Success in the arts; Theatre criticism
Success in the arts. A recorded program produced by the Chicago undergraduate division of the University of Illinois under a grant from the Educational Television and Radio Center in cooperation with the National Association of educational broadcasters. Today success in the art of theatre criticism. Our participants. The critic Herman Kogan theater critic of The Chicago Sun Times and Edward P. Doyle executive editor of the Chicago American I am Alfred Partridge supervisor of radio for the University of Illinois in Chicago acting today as moderator. Now to begin Mr. Cogan I want to ask you a very broad question. What in your opinion is success as a theater critic. Well I suppose primarily the success of a theatre critic depends on how long and how well officially he holds on his job. I think you'd have to broaden the thing to get serious about it because you have to know what you mean. Whether is whether a critic is
successful as in the eyes of his paper in his own eyes the eyes of his readers you know eyes of the people affiliated with theater actors producers directors. Let me get one thing care. We can take this up from two points of view. Success can mean financial success or it can mean artistic success or whatever we want to discuss. Are we from the point of view of just briefly let's get this over with as a financial success. One critic more financially successful than another because of his criticism. Well depends on how good a bargain or he is or how how well the paper pays generally. No I wouldn't think Crikey I wouldn't think I saw that and I don't think that's the answer at all. I don't think you can really measure how successful a critic is. Maybe maybe the only way you can measure it is historically how
the will while his criticisms and reviews stand up well long after he stopped being a reviewer. As in the case of people like Walker Shaw for C.. Well I think that's only one aspect of it and I rather I'm inclined to dispute it because I think your primary primarily a newspaper critic must be judged in the day in the light of his day by day production. And I think his success is largely in the response he gets from readers and from the people in his news in the theatre and also from the general prestige which he acquires himself and which he brings to his paper the respect in which is opinions are held not when he's a venerated memory in the theatre but the effect he has while he's living and working. Oh I definitely agree with that I was looking at I think a much longer and a long range and of course the statuses.
You raise the idea of success. We must acknowledge the theatre critic is restricted in this country to a very few cities where and where he can really flourish in a mature important way. Yes and I accept that some New York Road Course is now the main center of that and except for New York I think almost every theater critic in America in the major cities on the smaller ones is a dual critic. Every critic does something else entirely doesn't matter. I think that in many ways is good for the newspaper it's good for the critic and sometimes enlarges influence and perhaps give them a better perspective on the theatre the theatre. Let's face it is not as important to America in most places as it was 25 years ago when for example Ashton Stephens was the great critic in Chicago he worked for our newspaper here and he was a I suppose reviewing probably 25 or 30 shows a month that at various times. Well that leads me to a question I wanted to ask you Mr. Doyle. How do you justify. Hiring a theater critic for instance on your paper.
Do you feel that he is widely read by circulation in your part of your public. Or is it a small group. I don't think he's read by all of our readers by any means but that's one thing about criticism if the critic is sufficiently outstanding if he is stimulating he will bring to his readership people who have much concern with the theatre. Of course in our case our Roger Detmer does a combination job music and the theatre and of course some a good deal of that readership overlaps I suppose but we know that it would be that he has the same kind of important place among our readership as I would say our sports columnists have in perhaps a larger numerical group. I also think that to broaden the success angle I think that the success of a critic the degree to which is successful also depends on how well you know how well he does his job how good a reporter and how good a
commentator and how good a man of opinions and how well he expresses and I think it's important to note in this whole problem of newspaper criticism drama or anything else how essential it is that the critic be first a good writer a man who is able to articulate his ideas and expressions and opinions and over a lot over a period of time. The critic builds as stores a reputation builds a following. He may build also an adverse following I know of people who will read a review and of a specific critic and not go to the theater because the reviewer may have liked it. It works the other way. I think a successful critic also has to be able to give the reader a good view in a very limited space of what went on at the event which he is describing or writing about but I don't think I agree on that and I think we might point out in that respect that there are as we will probably develop later that there are two functions one is to describe and report on what he's seen and then his other is to
express a personal point of view. In that connection I think that anyone in the newspaper business. Incidentally I started myself in the business as a critic when I was a theater critic many years ago when I was very close to the theater. Anyone in our business knows that the critic whether he is in the theater on the dance writing books must be well-informed he must have. Not necessarily formal education but he must have a great deal of information he must have enthusiasm for the medium but primarily he's got as Mr. Cohen said he had to be able to write. He also must know his subject. Well I want to get to that now. Later on I want to come back to the thing we touched on which is what does a critic do whether you present his opinion or the pain of the public or whatnot. But first of all then let's get you Mr. Cogan on the idea of how a man becomes a critic. Why do you say he needs to have information and so forth. Well how do you get to be a critic. Well George Bernard Shaw once said you get to be a critic by accident a man writing to
him once asked him how he could become a drama critic. He said well the way he became a drama critic was simply to be prepared for 20 years writing all sorts of criticism before he finally got a chance to be a drama critic. Oh I suppose you become a drama critic by a variety of ways. I think of generally you are a newspaper man first you've done other things on newspapers it's true of Percy Hammond It was true of Alexander Woollcott. So in true Brooks Atkinson and if I get personal is true of myself. If someone comes up to Percy Hammond once said when they asked him how he became a drama critic he said well my managing editor came up to me tapped me on the shoulder and said from tomorrow on your drama critic and he was in the locker room at that time. No I'm sure there have been some very arbitrary selections made over the many years but generally you know editors are pretty smart people they know that they've got to pick men who are considered to be qualified they're not going to pick someone who's never seen a play before although there are some editors sometimes who
think that would be a great idea and as a and I get a fresh approach now that Rush Hour or last night humorous. All right but but the day and I know I would agree that they pick men who may have never been actively engaged in theater but certainly have and have shown that they have writing ability that they have taste. They have knowledge they have information and are constantly refreshing that information. And from your opinion though I know that you've been a critic for some time. Do you think it would have helped you to have been an actor or to be have been closely connected. I don't at all there are several of us about that I've talked to a lot of actors and directors about that. It's interesting that the only major critic in America that I know who has been very actively engaged in theater before he became a critic was Walter Kerr the New York Herald Tribune a man that I consider the best writing critic in America. I think people have asked him whether it's helped him and he doesn't really know I think I think it probably has he was an actor for a short time and also was a director and a playwright and whatnot. I
found it also as you know a very fine writer always a marvelous writer and you see most of the people and you have to be. Again I must repeat it Mr. Doyle has underlined it here you've got to be able to express what you know about theatre that a lot of people of course in theater who know far more than any of the critics writing but who simply would not be able to sit now and often under pressure and be able to express what they want to say I have a personal feeling in their connection then who is too sympathetic to the actor and who therefore Poppy knows too much about the technique of acting. It is likely to be less sympathetic with the public. Well that may be true except that if you've ever sat with an actor as I have and at an opening night or any other performance and listen to some of the comments actors or actresses make about other actors actresses there's no critic in America when I say even cleaned up there is a secret for another man. They only want to curb Harold Clurman who is a very distinguished director who is one of the best critics in America also writes but they're right for I think the nation and for a much more
limited audience and he wouldn't even ready for newspapers let me get another thing there. There is a difference between criticism and reporting. Could you enlarge on that because you've talked in terms of here's a man who is a good writer he's got to be a good writer while a reporter has to be a good writer too. How is this man going to write as a reporter. What is a critic that is why I think it's an I think I would talk about newspaper criticism I think it's a common magazine criticism it's a combination of both. You've got to be able to not only say what you saw it seems to me so that the reader who may never get to the status of it gets a vicarious experience of being there. You have to be able to say what it's about which is the essential thing in a report you have to also know the techniques of Compte of criticism by comparison analysis obviously don't have the space in a newspaper view but you have to be able to state your opinions and maybe with a word or two words why you thought this play was good or bad. And it is much significant detail as possible all within space limitations.
Well let me ask Mr. Doyle then this brings us back really to the thing we're going to talk about before. What do you expect daw of your theater critic to expect him to reflect what he would think would be the general public's feeling about this play hurt him is like a combination of that. I feel that the the. Critic who says I that's not my personal cup of tea but the audience obviously enjoyed it is doing a fair job especially in the period when I think that any newspaper or any public spirited newspaper is interested in seeing the theatre survive. We don't have much Theatre in Chicago and while I know frequently the plays are not what I. I personally as a former New Yorker would expect in quality. I like to have a feeling that if there as is any appeal in Chicago for a play it should be made clear that it's not completely to be condemned though it may not appeal to my my critic. I say I like that that combination of reporting of
audience reaction and then the personal subjective approach to the theatre of the theatre critic. I think that principle is a good one and I certainly wouldn't argue with it. There's only one danger and this problem always comes up from the standpoint of the critics critics who are always saying well you didn't like it and you panned the show but the audience loved it the first night audiences are notoriously unreliable. So far as enthusiasm is concerned. One of the early loaders it's also true in New York too and very rarely even the major critics in New York will take the first night audience reaction of it they won't say I thought this was awful but everybody howled. We've all seen plays we know are terrible just terrible and are going to be flops you just have that feeling you know that could be a flop and the audience a good part of the audience applauds and howls and thinks it's great because let's face it a great part of first night audiences are made up of friends of friends of friends of actors and writers and
other virtual wrestlers and playwrights and I don't even I don't blame them of and my audience is not as likely not to include too many professional experienced theater goers. You've got a great many just casual people who may be seeing a play for the first time. The play you know I don't know I know it does NOT audience. I don't know I don't generally not that the first night I don't but I mean any audience is going to be entirely different from the professional standard because the the man who goes to the theater regularly 30 or 40 or 50 times here or New York City probably 300 times a year necessarily has an entirely different approach from the average casual person who goes perhaps once a year and the reviewer must be conscious of that. I think I think. That's one of the qualifications for success I think a good reviewer must be conscious I don't think a good reviewer can know yourself but if you're going to separate from a critic know I was critical of the terms are interchangeable. I think everybody says well how about what if the critic and he's reviewing it and this is a
classic thing it doesn't feel good or has had an argument with someone is not going to reflect in general if it does it may but if it does over and over again he ought to be back doing something else on the paper he's not of course an unsuccessful that is a lesser one basic thing when we do our job. Nobody no matter what our jobs are in the newspaper business is supposed to be fascinating. We are not likely to to retain or maintain the high level of excitement that the outsider has a thinner is a fascinating enchanting thing to many people and it's difficult for the critic to retain retain that feeling about it. But a good critic must be good crash you must have that if it was not to be. Well I think a good critic anticipates you know opening night curtains. Again successful nobody should anticipate opening horns with a certain amount of sight and I don't care how many years he's been around and this is true of the people like Atkinson and all the old timers the veterans who have been around for so many years they do they've said and I believe them even Georgie Nathan has been reviewing for
one hundred twenty five years and I still it still arises to this as though he had something I did for he has very love he says he loves the theater not not not the way you're always hearing backers of plays saying they love theater company different they love it because they love it for the profits they're likely to get just as they are when they talk about critics when they talk about good critics and bad critics. Most of your backers and most producers and actors simply think a good critic is a critic of said they were the players good in the performances good. You mentioned first night several times. You think it is fair for a critic to go to a first night to make a judgement of a play on a first night performance as a standard but you think this is what it should be. Well it's what it's what the commercialization of the theater well as even before it was oddly commercialized as has led to when I first took on this job and after I'd been around a while I wrote a column in which I suggested
that critics stay away for the first week and they come the second week give the play itself. Critics should sit in the balcony instead of in the fourth or fifth choice seats because I used to get letters from people saying they were in the praiser show and they said they saw the show and they couldn't hear anything because up in the balcony and my primary concern is for the reader and say the public. And I wrote this column and I asked for comments from people in the theater professional in the theater and not one of them despite their outcry when their first night show openings are panned. Not one of them would agree that this would be a great idea. The reason for it is a very simple one they obviously don't want to take a chance on missing what might be a good review and you see the critic has been placed it seems to me in the spot of judging of. Establishing a base on which the success or failure of a play can be determined. You're a good critic. Seems to me doesn't go to the theatre. The idea that I'm going to make or break this play or what
I say will make or break it financially he goes. The good the successful critic to give a fair good competent review or critique. Now what's happened of course over the years this isn't anything recent And what I'm saying is very new. Is that your. Producers have blown it they blow up the quotes they take parts of sentences which though I suppose they have a right to do. Nobody as far as I was ever tested in court they can do what they want and they have if the reviews are good. Well by the same standard if the reviews are bad and they write Dear Sir are you current mirrors exactly what the editors had really know about that which is a ridiculous thing so obviously the producers do place high store by the first night review and of course there it's not only a tradition and convention in the theater but they are prepared for that because they have been. Polishing their merchandise on the road no one expects a plane to survive in New York on the basis of a
first night opening in Hartford. I remember for example seeing the King and I think it was the opening night there and that wonderful ballet ran about 24 minutes which of course I was in constant yawn. That later became a lovely lovely play. But when they bring in New York it's supposed to be ready for the big leagues. Now of course there is a kind of fiction of that dress rehearsal which has become a commercial thing. They sell the dress rehearsal and make a lot of money but the critics on the following night. So maybe that sometimes they have not also have paid previews for a week. Well I would just let you know so I don't kind of you know I don't I don't Zuckerberg I don't mind that at all as long as my theory is a critic far as my duty to the public or if I have to readers or 50 or she wants the latest figures or sometimes five hundred sixty five thousand readers or more. I have to. If they're if they're charging for 24 receipts it seems to me that one thought in my mind when I write a review is that I have to keep I do have to keep that in mind
I can't say that I don't have any right to say that it's all right. The scenery is kind of shoddy and the leading man can't sing and the leading woman is kind of ugly and the dances of people fall on their face. But go anyway I think I think there's a duty of the critic to kind of protect the public from to get their money's worth on the second or third rate stuff. Yes I mean I have to because just the fact we had you know I did some of the producers have no feeling of responsibility to the acting or the public there are a lot of fly by night is in the business. And even some of the top ones have come into Chicago for example with some pretty shoddy companies and have howled when the critics have said so but I think that the incessant cry not by as I've been around long enough but by people like Miss CASSIDY The Tribune and. Ashton Stephens in his day by the incessant cry about complaints about second rate companies have lifted the standards of some most of the companies that he brought in the last couple of years.
This is raises one thing I wanted to ask which is how much power does a critic have. Can you make or break a play can you make or break an act or what can you do. Well the pill I think I don't I don't know it depends. Depends. That's a pretty broad question depends where. It depends on what circumstance and what kind of a play. I don't know about making or breaking actors I once wrote a review of an actor who appeared in Chicago and he retired from the pantomime he retired from the theater but he wrote me a note saying he was grateful for the muss and all for the people here panda and he was a great press agent. Now he just left. He just left the theater and I never heard from again he said he he was he didn't think he was very honest in things reg but this is a believe me a very rare thing. I don't think in New York of course I think it's much more your critics will can make or break it but I don't think there's one person though that can make or break a play isn't frequently used as an excuse by actors and producers that the critics panned him
and therefore the play didn't go on. I'm sure you know that everyone has a crisis alibis for sure. Sure that's really out. What about preparation. How do you prepare. You read were places we would go Yes I did it when I first started and I stopped doing it because I think it's unfair especially with things like comedies. A lot of the spontaneity is lost and I mostly all I really do is try to come to it as fresh as possible sometimes impossible because I've seen the plight in New York and I try within the limits of possibility even possibly not to let what I may have seen in New York influenced me as a matter of fact I've kind of made it a credo that I don't even in my reviews will not comment on the New York company unless the Chicago company happens to be a better one. I don't think it's fair really to to the reader to tell them that while this isn't as good as a New York company
because you're not reviewing a New York company reviewing the Chicago company however you do make comparatives in the sense of how this play was done maybe five years ago or when Ethel Barrymore did it. Yes I think that's all you have to make I think is necessary to do that. That's an element of criticism. Person contrast and I want to ask one more question we have time for this really had little to do with criticism but what is happening to the play theater here in this country. As a critic do you feel that it is improving or getting worse as well. Well it had to have another hour to talk or you know let me hi one of you are yet to be going anywhere but I've got some wonderful exceptions to it's more fun state we've had some great advances in the musical theatre in particular. Sure since 1945 Well you've had your head for example and brought through the Broadway picture in Chicago picture depends on the Broadway picture generally. You had a situation where for two or three years everybody was deploring the fact that the theater seemed to
be just nothing television had come in and they were going to take everything over and cinema scope and super scope and all the usual things. And then last season you had a tremendous tremendous season on Broadway financially and interesting enough artistically you had the level of plays was considerably higher than that but the prevailed a couple of seasons before there was a season we had the diary of Anne Frank and some other really great plays even successful failures. The Probably most important thing is the price situation in the inflation in play producing and also the fact that there's no room anymore for a moderate success. The play has to be a top hit. It has to do twenty five or thirty thousand dollars worth of business. There's no room in the theater for it. And that generally is not good for theater. Well then we can see in the sense that theater is successful and this is the conclusion of the program a discussion of success and the art of theater criticism 300 days program where the critic Herman cauldron
- Success in the arts
- Theatre criticism
- Producing Organization
- University of Illinois
- WILL Illinois Public Media
- Contributing Organization
- University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
- AAPB ID
- Episode Description
- This program, which discusses elements of successful dramatic criticism, features panelists Herman Kogan, theatre critic of the Chicago Sun Times; and Edward P. Doyle, executive editor of the Chicago American.
- Other Description
- This series presents panel discussions that focus on various aspects of the arts, including the skills needed to excel. The series is moderated by Studs Terkel and produced by Alfred E. Partridge.
- Broadcast Date
- Media type
Moderator: Terkel, Studs, 1912-2008
Panelist: Doyle, Edward P.
Panelist: Kogan, Herman
Producing Organization: University of Illinois
Producing Organization: WILL Illinois Public Media
Speaker: Partridge, Alfred E.
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 57-19-5 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
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- Chicago: “Success in the arts; Theatre criticism,” 1957-01-01, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed October 16, 2021, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-zw18r50s.
- MLA: “Success in the arts; Theatre criticism.” 1957-01-01. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. October 16, 2021. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-zw18r50s>.
- APA: Success in the arts; Theatre criticism. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-zw18r50s