Poking around on the American Theatre Critics Association Web site the other day, I came across Harold Clurman‘s 1964 list of what an anonymous annotator called “12 commandments” for theatre and drama critics. Herewith the dozen:
Besides having cultivated taste, feeling and a talent for clear observation of people:
1. The critic should know the greater part of classic and contemporary drama as written and played. Added to this, he must be conversant with general literature: novels, poetry, essays of wide scope.
2. He should know the history of the theatre from its origins to the present.
3. He should have a long and broad playgoing experience — of native and foreign productions.
4. He should possess an interest in and a familiarity with the arts: painting, music, architecture and the dance.
5. He should have worked in the theatre in some capacity (apart from criticism).
6. He should know the history of his country and world history: the social thinking of past and present.
7. He should have something like a philosophy, an attitude toward life.
8. He should write lucidly, and, if possible, gracefully.
9. He should respect his readers by upholding high standards and encourage his readers to cultivate the same.
10. He should be aware of his prejudices and blind spots.
11. He should err on the side of generosity rather than an opposite zeal.
12. He should seek to enlighten rather than carp or puff.
The ATCA poster waggishly added, “No one but Clurman ever measured up.” I don’t think this is quite true, really; but of contemporary critics, and judging only by what they publish under the guise of criticism, I can count the number of both online and print reviewers who meet his qualifications on the fingers of one hand.
These qualifications are not even particularly stringent, but a few observations might be made, not the least of which is that nearly all of these can be learned — but very few can be taught. To wit: Items 2, 4, and 6 should be in the possession of any veteran of an undergraduate liberal arts education, provided he or she has kept ears and eyes open through at least half of their four-year drudgery at college or university. Items 10, 11, and 12 are a matter of self-knowledge, ironic distance, and self-observation. The fulfillment of Item 5 can come about easily enough, either in college or university theatre productions or in one of the hundreds of hard-scrabble off-off-Broadway projects that are launched in every city in this nation every year.
Given the position of drama in our colleges and universities, Item 1 may be a bit more of a challenge, but not particularly. A good two or three years of fairly serious, systematic, and informed evening reading will provide the neophyte critic with, at the very least, a groundwork for his career upon which he can build — and at the end of this regimen, I wager, one will have a broader knowledge of the drama than 95% of the critics and reviewers currently evaluating drama and theatre for the mainstream press. Item 3 is not as easily gained as this, but it is not impossible with a little assiduous effort. Terry Teachout in his recent speech at the ATCA conference thoroughly assesses Item 11, though I would add that, in terms of Item 12, mindless raving puffery is just as damaging to the theatre and drama as a thoughtless snarky pan.
But of course none of this would make up for the breaking of Clurman’s Seventh Commandment: “[The critic] should have something like a philosophy, an attitude toward life.” This is perhaps the most essential, for it colors everything he thinks, writes, and feels about theatre and drama, if he is not to be a mere reviewer evaluating products for consumption, a consumer guide. If one is going to spend decades in the theatre, as an audience member, an artist, or a critic, one needs to have some sort of idea why he’s there. The theatre and drama, as an art and not a business, should creep into every crevice of the critic’s experience as a human being. More, if he is to have any influence at all on the art as it is practiced in his immediate vicinity (and he should; see Items 9 and 12), he must be able to explain to his readership why it has touched him so, why it should continue to do so, and why it has the ability to touch his readers as well, despite the disappointing quality of 90% of all aesthetic effort and the resulting very painful evenings spent in dark rooms.
But do we get this from most of our current critics? Apart from a steady job and regular paycheck (and these are not to be mocked, as difficult as they are to come by in the discipline), do they even know why they’re in the theatre? And can they communicate this to their readership in any meaningful, significant fashion? (See Item 8.) It isn’t enough to say that the arts of theatre and drama are important and necessary — not least because, to the great majority of the human race, they aren’t. Narrative, if human beings need stories to make sense of their experience, can be got much more cheaply in novels, movies, and television shows. The experience of collective enjoyment of art can be found in the concert hall and the rock venue. Discussion of current events can be found in the pages of newspapers and the interviews on the Sunday morning talk shows. Critics must be more precise than to congratulate themselves and their readership on their appreciation of an elite art form. Why, for god’s sake, spend their lives in these dark rooms and then feel compelled to write about it? No wonder, perhaps, than many of them write as if they’d rather not be there.
Maybe few but Clurman ever measured up to his own standards. But it should not be for lack of trying. I’ve tried myself, and maybe failed more than I succeeded (though I succeeded enough, I think), but everybody makes mistakes and hopes to learn from them to become an even better critic. (See Items 10 and 11.) That doesn’t mean that the critic should lower his sights, but rather that he should raise them. There’s no reason why our regular reviewers — and even the freelancers who get shunted to review theatre that’s off the radar of the first- and second-stringers — shouldn’t hold themselves accountable to Clurman’s 12 Commandments. Add to this the advice to the young critic offered by Jonathan Kalb and we’d have a far more energetic and significant critical dialogue in the theatre. And perhaps a far more energetic and significant drama as well.