helen Dawson, Robert Cushman, Kenneth Hurren and Sheridan Morley. Young boasted in his first column of going to review something at the National but getting lost on the way. A few months later he left the first night of The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh at the interval. He defended his behaviour by saying that he had every right to be as bored as the average punter.
The quality of Young's boredom may be interesting to his readers, but is surely an inadequate, not to say impertinent, response, to the work of a leading young dramatist. McDonagh's astonishing play was a domestic nightmare in which a budding artist squeezed out his grim tales of destruction in a police state. Not a light frothy comedy but a work of gripping power. McDonagh is trying to push some envelope of extremity in the theatre and the critics have to work out whether or not it should remain sealed.
McDonagh may not be Wagner, but he is challenging received notions of form and content in his own way, and he is undoubtedly talented. But the air of critical torpor that surrounds his plays suggests that there is no one in the critical ranks to clear the decks and point the way. Tynan and Hobson had battles to join—with censorship, resistance to Beckett or Brecht, the incursion of Osborne and Pinter, the principles of subsidy—that have been well won. But in art, is anything ever secure?
A critic is there to set out the reasons for an artist's claim on our attention, and a good one should be able to do this, even in the rising clamour of all the contingent cultural activity in performance art, Shakespeare productions, modern dance, new film and new music. There is a good chance that McDonagh might win through because of the intense interest in his work evinced by Nicholas Hytner, the National's artistic director. But there is also a chance that the casual indifference of people like Young could drive him away into second-rate movieland.
This is not a matter of being po-faced; wit and intelligent criticism have often lived together. Indeed, part of the problem with Clive James's legacy is that his successors were fooled into thinking that he was being merely witty. (James recently let rip in the TLS on the National Theatre's Cyrano de Bergerac, newly translated by Irish poet Derek Mahon, in a piece that was awesome in its learning, analysis and humour.) And it is indicative of what has happened to television reviewing since James that when something really extraordinary comes along, such as the Mike Nichols film of Angels in America, one of the key dramatic achievements of the 1990s, it is greeted with incomprehension even by the clever critics, like AA Gill.
Tynan and Hobson approved the shock of the new, but we tend to forget that the majority of their colleagues did not. The Royal Court was under siege from the critics until the abolition of the lord chamberlain in 1968 loosened everyone up, and "new writing" became an honourable pursuit. The irony is that, over the past 20 years, the critical pendulum has swung entirely the other way, with a sort of tame green light for new plays all over town. It is like crying wolf in reverse, so that when something really outstanding comes along—as in the case of Martin McDonagh—there is no praise left to distinguish it from the rest of the pack.
I am not suggesting that today's broadsheet—let alone tabloid—press should come over all high-toned and learned when confronted with a new Alan Ayckbourn comedy or the latest drug-fuelled shocker at the Bush Theatre. But let's hear it once more for experience, knowledge and seriousness. What is sorely needed is a new group of younger critics who will combine the enthusiasm of the aficionado with the rigour of the informed taskmaster. Such a group is, alas, nowhere to be seen.
Four years ago, Andrew Porter gave a lecture at the Aldeburgh festival in which he reminisced about his own career, most of which has been spent on the FT and the New Yorker (before Tina Brown). He declared that he was happy at the TLS, but "for the rest," he said, "change and decay… Plenty of good music to be heard. And, for that matter, plenty of good music critics—but ever less encouragement for them to say their says in a civilised way." He had left the Observer, where he settled for a few years after leaving New York in 1992, because of a crass headline on a review of Peter Maxwell Davies's 6th symphony ("Six power! What a score Every time Max comes to a climax he starts to swell again").
This sort of crudity is everywhere in newspapers nowadays, and nobody seems to mind. But Porter's position represents a truth about our times that high culture, and its acolytes the serious critics, have gradually become marginalised in the mass media. There is still a huge amount of serious and demanding work, and much of it is intelligently discussed, but this discussion is increasingly tucked away in niches such as BBC4 in television or the TLS in print. People's cultural tastes are now accepted as a democratic given, and the idea that a cultural elite—represented by the old-fashioned critic—could impose "higher" tastes is no longer accepted, as it was quite widely accepted 30 years ago.
At least this challenges the critical high priests of drama and music to sharpen their acts and justify their hitherto assumed importance. But the truth is that newspapers increasingly devote largely uncritical coverage to the latest product of the publicity machine, be it an inexperienced actress, a media loudmouth or a Glasgow pop group. Previews and interviews now take precedence over critical responsibility. But the idea that they do so in order to meet a public demand is, I believe, false. Anyone under the age of 30 who wants to read about pop music, new film and reality television knows where to go. That place is not the broadsheets, but magazines and the internet. So the liberal, professional intelligentsia who read the broadsheets are confronted with coverage they don't want and comment on "high culture" by people who often know less about it than they do.
Quite apart from whatever crisis in criticism we may devise—when was there not one?—the FT still has fine critics, but their contributions are cramped down page, subservient to feature articles and—I never thought I'd live to see it—allotted star ratings. The shameful shrinkage in the FT's music coverage and the squeezing of space for theatre reviews are indicators of the changing world of newspapers and the decline of the role of the critic in a world where celebrity is valued above experience and any sense of history in the arts is thought to be a waste of time.
Theatre critics are very good at spotting the emergent Nicholas Hytner, Sam Mendes or Michael Grandage. But that is relatively easy. The harder task is to sort out the good new work from the bad and to identify new currents of artistic activity; and increasingly these days, this means barging into the adjacent disciplines of dance, film and music. Most male, elderly, theatre critics are conservative, Oxbridge-educated slaves to the literary tradition. So is Clive James, but he's also something else. His demolition job on Brechtian staging and design in Cyrano was so detailed and funny that you could see the possible merits through his inventory of negatives. When you disagree with most critics, you toss them aside; with James, you hang around and enjoy the sideshow.
And look at the reviews of Nigel Osborne's opera The Piano Tuner aside from Porter in the TLS, only one critic—Edward Seckerson in the Independent—spent more than a couple of paragraphs on the music itself. A rare dramatic event, with two hours of fascinating (by no means obscure) new music, slipped by without so much as a general critical hurrah.
If the critics aren't going to do something special about the best new work around, who can blame their editors for allowing the great critical tradition of Shaw, Tynan and Porter to wither? For as another Australian critic, Peter Conrad (as clever and outspoken as James) said in a devastating attack on the breed in the Observer "Critics are the means whereby society becomes conscious of itself, aware of the direction it is taking. There can be no culture without them." We still need critics, he said. But better ones.