Tuesday, 11 September 2012

On criticism: Of Taste and Trenches

[The first part of what I hope will be a short series of pieces addressing some current questions about theatre criticism]

A question that has long been kicking unarticulated around criticism is the question of “taste”. I have tackled what I previously saw as the “political” aspect of this question before, both in my essay “Political” and in Friday's piece “How I read Boys”.

In the introduction to her review of the RSC/Wooster Group Troilus and Cressida Catherine Love articulates both aspects of this question that I'd like to look at today. It is worth quoting the passage in full:

“I don’t have a problem with veering away from the consensus; instead what disturbed me was a perplexing inability to articulate what it was about the piece that I found so engaging. I felt as though, with my complete lack of reasonable justification or developed critical analysis, I had no real right to state my enjoyment of the production.

“I also worry (and some fervent supporters of the production have faced similar accusations) that I am becoming subconsciously entrenched in my tastes. I’m concerned that I have reached a state of mind where experimentation or anything diverging from the “norm” as we conceive of it in British theatre has become synonymous with “good theatre” in my critical vocabulary. I worry that by liking Troilus and Cressida - and particularly by being so evasive about why I liked it – I’m simply fulfilling expectations without really thinking. For all of these reasons, I was glad to be exempt from having to marshal my floating impressions into fixed-down words.”

This articulates two main issues currently facing the contemporary critic. Firstly the issue of what to do with one's taste, and secondly the accusation of “an entrenched position”.

Love isn't conjuring either of these notions from thin air. Both feel like they've been kicking about in their current form as questions since, well, probably since Three Kingdoms this time around.  Or perhaps for my generation since Katie Mitchell's Attempts on Her Life (as summarised there by Forest Fringe's Andy Field's younger, playgoing self). Doubtless older readers could point to even older divisive critical controversies. Although I think Attempts... (and possibly also Kneehigh's A Matter of Life and Death, also at the NT) mark the beginning of a terrain change, since they coalesced around the then relatively new phenomenon of the “blogger” and her perceived binary opposition to The Print Media Critic.

It is worth briefly reiterating the extent of the sheer taxonomical wrongness of the “Bloggers v Critics “debate”” – as it is still viewed in some quarters. Online magazines such as A Younger Theatre, WhatsOnStage, Exeunt and The Arts Desk have rendered distinction meaningless. You'd have to +read each one+ to discover how they differ from one another*.

But this question doesn't relate to that. Above, Love is coming up against something that I've been thinking about a lot recently, namely: how does criticism relate to taste? Or how should we negotiate and/or explain our taste within writing criticism. This question partly comes back to the golden chestnut: “What is Theatre Criticism For?” Or: what should it do? Or: what do we want it to tell us?

It relates to the question of whether reviews are meant to explain how good a particular show is. [link to a Guardian blog by me from May '08. Strikingly, it seems to contain the first seeds of talking about pretty much what it is I think I do now, I am quite moved to discover.] It is, I will argue, only by inneuendo that “taste” relates to “entrenchment”.

As regular readers will have noticed, as well as reviewing for Postcards... I also wrote a few reviews for WhatsOnStage.com. Partly because it made getting press tickets for the International Festival much easier and that they didn't have anyone else covering those shows; but also because I was interested in challenging myself with a word-count and the enforced inclusion of a star-rating and seeing if I could write anything useful. Additionally, I was quite interested in having my reviews in what I might jokingly have hitherto referred to as “the enemy camp”, and seeing whether I what I wrote would be helpful to a different audience.

Having to use a star-rating again was interesting because they force you to come up with a very short, very blunt numerical assessment of a show. I believe what that star-rating is expected to reflect is the level of a reviewer's enjoyment of a piece of work. I want to write a whole piece about star ratings soon, so I shall leave any more nuanced discussion for that. Suffice it to say here that it got me thinking about the concept of “enjoyment”, which I think relates to the question of taste.

What is “taste”? Where does it come from? Why does anyone have it?

I am using “taste” here to mean “an individual's aesthetic preferences”. I do not intend to claim that some people “have no taste”, or that some things are “tasteless”. For the purposes of this piece, I am not interested in (or especially convinced by) the concept of “good taste”. I am simply interested in the idea that if you line up any number of people they will apparently all respond with different levels of enjoyment to various diverse things.  Or, to put it in context, if you sit, say, 250 people in a specific room and make them all watch the same piece of theatre, some of them will like it more than others.

This fact seems to be brought into particularly sharp focus in Edinburgh: perhaps because there are fewer beaten tracks, more mixed programmes of work, fewer “safe” options and more work that is interestingly choppy, slightly broken or unfinished. Something which is perhaps emphasised by the number of young critics in Edinburgh who are also experimenting with theatre criticism, perhaps for the first time, and learning-on-the-job too.  As such, in Edinburgh you get a wealth of opinions (and star-ratings). For every show, it sometimes feels.

And, well, what do we do with this?

Something I've been finding increasingly interesting is not so much that lots of people like (and dislike) lots of different things, but how they explain that after the fact.  It is perhaps somewhere around here that the charge of entrenchment lies, but also where freedom from worrying about it is located.

I'll try to explain what I mean. I basically don't have much of a problem with what other people like or don't like. To be honest, I don't think many people do. When I really like something, I might well find it astonishing, frustrating, maddening or disappointing when more people, or a specific person doesn't share my view. The famous last lines of Ken Tynan's Look Back in Anger review: “I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger. It is the best young play of its decade.” capture the extremity of this feeling well.

Similarly, when I've really not liked something, I might have a similar reaction to people who did. But, there's not a lot of arguing to be done about it. “You wrong” isn't really much of a response to “I really liked/didn't like [insert name of performance here]”.

However, criticism isn't simply a matter of saying “Like” or “Dislike”. It's about trying to say how and/or why. And it strikes me that it's in the reasoning that the real trouble arises.

In Love's Troilus and Cressida review, she mentions a conversation we had: “The process of writing about a piece of theatre doesn’t have to be complicated... In [Haydon's] words: “If in doubt, just describe what you think you saw”.”

It's a piece of advice I in turn got from Robert Hewison, and also from Ian Shuttleworth, and that I'm pretty sure is also on Irving Wardle's excellent book Theatre Criticism. And it's one I often find useful to remember.

As I figure it, you're already living inside your own subjectivity. Your analysis, theoretical and ideological frameworks are already set up inside your head, so whenever you just try to describe what you think you've seen, a lot of other stuff comes out along with it. Also, it's usually pretty clear from how you describe something whether you liked it or not. Arguably, you can even describe the journey you take while watching something. I don't think these are contentious claims (but I imagine I'm going to expand on them in later pieces).

As a good, recent example, consider/compare these four reviews of Calixto Bieito's Forests by Michael Billington, Quentin Letts, Myself and Kate Bassett.

Forests is a particularly fortunate example, since as a new piece it it needed describing, and a piece with a significant visual component, it lent itself easily to description.

What I find very funny about such reviews is that in extreme cases (not exactly here, but) it's almost like the same review but with either the word “Brilliant!” or “Terrible!” stapled to the end.

After Letts stops with his fulminating about “bilge”, “subsidy” and “weirdos” (a fine title for his Collected Reviews – and a fair summation of its contents' outlook), his actual description of the show is pretty much as mine, albeit where he inserts little digs at the production, I tend to say why I think a particular moment was inspired (Well, I do in the second half. I'm also a bit chippy about the first half).

Interestingly, I think this demonstrates a certain expectation of our readers on both our parts. Letts thinking that just by listing what he sees as the unacceptable excesses of state-funded bilge he is presenting perfect examples of the piece's abject failure, whereas Michael and I, perhaps more carefully, try to explain why we think the exact same elements cohere and present “a tangible apprehension of the black chaos that lurks beneath the surface of social order” (Michael) or something that “makes you feel the piece's movement through regeneration as a physical sensation” (me).

It is also from the reasoning of how and/or why one liked something where the real debates in theatre criticism lie. I would argue it far less often the “what” that critics like or don't like so much as the “why” that causes arguments.  As I suggested above, actually liking or not liking something is fine. But reasons are definitely up for grabs. Analysis is fair game.

Consider Michael Billington's recent review of Life For Beginners at Theatre 503. I haven't seen this particular show, but Michael's review strikes me as a fine account of his experience of the evening. Then there's the final line: “But, although the five playlets are ingeniously knitted together and fluently staged, I still pin my faith in the clarity of the solo authorial voice.”

The piece gets three stars. From that last line, are we to infer that if precisely the same piece had been written by one person, that it might have scored more highly for pandering to Michael's “faith”? Almost certainly not, at which point one wonders why Michael introduces this odd doctrinal moment into the review.

And this is where the second element, the element regarding entrenchment comes in.

I know what Love means when she says she worries about accusations of “entrenchment”.

Accusing someone of having an “entrenched” position is a superficially clever tactic. When arguing about theatre, and tastes in theatre, to accuse a critic with a differing viewpoint of either being predictable or disingenuous is damaging because both imply that the critic is in some way lying or lazy. That they are on some sort of auto-pilot. It's a silly tactic, because I don't know a single person who can watch theatre in that way.

But it's also a fairly easy accusation of which to reassure yourself that you aren't guilty. You only have to ask yourself two questions: “Did you honestly enjoy/not enjoy that?” And then: “Have you honestly said what you thought/described what you thought you saw?” Don't know is an acceptable answer to the first question. Nothing but “Yes” will do for the second.

We could now go on to wonder whether it's better if critics have catholic tastes, puritanical tastes, erratic tastes or specific tastes. And we can argue about how best to phrase any of those tastes until the sun burns out. We can certainly wonder if this is helpfully supplement by the addition of a star-rating or not. And we can definitely argue the toss about whether more or less analysis and/or “reading” of a piece is better or worse.

But all those things will be a matter of taste too.

*Of course, everybody loves a panto, so various mischievous commentators will have a stab at dividing any strong divergence of opinion into binary factions, be it Print vs. Online, Young vs. Old, or even Men vs. Women. The simple fact is, while Lyn Gardner and Donald Hutera may share a age bracket with Michael Coveney, and Aleks Sierz; while I possibly tick the same age-range box as Maddy Costa, Dominic Cavendish, Lucy Powell, Sam Marlowe and Henry Hitchings; and while Caroline McGinn, Daniel B Yates, Honour Bayes, Matt Trueman, Miriam Gillinson, Andrzej Lukowski and Diana Damian are still in the under-35 bracket (still mostly under-30 in fact); and while the Catherine Loves, Dan Huttons, Stewart Pringles, innumerable Fringe-Biscuiteers and AYTists are so disgustingly young-yet-talented that I can barely bring myself to type “Under-25” – there is a fair spread of age, gender, platform-of-publication, and no end to the catholicity of taste. At. Every. Level.

** "Cover photo" by Nan Goldin.  All On Criticism covers will be Nan Goldin photos.


Chris C said...

The thing I've always liked about that Tynan review of "Look Back in Anger" is that he doesn't insist, in those famous last words, that you have to like it; only that you have to want to see it. In other words, it's the incurious, self-satisfied, closed mind he can't stand.

Andrew Haydon said...

I wrote almost *exactly* the same sentence as that while I was putting this together this morning and then took it out again. But yes, it's a very interesting thing. Especially since it is so often gets misquoted as: "...couldn't love anyone who doesn't love..."

Andrew Haydon said...

Sorry, "...doesn't love..."

toveb said...

What does the top photo have to do with your text? There seems to be no reference to it.

And now I understand the use of The Cramps' video in our previous conversation.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Andrew: the question of taste was raised on my blog a couple of years ago, via a very stimulating piece from a philosophy blogger called Maladjusted. (You can find it here). The upshot being that critics should have no taste. Ie, according to Maladjusted:

"…at the heart of criticism, there is always something apart from our desire to express to others who we are. Instead, there is a fascination with the object, with the thing that made us start writing, with music or art or literature (as a region in which certain beings, certain strange and shining creatures can appear to us in certain ways). It involves an implicit belief (and most beliefs are implicit) that there is something revealed to us in music, intimated in art, given to us in the things that we most appreciate, but obscured in the things that we do not. In this sense, a good critic is someone who lacks the glibness of the way we normally rack up tastes: she’s someone who wants to try and give voice to the strange language of the things that she’s witnessed, to act in fidelity to the truths that she has endured."

Andrew Haydon said...


Well, I tried and struggled (a lot) with the original post.

So, boiling it down to just the extract you quote, I think it's somewhere between bonkers and probably saying what I was saying, albeit by claiming to be saying the exact opposite.

Am going to do a post on what to do about/how to respond to "things we don't like" soon, I suspect, which might cover a few more of these bases.