There aren’t many rules and regulations, at least not in the British edition of the Critics’ Circle handbook, governing our jobs - if someone is wise (or foolish) enough to publish us, we have one, but you don’t even have to be a member of the circle, of course, to be a critic.
In fact, it’s a membership organisation only: entry is by invitation only. And these aren’t extended until a critic is employed as such for a qualifying period of two years first, to prove that they - or at least their editors - think they’re in it for the long haul. And even then, you could be invited to join but decline to accept, as a couple of the existing ranks of national critics have indeed done, one on the avowed Groucho Marx principle, “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member”. The other’s rejection of our entreaties has been the subject of various diary columns already, and rather than repeat the story, I will merely direct you to one of them here.
We are also, by default, immediately conscripted into the ranks of the International Association of Theatre Critics, an organisation that represents more than 2,000 critics through some 50 national sections.
And, just as Britain’s membership of the EU seems to result in any number of daft rulings (just the Sunday before last my paper, the Sunday Express, led with the story that the EU plans to end the rights of shoppers to get their money refunded for shoddy goods), so it seems that we may have be in the process of signing up for some pretty weird injunctions, too. Turkeys, they say, don’t vote for Christmas; but we just be about to do so if we sign up to follow its latest proposals.
Charles Spencer, the current president of the Critics’ Circle, has recently spoken out against the IATC’s proposed code of practice for critics. As he wrote in a column in the Daily Telegraph, “The Ten Commandments may have been enough for God and Moses, but we theatre critics are faced with 11 of them. Personally, I’ve always thought that the critic’s obligations can be summed up very briefly: arrive sober, stay awake, stay to the end and don’t take a bribe unless it is big enough to allow you to retire in comfort for the rest of your life. My own price, should anyone be interested, is £1.25 million in used twenties.”
He goes on to say, “The association is much more earnest and long-winded. We are supposed to acknowledge that we are ‘explorers in the art of theatre’, whatever that means, and told that we should ‘welcome new ideas, forms, styles and practice’. Why on earth should we if they are no good? We are also urged to write truthfully and (dread word) appropriately, and to respect the dignity of the artists we are responding to. This last injunction seems to outlaw the great pleasure of writing — and reading — a vigorous piece of knocking copy. There is a place for the abusive review, and taking the mickey out of pretentious or inadequate actors or directors is an important part of the job.” And he concludes, “The great misapprehension that shrouds the association’s code of practice is the belief that critics are part of the theatre community and that we should do everything in our power to encourage and support it. That is wrong. We are observers, not participants, and our only loyalty should be to our readers. If we can entertain them while sparing them the time and expense of seeing dire shows, so much the better.”
Actually, I like to think we are keen - and hopefully well-informed - observers whose enthusiasm does encourage and support what is, in our considered opinion, good work; but who also attempt to police bad work, too. But the Critics’ Circle is also, like the Press Complaints Commission, a way of policing ourselves and our relationship to the industry we commentate on, so that, for instance, we agree to certain protocols, like the one that we attend performances by invitation and don’t jump the gun and simply arrive unbidden at the first preview.
Of course, we could do so - there’s nothing to stop a critic buying a ticket, assuming one is available - and there have famously been examples when critics have been forced by their papers to do just that; Michael Billington, no less, was despatched by The Guardian to review Jerry Hall’s very first performance when she took over in The Graduate back in 2000, and was forced to declare, “Final judgement on Hall’s performance will have to wait until the official press night next week. But I can reveal that Sarah Bernhardt’s reputation is safe and that the earth certainly didn’t move for me.”
He treads a fine line, responding partly as critic, partly as reporter, and partly as cultural commentator. As critic, he was able to compare her performance to Kathleen Turner, who originated the role, and wrote, “Turner brought to the alcoholic, sex-hungry Mrs Robinson a mocking stillness, a gin-smoked voice and Mae West timing, all derived from a lengthy film and stage career. Hall, having appeared on stage once before in Bus-Stop, brings only a wealth of inexperience.” But that “wealth of inexperience” surely made judging her that early in her run even more unfair. So Michael turned instead to setting her appearance in the play in a cultural context: “The casting of Hall in The Graduate is most interesting for what it tells us about the state of the West End today. For a start, it shows the triumph of hype over experience. Hall is famous, beautiful and much-photographed. It therefore follows she must be able to act. However, the honest truth is that there are many actresses around better equipped to play Mrs Robinson but they will not get a sniff of the role because they lack the requisite celebrity.” He also notes, “Even more alarming is the feeling that the West End stage is gradually turning into a repository for old Hollywood movies. Currently we have The Graduate, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Witches of Eastwick.” (That trend has, of course, since turned into a flood; not a year goes by without a series of films being turned into plays or musicals nowadays).
But finally, he honours the act of a journalist reporting on what had turned into a public spectacle: “I have to report that The Graduate was packed on a sweltering Monday night in August and that there was a buzz of excitement in the stalls. That, however, had less to do with the low-key events on stage than with the presence of Mick Jagger in the front stalls. People in the rear craned to get a glimpse of the legendary sexagenarian. Cameramen rushed around frenziedly seeking him in the interval. And, by the end of the show, an exceptionally dense crowd had gathered in Shaftesbury Avenue. Frankly, if I were Hall I would be a bit miffed. It’s one thing to be upstaged by your fellow-actors but quite another by your ex-husband.”
Michael, unfairly made to break the critical code on this occasion, made a valiant attempt to turn his review into something that went somewhat beyond it. But what of feature writers who turn themselves, deliberately or not, into critics? In Sunday’s Observer, Tim Adams wrote a lengthy profile of Alan Bennett, just as his new play The Habit of Art has begun previews at the National Theatre; and although most of it is a skilfully assembled collection of quotes from past cuttings mixed with his own appraisal of Bennett’s career and place as a playwright, he reveals that he attended the first preview last Thursday - and proceeds to give us an insight into that. Of course, we’re now used to bulletin boards and blogs giving us the unmediated public response to previews; but it’s another for professional writers to start doing the same thing.
Adams was clearly taking very careful notes: “The play opens with an actor playing the late literary biographer Humphrey Carpenter, setting out the philosophy of his calling: ‘I want to hear about the shortcomings of great men…’ he says. What follows is a subtle and often hilarious traversing of the lines between the public and private lives of two great artists - WH Auden and Benjamin Britten - territory that has long fascinated Bennett, not least because it goes to the heart of the contradictory ways he thinks of himself as a writer”, he points out.
And there are contradictory ways in which Adams’ piece, which reveals that Bennett himself is clearly a territory that has long fascinated Adams, offers a lightning overnight preview of a major play that would otherwise not be responded to professionally until the papers finally get to review it on its opening night on November 17. Critics are already, potentially, an endangered species; could it be that our own papers could be the agents of our eventual destruction, too?