WORDS, WORDS, WORDS

SHOULD MORE CRITICS BE LIKE GEORGE BERNARD SHAW?

In 1895, George Bernard Shaw - Irish playwright / critic / eponym for a Canadian theatre festival - wandered into a theatre to watch Augustin Daly's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. He immediately regretted it. Oberon and Puck were played by women and all the fairies were fitted with blinking lights that ran on portable batteries (one has to wonder what sort of cumbersome battery was being used at the time and how this was worked this into the performance).  Daly was one of the most successful theatrical men of his time, but you wouldn't know it by reading Shaw:

"He has trained Miss Lillian Swan in the part of Puck until it is safeto say that she does not take one step, strike one attitude, or modify her voice by a single inflexion that is not violently, wantonly and ridiculously wrong and absurd."

And not long after:

"After studying all his Shakesperean revivals with the thirstiest desire to find as much art as possible in them, I must mournfully confess that the only idea I can see in them is the idea of titivation."

Shaw believed Shakespeare should be played uncut and he had no patience for managers who slaughtered the text or gave their fairies incandescent lights. (Shaw was a writer and he had a writer's reaction to anyone who dishonored the text. "The simple thing to do with a Shakespear play," he said, "is to perform it. The alternative is to let it alone.") What strikes one immediately about Shaw's critiques is not only the force of their argument but the skill with which it is written. Don't be distracted by the hyperbole and rhetoric. "Shaw," wrote Robert B. Pierce, "is very often right when others go astray—and he is usually fun even when he is wildly wrong."

Pierce goes on to say that a great Shakesperean critic is one "who makes you see something in the play that you have not seen before"; I'd remove the qualifier and say that this should be what we expect of all our critics, whether they're reviewing a production of Hamlet or a restaurant on Yelp. This is not always the case in the digital age, where people stuff their critiques into 140 characters or less.. Sergei Dovlatov once said "I don't care what they write about me, I just care when they don't write", but, as for me, I don't care what people write about me but it really bothers me when it's badly written.

Shaw's critical descendants are alive today (I'm looking at you, Anthony Lane) but they are a dwindling group and if they ever went extinct, I would mourn their passing. Criticism is an art but not all professional critics are artists. I don't mean to imply that they are all failed artists, for this is a cliche that artists invented to feel better about themselves. Theatre critics are not necessarily failed theatre people just like political pundits are not always failed politicians. You can excel at criticizing something without having ever done it professionally.

Shaw, however, did do it professionally and he was still doing it when he criticized Mr. Daly's direction of Miss Lillian Swan. He attended Mr. Daly's production three years after his first play was produced and a year after the production of Arms and the Man,  his first commercial success. There was bravery here for Shaw was publicly critiquing the very people he might have hoped to please. One cannot imagine Mr. Daly had very kind thoughts about Mr. Shaw, especially after Shaw said that his casting decisions "ought not to be interpreted according to the dictates of common sense."

I respect Shaw for this and I'm always looking for examples of his kind in the modern age. To be sure, everyone takes to Twitter and Facebook to voice their opinions and artists have no problem becoming social or political activists when the moment (or the paycheck) suits them. But there are few artists who continue to both work and routinely write extended critiques on their colleagues. Often, the ones who do slip into the Shavian mode are the artists who have achieved such monumental success that they no longer have to fear reprisal - see John Updike, Margaret Atwood, or Joyce Carol Oates.

In 1895, Shaw had not achieved such prestige and it's this that makes his writings so much more brave. I'm sure such bravery still exists; I only wish it was more prominently on display.

NOTES

  • Wilson, Edwin, ed. Shaw on Shakespeare. Penguin, New York. 1961
  • Pearce, Robert B. "Bernard Shaw as Shakespeare Critic". Shaw, Vol 31, No 1. Penn State University Press, 2011.