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Are Critics Necessary?


 

Are Critics a Necessary Evil?

Michael Coveney, writing in the November 2005 issue of Prospect, decries the drop in the standard of theater criticism in England. During the 1970s, when there was a flourishing of theater, reviews took center stage. Critics were as famous as the star performers, and their sparring with one another would attract widespread readers' attention, eg Kenneth Tynan versus Harold Hobson, both of the Sunday Times. The other prominent critic of the 1970s was Clive James of the Observer, whose intelligent and witty reviews were always entertaining.

However, in the past 20 years, according to Coveney, the pendulum had swung in the opposite direction. Theater no longer featured prominently in the newspapers, and publication of reviews of plays were either delayed or absent altogether.

This begs the question: "What is the role of the theater critic?" Coveney would say that "surely the critic's task (is) to funnel discussion of big issues through the mediating experience of the work of art itself." He berated newspaper editors who sent in critical "clowns" who lacked knowledge to review shows. As a result, critics have "become marginalized in the mass media."

"A critic is there to set out the reasons for an artist's claim on our attention, and a good one should be able to do this," says Coveney.

Potential problems may arise if a critic is too severe in his or her criticisms. It may deter people from watching a show, or worse, extinguish a promising playwright. At the other extreme, if the critic gives unnecessarily excessive praise to a mediocre piece of work, it could encourage the persistence of mediocrity.

I have my feet planted in both camps, being both at the receiving end of a critic's barbs, as well as being an occasional critic myself. And I can tell you that being a critic does not endear you to your theater colleagues and friends.

Nevertheless, I believe that critics can play an important role in the development of Singapore theater. They can help us become more discerning, to gain deeper insights into works of art. Critics may also play a role in helping playwrights sharpen their writing skills and to develop their own voice. Provided, of course, that the critic has the sensitivity, the balance, and the background knowledge to give a fair evaluation of the work. 

The Australian critic Peter Conrad said: "Critics are the means whereby society becomes conscious of itself, aware of the direction it is taking. There can be no culture without them. We still need critics."

[Reference: Prospect November 2005.]