To round out this week’s essays and links on criticism, and at the risk of boring Cameron Woodhead further (at least when there’s a hoary, 50-year-old Sondheim musical comedy to review), I republish below a 2007 symposium, “The critic as thinker,” that I originally posted here on 10 June 2011. Introductory remarks and the video below the rule. In addition, Jana Perkovic continues her survey (with damned statistics) of the Australian critical landscape here; much of what she says rings true for the US scene as well.
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.