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Theatre Criticism: The Elusive Object, The Fading Craft Gordon Rogoff Pound rambles but usually lands on target: "Criticism," he says, "is the fruit of maturity, flair is a faculty of the rarest." It was 1917, and his subject was Irony, Laforgue, and Some Satire. In Pound's world, there was only art; the rest was something else. Which is to say he was scarcely ever writing criticism of the dramatic event. In his Literary Essays, Shakespeare is in the index, but only as "the greatest English technician bar none." Not Shakespeare the dramatist, however. If Pound thought of plays, he left very little evidence. Shakespeare's fabulous technique was not, for him, about theatrical arrangements, scenes, characters in balance and opposition to one another, or even the f/air-rare indeed-of stagecraft intoxicated by the actor's art. Instead, technique was about "the arrangement of his sounds ... on the quality and duration of syllables and on the varying weights of his accent." Pound goes further than he had to in assigning the word "technique" to poetry alone. "Shakespeare," he adds, "had the wit to concentrate his technique where the most enlightened intellect would naturally concentrate"-that is, on sounds. The enlightened intellect, then, doesn't concentrate on theatre. Criticism is about reading, words, alliteration, assonance, rhythms, structures, and shapes. Pound alludes to painting and music, but drama is either "fustian" (Corneille) or, in effect, it is nothing at all. Pound is only one of thousands who rarely applies enlightened intellect to theatre. I am exaggerating only a little when I say that it just isn't done. Everybody goes to plays, and some of the most Poundian enlightened intellects-Eliot, James-have even written them not very effectively, but theatre has not often inspired demanding ruminations. Flirting with popularity much of the time-a charge not often 133 levelled at poetry-and certainly impure, respected only when the words seem right and when the words are heard, the theatrical act itself has suffered a prolonged history of loathing and denial. While scorn heaped on theatre has not been a sport limited to America alone (Jonas Barish's formidable study, The Anti-Theatrical Prejudice has uncovered a consistent western tradition), American refinements have been operating, like the country itself, in a different time zone. Theatrical energies everywhere in the nineteenth century were populist where they existed at all. The century was not curious about serious drama until the last quarter. Even then, news from the Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov fronts took decades to reach the world; English poets, for one example, proving to be cloistered dramatists, stylistically retrograde in ways having nothing to do with the adventures they took when writing poetry alone. True, the British were virtual inventors of evocative, descriptive criticism directed mainly at performance (Leigh Hunt, Hazlitt, and Lewes), the first, perhaps, to reflect a public that was beginning to take acting seriously. Yet it would be stretching a point to see those journalistic experiments as a movement that actually released theatre from prejudicial bondage. Given that bondage, an aspiring theatre critic must first confront several threats to his or her ambition. If theatre itself is either scorned or ignored by even an intelligent public, the act of criticism is disarmed almost before it begins. Without an inquiring public, there is not likely to be a hospitable editorial policy. Furthermore, the young critic will soon discover that, despite Hazlitt, Shaw, Beerbohm, Agate, and Tynan in England, and Stark Young, Clurman, Bentley, Brustein, Gilman, and Kauffmann in America, there is no acknowledged tradition. The passionate act itself, the presence of such critical force from time to time has done nothing to insure its survival or renewal. Theatre critics, more than others, often possess hidden agendas. Shaw wrote cunningly on behalf of plays he was about to write, sometimes disguising that self-interest by presenting Ibsen and Wagner as models or by publishing extended tributes to modern, yet glamorous, actors. Theatre criticism for him was a job-well done, yes, but not a job for a lifetime. Has anybody noticed that the best theatre critics are almost always doing something else? Economic necessity is surely one plausible explanation (those...


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pp. 133-141
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