- Person of the Drama Critic Stanley Kauffmann as Theater
Although best known today for his film criticism, Stanley Kauffmann (born 1916) was also a drama critic for a time, for the New York Times and the Saturday Review, among other publications; and some remarks on this role of his—among his others as a playwright, novelist, trade-house editor, book reviewer, and professor—are in order. But, before discussing Kauffmann's work as a drama critic, I want to point out the difference between criticism and reviewing when the theater is concerned. Such a differentiation is snobbish, indecorous, perhaps even quixotic. But it seems to me that we are never going to get out of the miasma of deceit, self-pity, and wishful thinking that emanates from the theater in this country, as it does from no other medium, unless we begin to accept the distinctions that operate in actuality [End Page 475] between actors and stars, dramas and hits, art and artisanship—and critics and reviewers.
Perhaps the greatest irony in a situation bursting with ironies is the reiterated idea that the critics are killing the theater. We all know that when theater people or members of the public refer to the critics, they nearly always mean the New York reviewers. It is certainly true that the critics—those persons whom the dictionary describes as "skilled in judging the qualities or merits of some class of things, especially of literary or artistic work"—have long harbored murderous thoughts about the condition of our drama, but their ineffectuality as public executioners is legendary. The reviewers, by contrast, come close to being the most loyal and effective allies the commercial theater could possibly desire. (What they are killing is the non-commercial theater.) But not close enough, it would seem, for this "marriage" constitutes the case of an absolute desire encountering a relative compliance.
As a corollary to its demand for constructive criticism, the theater insists on absolute loyalty, and clearly it receives a very high degree of loyalty from reviewers, who are all "theater lovers" to one or another flaming extent. And that brings us to our second irony. For "loyalty in a critic," Bernard Shaw wrote, "is corruption." This richly disturbing remark comes near the heart of much that is wrong in the relationship between the stage and those who write about it from seats of power or places of romantic yearning. From the true critics the theater generally gets what can only be interpreted as gross infidelity, the reason being—as Shaw and every other major observer of drama makes abundantly clear, and as our own sense of what is civilized should tell us—that the critic cannot give his loyalty to people and institutions, since he owes it to something a great deal more permanent.
He owes it, of course, to truth and dramatic art. Once the critic sacrifices truth to human beings or art to institutions, he is corrupt—unless, as is frequently the case, he has never had any capacity for determining truth or any knowledge of dramatic art; for such persons corruption is clearly too grandiose a condition. But at least some reviewers are people of ordinarily developed taste and some intellectual maturity, and it is among them that corruption—in the sense not of venality or outright malfeasance but of the abandonment of a higher to a lower good—operates continually, and that very loyalty is worn like a badge of honor.
Go through the three volumes of Shaw's uncorrupted criticism (covering as many London seasons), however, and you will find that not once in any sequence of fifteen to twenty reviews was he anything but indignant at what he was called upon to see. Without pity he excoriated the theater of the 1890s, which sounds much like our own, with its "dull routine of boom, bankruptcy, and boredom"; its performers' "eternal clamor for really artistic work and their ignominious collapse when they are taken at their word by Ibsen or anyone else"; and its lugubrious spectacle of "the drama losing its hold on life." Only when, once or twice a year, something came along that [End Page 476...