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The accepted authority on the play's successes and shortcomings is the professional drama critic. But it is the audience for whom the play is played and the audience can also exercise potent critical judgment. Today a junior managing director of the Equity Library theater discusses the critic on the audience as Judith Crist fine arts editor and a drama critic for The New York Herald Tribune and Henry Hughes a drama critic for the Saturday Review outlined their criteria of judgement on their contributions to the theatre world. Here is our backstage host and perhaps for those who might think that the life of a theatrical critic is pure fun and enjoyment I think to begin with it's essential to say first that last season there were roughly about 55 Broadway openings and amazingly enough something like one hundred forty one off Broadway openings and that's equity off-Broadway openings not counting the non-equity ones which the critics no longer cover. But this statistic means then that if one critic from a complication covered every opening he or she would
find themselves in the theater almost every night of every week of the entire season. Now this in itself actually might not seem much like a conventional hard word that is sitting in a comfortable seat in a delightful theater and supposedly being entertained but actually work it is as far as a fresh creative mental process is concerned and to keep an objective unbiased feeling about theater in general let alone about each specific production that a critic might be at must be actually harder work than driving a truck so to begin Is there any way that either of you Judith or Henry have found to approach each show whether it's on or off Broadway with nothing more just a clear mind a fresh mind other than just going in expecting the best. Well as the second critic for The Herald Tribune. I ought to describe two different ways of working because I think that the approach of a critic is an entirely individual one. Walter Kerr
is our drama critic. And I do know that Walter's approach to a knight's review is to just clear his mind for the coming event. Walter does not even like particularly to have dinner before theatre with a very stimulating company because this would introduce all sorts of elements and thoughts into his mind social attitudes and so forth. He likes to approach it with an absolutely clear mind. I on the other hand am also the editor for the Arts at the Tribune and while I would like to be able to relax for a day. This really is not my system. I just find that when I get ready to go to theatre. I simply approach it as a theatrical experience that invariably I'm sorry to say but I suspect Henry agrees.
You anticipate. I still even with those hundred 90 shows a season. Of course none of us ever quite gets to see all of them but I still must confess to a vague thrill when the lights go down and the curtain comes up even in theaters where there are no curtains where the lights don't go down very successfully. But I think it's a matter of the individual approach to each production. And I'd like to bring up the whole matter of homework. If I marry for example I know a number of critics make a point of reading the play before hand of finding out all they can before hand about a production and we advocate not doing that kind of homework not reading a play a Broadway play. Many of them are published before hand. Before you go to see it on the theory that plays are not meant to be read they are not meant to be
cast in your head. You're not supposed to hear the dialogue. Before hand now of course this applies only to new plays. I don't mean that you must never have read Shakespeare. Indeed there are many plays that you must refresh yourself on before you go to see a new production. In general I would agree that I know I try not to read a play until after I've seen it. Now I work on a weekly magazine so that I have time at after I have seen a play to go back and read the script if I want. David papers don't they have an hour to write their review in and there isn't time to do that. But I find that it's more useful to read it after you've seen it and then you know you don't as Miss Chris says have these misconceptions or misconceptions but preconceptions. But I think also that beyond the homework you have to consider the function of the theater critic.
And I think that I would like to clarify the difference between the daily newspaper theatre critic and say the Weekly critic because this I think will clarify where Henry's function is entirely different from mine or Walter Kurtz. As far as the daily paper goes. I think the primary function of the daily newspaper critic is to tell people what he saw in the theater last night. I don't mean reporting on what he saw in the theater although I report on what happened is an integral part of your criticism and review but to inform people immediately about the theatrical experience that they can expect and you don't have an hour Henry you have 45 minutes. It's an hour portal to deadline to cutthroat deadline on the last paragraph so that it is not just a matter of sounding literate and intelligent but a matter of getting words
on paper in time for them to be put into type. But I think the daily review is to describe that theatrical experience which is being offered and not in ratio to the development of the theatre particularly. This is what comes out in the critic Sunday piece in their weekly piece. It is the theatrical scholarly the philosophic approach which I think is the secondary purpose for a newspaper. Your review. The immediate review is for the person who will walk into. The theatre on Forty fourth or Forty sixth Street the following night and will find a worthwhile are worthwhile experience awaiting him. I would agree that the getting the quality of what you see is an important thing and I know that occasionally I have to refer back to some of my old reviews and I'm appalled sometimes to
find out that they're nothing but opinion. And I know that I try and I think that I think that we could work the critics as well as that a critic should try to get to capture the quality of what they experience in the theater that the people are going to see. By that I mean what it is like not associated with value judgements. Now the daily critic has traditionally called himself a reviewer in order to in a way excuse himself from from having to do some of the things that he would do if he were a Weekly critic. And my the thing that bothers me about daily criticism is that the Democratic has come now to be a sort of Consumer's Guide. He feels a great responsibility to the public to say go to see the show or don't go to see the show. Almost like the good housekeeping seal of approval.
Now I don't think there's something wrong with this except that it is a rather a reduced function for a guy and a heart that or at least a craft that at its best is little more glorious than a consumer's guide approach now. I wouldn't and I'm not trying to say that the other critics don't go way beyond being a consumer's guide but they do feel this compunction and we have seen them in the magazines feel it too because it's become a part of the American tradition to say somewhere in the review are usually at the end. A very positive or very negative sentence to indicate whether or not we advise people to go. And I deplore this even while I dissipate on it. And I would like to see the picture of American Cause and change
in the into one where they are. There was less emphasis on that aspect of it. Well this necessity to make a definitive statement then I think for instance why George Bernard shot in my mind was a superb critic was because his point of view was always so definite. But with the kind of pressure you have on you time pressure or even Henry when you have days or week or what have you is there then really no place for constructive criticism in a critic's work in that instead of saying it was bad saying it was bad because and this is the way it could have been improved is that and necessarily should be a critic's function this constructive criticism or not. Well I think that by every negative criticism must be justified. In other words while you would like when something was just so dreadful that you want to just sit and write three paragraphs saying this was abysmal I've never been more bored in my life it was embarrassing to be in that theater. I
left after the first act and I hope this won't survive even to a second performance and everyone involved in it should be drowned. You inevitably find that the more strongly you feel that a production let's say involving people of quality and good intention and basic talent the more strongly you feel that this has gone badly astray. I think the more you will tend to go into detail as to why something was not good. I don't mean that you waste your time or that of your readers or that of anyone involved or going into details on some of the little monstrosities that come and go in a night off-Broadway But certainly I think in every review of high quality production there is detailed and constructive critic criticism. I think all the quality critics operating today devote even more time to telling you
what went wrong and why. And they do do saying things were good. Well I think that to separate what was a dark and constructive criticism. The number of people who can use constructive criticism on a particular play are rather small compared to your total readership. Other words the producer the director and a few actors. And while I'm. My heart goes out to these people. I know that's not their my function is really not tell them how to do it. I can do that privately if I chose. But I asked my readers are you not interested so much in that part. However when I come across a play which seems to me to have flashes of quality and it occasionally to be driving toward something that means something to me and I just keep finding this dissipated and obfuscated. I start thinking I start saying oh now I'm the playwright must have something more in his mind that's in the eye and then I do a little detective work which is to find out try and figure out why
I am not getting what the what the playwright seems to be driving at. And sometimes it's because of a case of miscasting right now. You can't avoid the misc. This is something that the pressure can do nothing about after they once cast the play. Some people would say after all of that you are accepting the play with this cast. Never mind who should have been in the play just criticize the person who did it. But now the person who played the part. Sometimes it is acting very well he's doing his job he's doing his own acting very well. But the fact is that he has a quality that makes a character seem something he's not. And so when you if you can pick out and I don't like this sometimes it's helpful to the audience so that when they go see the play I can can see that the performance of the players is not quite what the playwright intended. And and and then they can say that if you just go through a few mental manipulation is that you can you can keep both of these things in mind at the same time and
get much more of the play. Will Henry You mentioned miscasting for instance and what I would think would be one of the most difficult decisions is to pin either praise or blame in a specific area on a specific person in other words. Perhaps an actor is giving a bad performance because he was badly directed it's the director's fault or perhaps a designer designed a set on the drawing board that when it was executed was ghastly and made the director's staging look bad. Isn't this kind of differentiation and difficult as to I for instance tend to blame everything on a director well cast the person he staged it. And yet you've got to give credit or blame in specific areas because and only one time and I'm not sure but I'm not sure that he really meant it. He said the director is responsible for everything and it is quite true that the director and I that are has come to be the man who expects to take all the blame. And a good deal of the praise if if the play successful is that he's the man who's steering the ship and never mind the problems of how difficult the shipper was
this day or that's his responsibility as he knew that when he took it on. But I think in general the critic is going to justify his existence. He has to show that over a period of time he has. Had some effect on the on the quality of their this being produced that he has by encouraging good things and discouraging bad things by finding a new playwright who even though his first play is miserable has as great as good potential and pointing these things out has done something to make the theatre of a better kind of the better. We're talking about encouraging. I've often wondered isn't there a double set of standards that you almost have to use on things like CityCenter or Shakespeare in the Park New York Shakespeare Festival of things that if you will are nonprofit but should be encouraged
deserve to be. Is there a different standard here as far as if nothing else severity between something like these projects and the typical commercial Broadway opening. I for one don't think that there ought to be a double standard. Because all of these regardless of their financial background are professional ventures we're not dealing with amateur productions. In any case and while you may not plunk down your $9 ticket to see Shakespeare in the park. Indeed your public subsidy and your voluntary contribution your taxes exemptions for the city center. Why if anything I have often felt that we should demand much higher things. Organizations like the city center like Shakespeare in the park which I might certainly say has been giving us higher things than you do from the
strictly profit motivated. Venture in the commercial theater now by that I don't mean that everyone that the playwright first time out is judged by the identical standard that you apply to a Tennessee Williams. I think the composer who has worked on his first Broadway musical is not judged by the standard that you should apply to Richard Rogers on his musical. This is a matter of experience. There is a variation of standard of what you come to expect from people. I think if someone gives a dubious Shakespeare performance someone we have never heard of your level of criticism is quite different from that that you apply to Helen Hayes if she gives a dubious Shakespeare performance in that we expect certain things from certain performers.
But I don't think that you should approach off Broadway for example as I think unfortunately some critics do by saying my Isn't it nice I've taken this nice empty room and filled it up with some broken down chairs. And why how very nice an OB skewer plié the obscurity of which is quite evident agent. And why isn't it sweet of them to try. They are standing there. They have charged admission. And they are expecting you as a reputable playgoer I'm talking now about the theatregoer and not about the critic. This is the critic's job. But they are soliciting people to come in and they are charging the money thing that I have found in retrospect So is that very often I have seen good people and good talent and good writing go down the drain in a production which had an
unfortunate number of accidents from which there wasn't enough money available to spend on the proper cost rooms etc. etc.. So that I try to when if I am excited in the theater by anything generally stimulated even if the production is not up to the standards I would expect on Broadway. Even if it happened on Broadway I would try to to say that that excitement exists there despite these woeful Lacson and production quality so that I like to be. I like to be free to communicate my own excitement about it. A production which is substandard in many ways but I don't consider that a violation of the single standard idea. I think I would you know I think you can debate this matter of excitement I found a great deal of excitement and nursery school in high school and college plays.
But I think that the critic has to draw a line at considering what has gone on behind the scenes and I feel very strongly about the critics and involvement in the theatre. I remember a debate somewhere or other between Kenneth Tynan and several theater people about getting to know too much about the behind scenes activity in the theater and Mr Tynan said well you know in order to criticize the omelet you must know how it is made and Margaret Litan said yes but you don't have to go into the kitchen and associate with the cook. And I think this is something that has to be maintained. I feel very sorry for an actor who has laryngitis and I temperature of one hundred six on opening night. But once the actor made the decision to go on then the critic
has the right to say he was inaudible and not then go on to say but of course you know on the road he picked up a virus and so on and so forth. This is to me a basic thing and about quality being lost for lack of backers and so on. I have almost invariably found this is because I added a section that frequently runs advance stories on plays that are going to open and time and again there is the story of the play that is one about twenty nine prizes in the course of its career and it has never been produced. And can you imagine here's this great work of quality honored a bubble and every college production that as ever been offered of it and now at last it is coming to open off-Broadway and it gets panned and it closes in two night or three if the playwright has had enough relatives to fill it for three nights. And I have just come to the conclusion and I'm sorry
if it sounds a bit cynical but the work of quality today in this hunger for quality products. That there is and indeed the dearth of them but not too many things get lost and that when a play does close within two five or ten nights that there is usually a very good reason for its closing because I have found that there are goers above all are very loyal. They are as anxious to see something of any quality as anybody I mean look at the mediocre things that are that are being attended because people want to go to there. I'd like to quote something that Jodi brought up and that is this notion that it's often there that bad plays close and good players run. As I look back on it there are many players that have succeeded for spurious reasons and many many his shows have succeeded by merchandising
and many of fine things have been lost because they were improperly merchandise even though the quality of the play itself was excellent or because somehow the public didn't get round to being intrigued with it from the reviewers and so on and I don't I often hear critics say well defend themselves by saying that that. The place that they like where the round ones that didn't like didn't and I would I would tell you there are so many accidental factors in here that I think it's good that we're on very unsafe ground we talk about when we try to suggest that these there is but the public is going to be as right in his judgment as they should be. I write as I suppose I would mean by right that the opinion of an intelligent person with time enough to look back on.
But I do believe that there is alternately a relationship whether it will wind up through revivals or however between the sound critic and ultimately the box office. Now every critic has staring him in the face lines in front of a play that he has bitterly denounced. I mean just this season this past season that became a major joke in our office you know just one word from Kerr and Crist Walter. And we happen to share the same reactions toward many things with exceptions for example had talked about I can get it for you wholesale. As just as I triumph triumphant production I most satisfying me years ago and it went on twofers early in the summer. I happen to think the
Maurice Evans Helen Hayes performance at the American Shakespeare Festival was embarrassing. It was abysmal It was awful. It played on and on to standing room only. I don't think that either of us has changed our mind about any play. And in the same way it works in the reverse are where we are the example of the reverse. Just as this past year but ultimately I think more often than not it will coincide that the Box Office scores variety does this. But totes that and because I think that public taste I think is steadily improving and that the critic and the public are getting closer we are becoming a more sophisticated society. And I think maybe ultimately there will be a meeting but probably not because and the critic would have no I really need to stop this because I think the two of you
are just getting warmed up and I'm afraid we're going to thank you so much for being with us. The story behind the theater today the critic and the audience while Di Jr. has been talking with drama critics Judith Crist of the New York Herald Tribune and Henry Hughes of the Saturday Review. Professional theater today is a complex many faceted structure no longer simply three planks and a passion. Good theatre is a successful blend of art business and a score of other professions. Successful theatre relies on a behind the scenes cast of hundreds whose roles can make or break a play. During the past weeks. While Di junior managing director of New York's Equity Library theater has been talking informally in the studio and on location with some of the men and women who create a finished production for the three. Playwrights directors producers actors managers designers and many others involved in the theatre all have candidly discussed the ingredients of their work the artistic and practical problems which confront the pros. The
young practitioners and serious amateurs on the theatre stages on and off Broadway and across the country. The story behind the theater is produced and recorded by Riverside radio WRVO or in collaboration with the Equity Library under a grant in aid from the National Association of educational broadcasters WRVO oras the Metropolitan FM station of the Riverside Church in the city of New York. This is the end of the Radio Network.
The Story Behind the Theatre
The Critic and the Audience
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University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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The Story Behind the Theatre is a twelve part program produced by WRVR Riverside Radio. Each week, Lyle Die Jr. of the Equity Library Theater addresses a specific aspect of theater production and interviews two people working in the New York City theater industry. The series seeks to explain the many factors involved in producing a piece of theater by talking with playwrights, producers, directors, and other industry professionals.
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Chicago: “The Story Behind the Theatre; The Critic and the Audience,” University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed June 19, 2024,
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APA: The Story Behind the Theatre; The Critic and the Audience. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from