Talk about your long-form criticism: Today I repost below a 2007 two-hour panel discussion on criticism (funny how these things proliferate; my own conclusion is that the number of these panel discussions only confirms the state of crisis in which dramatic criticism finds itself) with a few of America’s most significant drama critics of the late twentieth century: Eric Bentley, Robert Brustein, and Stanley Kauffmann. But before that, because we’re in the middle of all these Under the Radar, COiL, etc. experimental theatre festivals — all of which, collectively, add up to the 2012 APAP trade show — I thought I’d link to a timely entry from Michael Billington on experimental theatre, published at the Guardian today as part of his “A to Z of modern drama” series. I offer it as something of interest, not necessarily because I agree with all of it, though it may raise a hackle or two:
Experiment is everywhere. But herein lies the paradox. It is often critically praised, subsidised and welcomed into temples of high art like the National. So what actually is it challenging, what barriers is it breaking down and where is it going? What we are witnessing, I suspect, is the “institutionalisation” of experiment in a way that minimises its threat. And, much as I welcome real innovation, I’ve noticed that much of what passes as experimental theatre relies on infantile scare tactics: being chased down a darkened corridor by a man wielding a chainsaw, as audiences were in Punchdrunk’s It Felt Like a Kiss, is about as enlightening as taking part in a children’s game. …
I admit that I am most drawn, as spectator and critic, to those traditional things called plays. But I also relish genuine formal and technical experiment. My main grievance is that, at the moment, we are confronted either by a heavily commercialised international avant garde or — with some striking exceptions — by a domestic penchant for playground scarification. In an age when anything not merely goes but is often warmly embraced, perhaps it’s time for experimental theatre to rediscover its radical purpose and challenge the status quo.
Billington’s full essay is here, and if you disagree, please litter his comments section as you will. Below, the video on criticism, first published here in June 2011.
Although there is no substitute for reading the plays themselves, you can learn just about all you need to know about twentieth-century drama from four books: Eric Bentley’s The Playwright as Thinker, Robert Brustein’s The Theatre of Revolt, Martin Esslin’s The Theatre of the Absurd, and Jan Kott’s Shakespeare Our Contemporary. These are the books that, as I read them during my teen years, encouraged me as both dramatist and critic. Reading them, you will also become familiar with the best drama criticism of the century: lucid, engaged writing about theatre and drama as an art form rather than as mere commodity, vastly informed by a knowledge and understanding of culture and other artistic disciplines. It’s safe to say that if you do not know these books, you do not know the modern theatre, nor do you know the best of its criticism.
On the eve of the Tonys, it’s a pleasure to be able to offer “The Critic as Thinker,” a Philoctetes Center symposium from 27 October 2007, that features two of these fine critics, Eric Bentley and Robert Brustein, as well as Stanley Kauffmann, as they survey both their own careers and the changing landscape of theatre in the post-war era. Roger Copeland moderates the discussion, which traverses a wide variety of topics, including the original reception of The Playwright as Thinker, the newspaper review as consumer guide, the disappearance of the middle-brow play (this to my mind is alive and well, but let it pass), Marxist politics, and the alleged responsibility of Frank Rich for the decline of American theatre. The program also features a remarkable question-and-answer session with Jonathan Kalb, editor of Hot Review and author of The Theatre of Heiner Müller and Beckett in Performance, who argues passionately and persuasively for a reconstruction of a critical culture, as well as a possible home for it in the electronic media of the blogosphere (now that the 140-character Twitter feed and only slightly lengthier Facebook status line have all but displaced the blogosphere, however, I wonder what he’d say to this today); former Brustein student and Broadway producer (now chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts) Rocco Landesman, who valiantly and bravely attempts to defend the status quo; and critic Randy Gener. Those of you who care about money and entertainment will spend two hours this Sunday night watching the Tony Awards; those of you who care about theatre as an art will watch the below instead.