Friday, November 2, 2012

Epic Poetry and Epic Theater Critic Requirements

(The great Mr. Clurman. You can tell he's the real deal because he's an old white guy in a black-and-white photo.)

In my Writing About Theatre course, we've just started our unit on theater criticism, which, it should come as no surprise, is my favorite unit. It wasn't long into our discussion before a student asked this important question:

What makes a theater critic credible?

And (for once!) I was extremely prepared to answer it.

I had brought with me to class The Collected Works of Harold Clurman, a backbreaking anthology of six decades' worth of cultural criticism from the renowned theater critic. At the front of book is this list, which Clurman published in Encore in 1964 and which I had my students read aloud:

The Complete Critic’s Qualifications 
Besides having cultivated taste, feeling and a talent for clear observation of people: 
I. 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.
II. He should know the history of the theatre from its origins to the present.
III.  He should have a long and broad playgoing experience – of native and foreign productions.
IV. He should possess an interest in and a familiarity with the arts: painting, music, architecture and the dance.
V. He should have worked in the theatre in some capacity (apart from criticism).
VI. He should know the history of his country and world history: the social thinking of past and present.
VII. He should have something like a philosophy, an attitude toward life.
VIII. He should write lucidly, and, if possible, gracefully.
IX. He should respect his readers by upholding high standards and encourage his readers to cultivate the same.
X. He should be aware of his prejudices and blind spots.
XI. He should err on the side of generosity rather than an opposite zeal.
XII. He should seek to enlighten rather than carp or puff. 
The best theatre critic in the English language since 1895 was George Bernard Shaw.
It's a tall order -- the kind of order it takes a lifetime to fill. But it was this list that I had in mind when I was reviewing An Iliad, at Berkeley Rep.

(Henry Woronicz in the one-man show at Berkeley Rep. Photo by Kevin Berne.)

I am so ashamed to admit this that I struggle to type it, but this was my first experience of Homer's epic. In college I stubbornly -- with zeal, even -- avoided the classics. I was interested in understanding only my immediate experience, that which was tangible, accessible, verifiable. To dig into the past was frightening; understanding history seemed to be as much an exercise in imagination as in analysis. It seemed to require empathy and perspicacity and wisdom -- qualities I felt I did not have.

There are major gaps in my theater knowledge, as there probably are in most people's, and the classics is one of my biggest and most egregious educational lacunae. I wonder if this hole would disqualify me in Clurman's eyes. I wonder if it makes me less credible a critic of Berkeley Rep's production. I wonder if it makes my review less informed and informative.

I think the answer to all these questions is yes. 

But it's a qualified yes. I don't know if society today would support, in many senses of the word, Clurman's vision of a theater critic. And even if there are a few critics who might qualify as a "Complete Critic," I think it's important to have more than a few voices who are allowed to publish opinions about theater. I also imagine that, particularly when he was my age, Clurman was not yet an expert in... all the liberal arts. Would he ever recuse himself? Would he ever not write about a production because he had not yet acquired scholar-worthy knowledge of every field a play touched upon? I don't know, but I imagine not. I imagine he saw those shows as opportunities to learn. 

I try to use shows like An Iliad as chances to grow as a theater critic, to expand my knowledge and become more "Complete." But for reasons I've mentioned in this blog before, it's hard for me to take full advantage of those opportunities. I work two demanding jobs, and being a theater critic pays less than half of my monthly living expenses. So I don't know if it's fair to ask me to become as well informed for each show I write about as Harold Clurman demands.

But I try to make up for my failings with one item on his list -- being a clear and sharp observer -- and one item that's not, at least not explicitly -- being honest. 

After my class read aloud Harold Clurman's list, I told my students that his requirements, while laughably difficult, are at least achievable if, you know, you have decades to devote to the task of meeting them. Being honest, I think, is much harder. It's a matter of courage and integrity. It's a matter of self-knowledge. You can't get critical honesty from reading a certain number of books. You get it, I think, from a love of theater that's so deep it's religious, from an unshakeable belief that theater has power, from feeling, each time you walk into a theater, that this show matters.

I struggle to have this quality just as I struggle to be sufficiently erudite. But I think that, even if I'm an ignoramus about a production, if I bring to my criticism the genuine desire to be honest, then I can still have something valuable to say.

Or not! Because every other An Iliad review I've read (almost) says the exact opposite of what I wrote. Despite all my attempts at "honesty," it might be better to go with some of the more educated guys on this one.

An Iliad has been extended through Nov. 18; info here.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! how informative and humble of you! Thanks for sharing this. I read the Iliad in DS at Yale, which makes me want to see it and judge it on my own. I wonder how many American critics also were exposed to the Iliad for the first time but were ashamed to admit it. Kudos to you, Lily! I'll let you know what I think.