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The death of Theatre Criticism

The great critics always began before they were forty. Who are their equivalents today?

John Peter, chief theatre critic at The Sunday Times for almost twenty years, died last month.  A Hungarian refugee who fled to Britain after the 1956 Uprising, he was a deeply civilised man and will be much missed. 

Peter worked at The Sunday Times from 1967 until 2010. Looking back, it was a golden age of theatre criticism when critics like Michael Billington, Benedict Nightingale and Charles Spencer were at their peak. All four retired in the last ten years. We have not seen their like since. 

‘One of the most characteristic sounds of the English Sunday,’ wrote Penelope Gilliatt, in 1959, ‘is that of Harold Hobson barking up the wrong tree.’ If that was what she made of the drama critic who championed Godot and The Birthday Party, what would she have made of today’s younger theatre critics? Reading what passes for reviews in some of our newspapers and weeklies, it looks as if theatre criticism in Britain is heading for a complete breakdown. 

Of course, we can disagree about particular plays and productions. That is what drives theatre criticism. Harold Hobson raved about the first performance of The Birthday Party; other critics loathed it. Look Back in Anger received mixed reviews when it opened, and Tynan praised it to the skies. However, you need some kind of shared language to begin a conversation. 

The critic can be on the side of the reader and be at home in a two- hundred-year tradition of theatre criticism that goes back to Hazlitt, Tynan and Shaw. The editors seem to miss this basic point and so that tradition is in danger of coming to an end.

What is striking is how recent all this is. A few years ago, a poll in Whatsonstage.com asked theatregoers to vote for the critics they most trust. The top five were Michael Billington of The Guardian (39%), Charles Spencer of The Daily Telegraph (23%), John Peter of The Sunday Times (19%), Michael Coveney of The Daily Mail and Nicholas de Jongh of The Standard (both 10%). The youngest of these five critics was almost fifty. The others were all born either side of the Second World War. Except for Spencer, all of them started in the 1970s and early ‘80s, a very different cultural moment. 

That generation, has come to an end. Jack Tinker, Bernard Levin, John Peter, John Gross and Milton Shulman have all died. Michael Billington and Nightingale have retired. Who will replace them? 

Of course, there have been other key moments in the history of theatre criticism when one generation has given way to another. The history of the revolution in British theatre in the 1950s cannot properly be understood without bearing this in mind. New critics, crucially Hobson and Tynan, made their reputations by championing new kinds of theatre – Waiting for Godot (1955), Look Back in Anger (1956), the Berliner Ensemble’s production of Mother Courage (1956), The Birthday Party (1958). The changing of the guard did not lead to dumbing down. It brought about some of the best criticism written, passionately defending new kinds of drama and major new voices.

The passing of a golden age of theatre critics is symptomatic of the decline of the British press

This generation too came to an end in the 1960s and ‘70s. Tynan left The Observer (1963), Worsley stopped writing theatre criticism after 17 years (1965) and eventually Hobson ended almost thirty years at The Sunday Times. Another new, younger generation emerged: Irving Wardle at The Times (1963), Benedict Nightingale at The New Statesman (1968), Billington at The Guardian (1971), Sheridan Morley at Punch, and James Fenton, then John Peter at The Sunday Times. These were exciting times in British theatre: Peter Hall at the National, Richard Eyre at the Nottingham Playhouse, new writers like Stoppard and Ayckbourn, Edgar, Griffiths and Hare, new actors like Callow, Rickman and Shaw, Stevenson, McKellen and Sher. The new critics knew and cared about theatre. They championed their favourites, did their best – in Kathleen Tynan’s words – to ‘make permanent the impermanent’, and wrote clear, decent criticism.

Now, as that generation, too, has passed, the signs are worrying. It is hard to think of a leading critic under fifty. There is no new generation in sight. This is unprecedented. Billington was barely thirty when he began at The Guardian, older than Nightingale when he started at The Statesman. Much is made of the fact that Tynan took over at The Observer when he was 27, but Hobson was only 31 when he began as a theatre critic and James Agate was 30 when he began at The Guardian. Beerbohm was younger still, 26, when he began at The Saturday Review in 1898, and Shaw, his predecessor, was not yet forty when he became a theatre critic. Going further back still, Hazlitt was in his thirties when he first saw Kean’s debut as Shylock in 1814. The great critics, in short, always began before they were forty. Who are their equivalents today? Where are the new, young voices in theatre criticism?

Tynan became the best-known theatre critic of his time because he wrote superbly. For example, on Anna Neagle in The Glorious Days: ‘she sings, shaking her voice at the audience like a tiny fist…’ Or his response to Godot: it ‘jettisons everything by which we recognise theatre. It arrives at the custom-house, as it were, with no luggage, no passport and nothing to declare…’ Reviewing The Quare Fellow, he wrote, ‘Behan’s tremendous new language is out on a spree, ribald, dauntless and spoiling for a fight…’ 

Hobson was Hal to Tynan’s Hotspur. Less flair, fewer political histrionics. Consider, however, the intelligence at work in his reaction to Peter Hall’s first production of Godot: ‘Mr Beckett has any amount of swagger. A dusty, coarse, irreverent, pessimistic, violent swagger? Possibly. But the genuine thing, the real McCoy.’ Or his historic defence of Pinter’s The Birthday Party in 1958, when all the other critics had damned it and it was playing to an empty house: ‘I am willing to stake whatever reputation I have as a judge of plays by saying that The Birthday Party is not a Fourth, not even a Second, but a First; and that Mr. Pinter, on the evidence of this work, possesses the most original, disturbing, and arresting talent in theatrical London.’ 

Hobson and Tynan are the last theatre critics to feature in the new Dictionary of National Biography because they wrote well and championed the new. They weren’t simply chroniclers, they made different kinds of theatre possible. Confronted with the strangely new, they tried to make sense of it, and when they felt – as with Osborne and Pinter, Beckett and the Berliner Ensemble – that they were encountering something extraordinary, they fought for it with tremendous passion.

Reading those first reviews, you feel as if you are sitting in on history.  Of course, they made mistakes. All critics do. They sometimes barked up the wrong tree, but they brought theatre to life. They tried to think through the unprecedented revolution in British theatre that was going on around them.  

Does this matter? Do we need critics to be anything but entertaining or informative? Yes, because in several crucial respects theatre in Britain is embattled today as never before. Of course, there is Coronavirus which has left theatres on their knees. But British theatre had its problems long before the health crisis. First, there is the sheer cost of going to the West End today. Despite welcome initiatives as at the National, it’s hard to get two good seats in the West End for much under £100, and if you’re making an evening of it, that may be only half of your expenditure for a night out. That is more than a year’s TV licence or a dozen trips to the cinema. 

Second, theatre is scorned by the chattering classes in a way that cinema or television are not. For some time, more of my conversations with friends have been about what we have senes on Netflix, Amazon Prime or BBC iPlayer rather than the Old Vic or the Royal Court. Television coverage is an interesting indicator. For years, British television respectfully filmed theatrical productions. It was arguably the BBC showing an extract of Look Back in Anger on 16th October 1956 that really launched Osborne’s play. Box office-takings almost doubled, from £900 to £1,700 per week. The next month, the play was televised at peak viewing by ITV, giving a huge audience access to one of the most controversial new plays. Ian McKellen’s reputation took off when the BBC showed his Richard II and Marlowe’s Edward II with the Prospect Theatre Company in 1968. Channel 4 televised the RSC’s Nicholas Nickleby and the exciting new productions of Lyubimov in the mid-‘80s. Simon Curtis’ Performance series introduced a number of key contemporary plays to a television audience in the 1990s. That link is broken. Apart from Richard Eyre’s series on 20th century drama, BBC 1 and 2 and Channel 4 have abandoned theatre. 

But as National Theatre Live on You Tube has shown there have been terrific productions over the past twenty years. Gillian Anderson as Blanche Dubois in Streetcar, Helen McCrory in Rattigan’s Deep Blue Sea and Nigel Hawthorne as George III, Nick Hytner’s One Man, Two Guv’nors and his recent Midsummer Night’s Dream, Simon Godwin’s Twelfth Night at the National and Patrick Stewart in Rupert Goold’s Macbeth. There was the hugely ambitious Pinter season two years ago, Patrick Marber’s revival of Travesties, also in 2018, and terrific new plays like Lucy Prebble’s ENRON, Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica, Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen, Oslo and The Lehman Trilogy, all produced in the last ten years, all hugely ambitious.  

Theatre, in short, takes on what television and film rarely dare to – topical political polemics (Stuff Happens), the responsibility of scientists in a nuclear age (Copenhagen), the discussion of complicated ideas (Arcadia). It keeps alive the distant past in an amnesiac culture (from Greek tragedy to Shakespeare and Racine), and the recent past (Daldry’s revival of Wesker’s The Kitchen and Priestley’s An Inspector Calls). It tries to keep alive different kinds of language (from the lyricism of Jim Cartwright’s Road to Kushner’s Angels in America. It rejects insularity and parochialism, by bringing in productions from all around the world, from Mukiyama’s Japan to Jatinder Verma’s work with Tara Arts.

Theatre does this in the face of an increasingly intolerant culture, which aches for the familiar and the parochial. In the 1890s, it was Archer and Shaw who championed Ibsenism. In the 1950s, Tynan and Hobson defended Beckett, Pinter and Brecht. In the 1970s and ‘80s, Billington, Nightingale and Peter defended The Romans in Britain and Bent. Today there is a real danger that editors, dumbing down, will look for new kinds of celebrity-critics, who know little and care less about theatre, who write badly and think timidly. Who, then, will champion the new and the bold, in an increasingly conformist climate?

The passing of a golden age of theatre critics is symptomatic of the decline of the British press. It’s not just the circulations in complete free fall or the thinness of the new Guardian. It’s the middlebrow nature of arts pages, barely recognisable from twenty years ago. The New Statesman doesn’t even have a theatre critic any more. At a moment of crisis, British theatre has never needed the passionate and informed support of great theatre critics more, supported by editors who believe theatre matters.  

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