The Critical Gap

by Alison Croggon

The one thing you can say with certainty about the business of theatre criticism over the past decade is that it’s been volatile. In Australia, the initial excitement of the digital revolution is now well over. Over the past couple of years the rise of substantial online arts portals, from ABC Arts Online, to the Guardian, to Crikey’s Daily Review, to Time Out, to ArtsHub, means there is suddenly a plethora of outlets for arts reviewing, which to some degree makes up for diminishing coverage in mainstream mastheads.

But has anything really changed? I’m not sure. In all the panic about shrinking opportunities, how much have we reimagined what criticism is, and what it could be.

There’s been a lot of talk. Theatre critics like nothing better than hunkering down for a good chat about theatre criticism. Over the years, I’ve lost count of the panels I’ve sat on called “criticising the critics”, the blogs and articles I’ve read about the state of the art, the agonising about criticism’s vertiginous state in the digital age. This seems particular to the form: there are occasional blow-ups about literary criticism, as when the new Saturday Paper decided its book reviews would all be anonymous, but such metacriticism isn’t a continual obsession, as it seems to be in theatre.

Partly this is because of the immediacy and ephemerality of theatre, which is reflected in the discussions that flow around criticism and reviews, throwing into sharp relief issues that are often subtextual in other artforms. Partly it’s because performance criticism has a function that literary reviews don’t: it becomes a major record of a work existing at all, literally its history. Partly this endless discussion reflects that performance is directly dialogic – it (mostly) takes place in front of an audience, in real time. Partly it’s because people attracted to writing about performance love to talk.

Critical cultures in Australia differ from city to city, so it’s difficult to generalise. But on the whole, it’s fair to say that criticism in Australia is comparatively healthy; from where I’m looking, in Melbourne, it’s engaged, open and interested. There is a perverse reason for this: Australia has never had a tradition of well-paid, highly respected full-time critics. For good and ill, it’s always been an amateur activity, driven by enthusiasts. Theatre critics here, even those with the few plum jobs, are all freelancers, and come from a wide range of backgrounds and expertise. Performance criticism in Australia has never been professionalised, by default rather than intention, and we lack the rigid hierarchies that until recently dominated theatre criticism in Britain and America. Consequently it’s easier for new voices to emerge: institutions such as the Next Wave Festival run mentoring programs for young arts writers, and new critics such as Jana Perkovic or Jane Howard can generate notice online and find work in mainstream outlets.

“Australia has never had a tradition of well-paid, highly respected full-time critics. For good and ill, it’s always been an amateur activity, driven by enthusiasts.”

As well-paid, full-time arts critics are sacked from prestigious newspapers like the Independent or the Chicago Sun-Times, it’s hard for Australians to feel the pain: since when could any of us, even in the most prestigious jobs, look forward to making a living from just writing reviews? The financial unsustainabilty of criticism isn’t a new problem: theatre criticism has never, except maybe in the academy, been sustainable in Australia. I resigned in 1992 from my first high profile gig, with the now long-defunct national news weekly magazine The Bulletin, primarily because I was financially better off (and considerably less stressed) living on the sole parents’ pension.

Yet, despite glimpses of possibility, Australian theatre criticism remains far from ideal. This twitter conversation, between critics from Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide, raises several problems: a lack of diverse voices, especially those from non-white Australia, the continual question of how to financially sustain critical practice, the cutting back of coverage in the mainstream press, which particularly affects independent theatre. But underneath them is a nagging question of how well reviewing works as part of an ongoing cultural conversation that includes artists, audiences and critics.

Here I’ll make a crude distinction between critique – generally long-form, sometimes academic analyses which can take place years after a show is over – and reviewing – immediate responses to particular works – which we most often encounter in media outlets from blogs to newspapers, usually while a show is still running. There’s no hard and fast line – most notions of reviewing includes a dose of critique – but reviewing is how most people encounter discussion about performance.

Long, long ago, in the Dark Ages before the internet, reviewing was the privilege of a small number of print outlets, with almost no expectation of subsequent debate. There were exceptions, of course – the publications Theatre Australia, Real Time and so on maintained longform reviews of performance, and there were always critics, such as Katharine Brisbane, who took their duties as active participants in the culture seriously. But for the most part, performance criticism was a desert: the theatre critic, a rare creature, swam in the protective reefs of the newspaper, extruding judgment as a form of unquestionable authority. Debate – between artists and critics, audiences and critics, even critics and critics – was all but non-existent, and certainly wasn’t encouraged.

When the digital revolution happened, a long-unfed hunger for public conversation suddenly flowered.  Paradoxically, the weaknesses of Australian critical culture gave theatre criticism a lot of freedom to define itself. The debate about the legitimacy of online versus print criticism, still a hot topic in the UK, was over here years ago.

Many theatre companies have woken up to the idea that a strong, lively and diverse critical culture, even if it takes issue with their work, is in their interests, rather than something to feel embattled about. In the small communities that characterise Australian theatre, the notion of the critic vs the artist seems, if anything, old fashioned. Critics commonly regard themselves as part of the theatre cuture, rather than above it. Many (myself included) are practitioners themselves. The fiction of “objective” arts criticism has given way to a more complicated idea of criticism as a discipline that complements and stimulates other activities and means of cultural production, and which is self-reflexive and self-aware.

Recognising that critique is much more than brute assessment, but rather a public engagement which can catalyse audiences as well as artists, it’s become common for companies to produce spaces for critical discussion that reach beyond the standard Q&A format. Dancehouse in Melbourne, for example, puts out a regular magazine of essays on dance, Dancehouse Diary, and the Melbourne Theatre Company contextualises its Neon Festival of Independent Art with a program of talks and workshops. Conversation and debate is the order of the day. But theatre companies remain notably unwilling to, for example, retweet negative reviews of their shows. Conversation, in most cases, can only go so far.

In the agonised debate about how to finance criticism in the digital age, some people have suggested that companies themselves should step up and pay: but that clearly compromises everyone involved. Criticism doesn’t exist to serve theatre industry. Neither, however, is it about serving the public, or the critic herself. If reviewing is to serve anyone, it ought to serve the art; all else follows. Its disinterest exists in the critic’s willingness to respond honestly, knowledgeably and feelingly to the art he is asked to consider, in the secure understanding that his response is ideally one argument among many conversations. This means that a critic will sometimes be offside with the public, artists, companies and other critics. Anyone unprepared for this shouldn’t be doing the job.

“Criticism doesn’t exist to serve theatre industry. Neither, however, is it about serving the public, or the critic herself. If reviewing is to serve anyone, it ought to serve the art;
all else follows.”

Critics, in other words, have to be independent. This is usually considered as being independent from the interests of the companies and artists that are reviewed. What’s hardly considered at all is how independent critics are from the media that pay their wages. I don’t know any critics who would soften a review in the interests of his or her employer, but employers may on occasion take exception. (David Williamson’s Rupert Murdoch is a recent case in point: Kate Herbert’s two and half star review was written, but was spiked by the Herald Sun). This kind of conflict, however, is vanishingly rare. The common problem is more insidious: it devolves on questions of form and expectation, a cookie cutter attitude to reviewing theatre. A review, it seems, is a review is a review.

As I said, I think Australian criticism is relatively healthy. Yet the mainstream review remains, for the most part, a consumer guide that exists as part of a publicity machine. This has its place, of course: but it is unchallenged as the dominant model for reviews across the critical spectrum. The major problem is that this consumer-driven conception of critique effectively becomes a kind of censorship. It’s a censorship by default, rather than any kind of active silencing. As Guardian critic Lyn Gardner once pointed out, a 300 word limit means that, no matter how much a critic desires to, complexity simply can’t be discussed in any satisfactory way. And our most interesting theatre is always complex.

The downside of the movement of bloggers to mainstream outlets is homogenisation. This is what happens with every outbreak of energy when it meets the cultural machine: the things that made it unique – its willingness to experiment, its challenging of conventions – are absorbed, until they are indistinguishable from the mainstream itself. Mainstream reviewing can be revitalised by new ideas, but on the whole media outlets want the old ones. Experiments in form or adventures in intellectual curiosity are neither sought nor rewarded.

Interestingly, literary magazines are picking up some of the slack. Jane Howard’s “almost live” review of Ivo Van Hove’s Roman Tragedies for the Lifted Brow is by no means a conventional review (here’s mine, for ABC Arts, for contrast). Howard’s review gives a thrillingly immediate sense of what it was like to be in that theatre on that night, using the tools that the company itself used to frame the production. Andrew Furhman’s Australian Book Review essay on Patrick White, A Theatre of His Own, reconsiders the literary importance of his plays through (at last) the lens of the theatre, and is one of the best pieces of theatre criticism written in recent years.

In mainstream reviews, the ideas that drive shows, the dominant preoccupations of the artists that made them, endlessly discussed and worked over weeks or even years, often don’t get even a mention. The focus is on judgment, rather than perception, contextualisation and discrimination: and that judgment falls too easily and too often, again by default, into the familiar, the known and the easily consumable. “Criticism” is considered a synonym for “negative”, which leads some critics to think that they’re showing their critical chops by slashing a show without the courtesy of argument; and again, often this impulse tends to the conservative. The very form of mainstream reviewing encourages and reinforces the safe option. And it’s this form which dominates contemporary reviewing, whether it’s mainstream or not.

It’s not simply a question of space, and there is no lack of available talent. Space is nevertheless an issue. The average length of a mainstream review is around 500 words or less, which permits, at best, a shorthanding of complex ideas and at worst completely glossing them. On online sites especially, word limits seem arbitrary. Good writers can work with word limits, but the fact remains that a good writer can be a lot more interesting in 1000 words than in 500.

It’s true that people often read reviews only to discover whether they should see a show, but this is construed in a very narrow sense, a thumbs up or a thumbs down. It’s possible to write evaluatively, to address complexity and still to write entertainingly for a general readership. To score a show out of five erases nuance, and funnels a review to judgment: it ignores something important in the duty of a critic to his or her public.  If you consider, as I do, that a major arm of a critic’s task is to be a hinge between the artwork and its audience, opening the doors to possibilities of understanding, then much of our critical discourse is failing. If you consider further that reviews are, as a form of journalism, a “first draft of history”, a whole lot of theatrical history isn’t even being written down.

An index of the health of criticism is the strength of engagement with the ideas that drive the art: it’s this that permits the robust discussion, passionate and informed disagreement, and illuminating insights that characterise an interesting critical culture. Criticism that’s incurious about artistic form and the intellectual history of theatre lacks the tools to discriminate between the virtues and defects of a work, and sometimes even to recognise what it is and what it’s attempting to achieve. It can only fall back into the armchairs of opinion or taste, which are essentially unarguable. And opinion, which Robert Brustein called “Himalaya criticism”, is the least interesting aspect of a critic’s work. We all have one.

“An index of the health of criticism is the strength of engagement with the ideas that drive the art: it’s this that permits the robust discussion, passionate
and informed disagreement”

Why does an impoverished cultural criticism matter? In the mass media, art is widely regarded as a series of diversions of varying complexities that only escape the playpen of “entertainment” when they’re hit by scandal or conflict. But art is much more than a disposable luxury item to charm our leisure. It is one of the few places where we can contemplate ourselves and our world outside the narrow parameters determined by the mass media, where the many aspects of our existence – sensual, emotional, philosophical, moral, intellectual and political – are integrated into a complex response.

Consider the furore that surrounded the boycott of the Sydney Biennale earlier this year. If the ethical considerations that have driven much art through its modern history were more routinely discussed, the idea that artists can be passionately political might not have come as such an unpleasant surprise. It’s only outrageous if art is considered as a consumable object that exists primarily to please those who purchase it; but significant artists have never considered themselves as neutral creators of product. From John Milton to Muriel Rukeyser, from Oodgeroo Noonuccal to Ezra Pound, from Bertolt Brecht to Pussy Riot, from Marinetti to Yoko Ono, artists have always considered themselves as makers of meaning, and that reaches beyond the personal to include political and social meanings.

This is no more than stating the obvious, but it’s surprising how seldom these aspects are discussed, except in the crudest ways – art as a literal documentary of social issues, perhaps, or as propaganda. For example, in theatre itself, critics seldom consider the utopic nature of its collaborative process. Theatre is permeable and immediate to the society around it, and becomes a microcosm of the society in which it’s made. It can respond rapidly to change. In some cultures, theatre has been a major mode for change itself: in France, for instance, the history of theatre is deeply bound with the history of revolution, which inflects its political place in the culture now. We have no such tradition here.

Writing criticism well is time consuming, difficult and usually thankless; it is, as Plato said of virtue, its own reward. There’s little incentive to do more than write of the affect of theatre, which focuses on a critic’s personal response: the contextualisation of ideas, politics, histories of performance, design or writing, and so on, is considered only glancingly, if at all. Such considerations are left to the academy, often later, and with much less public traction, which means that a crucial part of the theatre, its audience, is left out of the conversation. The middle ground has been occupied by blogs, where critics have the space to explore work in more depth, but although blogs are by no means over, their energies have moved on. As every theatre blogger knows, it’s hard to sustain so much work for no money; what’s surprising is that so many have, over many years.

Recently debate has atomised further, into social media – it often occurs through the ephemeralities of Facebook and Twitter, rather than the the passionate online debates that characterised Melbourne theatre criticism at its best. It means the discussion that does exist is harder to track and access for anyone not immediately aware of it. Meanwhile, as the anarchic culture of blogs is folded into corporate sites, attracting writers who are grateful be paid, however little, for their work, the consumer guide review remains unchallenged. We’re scoring shows out of five, as if we’re marking maths tests in primary school. We’re writing brief reviews that can’t begin to consider the ideas offered in the work we’re seeing. The possibilities, not for reviewing itself, but for real critical engagement, seem as limited as they ever were.

Theatre criticism and performance have a symbiotic, if often necessarily vexed, relationship. And when a palpable gap exists between the ideas and ambitions driving a work and the responses that shape its public perception, criticism isn’t doing its job well, by any of the interests it’s supposedly for: readers, audiences, artists, the culture, the art itself. It is this, more than shrinking space, financial sustainability, and so on, that bedevils theatre criticism in Australia. There is still an abyss between, on the one hand, specialist academic engagement, which occurs mostly outside the public eye, and mainstream theatre criticism, which is driven by a consumerist agenda that focuses on swift judgment, easily digested as a marketing tool. For a while it looked as if the gap might be closing, opening a new and stimulating space for populist, informed argument. I worry that it’s opening up again. And the result, inevitably, will be a less interesting culture: for critics, artists and, most importantly, audiences.

For further reading, we recommend Ben Brooker’s response to this article at   “I don’t think it takes a catastrophist to state the obvious: that a poorly conceived and written review – and there’s no use pretending we don’t know what one looks like – does everybody, from the artists down, a terrible disservice.”


Alison Croggon

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Alison Croggon trained as a young reporter on the afternoon daily newspaper the Melbourne Herald before leaving journalism to explore other forms of writing. From 2004-2012 she ran the theatre review blog Theatre Notes, and was formerly Melbourne theatre critic for The Australian and The Bulletin. She is currently the performance critic for ABC Arts Online and a poetry critic and columnist for Overland Journal. She was awarded the 2009 Geraldine Pascall Prize for Critic of the Year. 

She wrote the best-selling fantasy quartet The Books of Pellinor, which has sold more than half a million copies worldwide, was shortlisted for two Aurealis Awards and named one of the Notable Books of 2003 by the Children’s Book Council of Australia. The US edition of The Naming was judged a Top Ten Teen Read by Her new novel Black Spring was recently released in Australia and the UK and was shortlisted for the 2014 NSW Premiers Literary Awards. She has published several collections of poetry, which won the Anne Elder and Dame Mary Gilmore Prizes and were shortlisted for the Victorian and NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Her most recent collection is Theatre (Salt Publishing 2008). She has written several works for theatre, including the operas The Burrow and Gauguin with the composer Michael Smetanin, produced at the Perth and Melbourne Festivals respectively, and Mayakovsky, commissioned by Victorian Opera, and Night Songs, co-written with Daniel Keene, commissioned by Bell Shakespeare.

Summary of Links
No Baggage or False Freedoms?: On Anonymous Book Reviews
Reacting Against the ‘I’ Industry: An Anonymous Saturday Paper Reviewer
Theatre reviews and musings (mostly) from Adelaide.
The personal blog of Jana Perkovic.
The problems with theatre criticism
The personal blog of theatre reviewer, Kate Herbert.
“Roman Tragedies: An Almost Live Review” by Jane Howard
Adelaide Festival: Roman Tragedies – review
Patrick White: A theatre of his own

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