A Survey of Fictional Theatre Critics

From ‘Do They Mean Me?: A Survey of Fictional Theatre Critics’

One of the most memorable sequences in Waiting for Godot (1956) comes in act two as the two tramps Vladimir and Estragon are losing patience with each other. They trade a series of insults that escalate in intensity. Vladimir kicks off with ‘Moron!’ and Estragon counters with ‘Vermin!’ It proceeds in the same fashion until Estragon comes up with the insult to end all insults: ‘Crritic!’ (1979: 75). In performance, it always gets a laugh – and for two reasons. The first is simply that it is a well-crafted joke; the second is that it expresses solidarity with the actors. By laughing at their joke, we become complicit. Audience and actor bond against a common foe. When exposed by laughter in this way, the critic looks like the one sober guest at a drunken party, the boring person trying to be rational while everyone else lets their hair down.

But in other circumstances, audiences have little reason to be hostile to critics. On the contrary, many will have taken the advice of the critics in buying tickets in the first place. Newspapers and websites continue to carry reviews because readers continue to be interested in what they have to say. Yet the respect audiences have for critics is conditional and begrudging. Scan down the comments beneath pretty much any online newspaper article about criticism and you’ll read considerable vitriol aimed at them. The assumption is that critics are fickle, weak- minded opportunists.

How pervasive is this view? The aim of this chapter is to answer that question by considering the way theatre critics have been represented in plays, films, novels, television and even video games. My sample is mainly from twentieth and twenty- first century Britain and North America, and it rests on the assumption that the thought processes behind the creation of a fictional character reflect attitudes in the culture at large. As a practising theatre critic, I am likely to be more than averagely sensitive to misrepresentation. Consequently, this is a subjective and partial survey, which makes no claim to academic rigour. It identifies some common characteristics and considers how close they are to my own experience and what they tell us about popular conceptions and misconceptions of the job.

My contention is that underscoring the majority of fictional representations, including some of the most sophisticated, is the erroneous belief that the critic’s profession and the critic’s personality are one and the same. The characteristics that people associate with a negative review are typically the characteristics of the fictional critic. High-handed, judgemental and humourless in print, the fictional critic has the same qualities in life, and is most likely friendless, malicious and psychologically damaged to boot. This is understandably the case when the critic is the butt of the joke (it’s funny to see pomposity pricked), but less so when the same characterization appears in a more serious form. Whether presented as a Lothario or a drunk (two common tropes discussed in detail below), the critic is assumed to be at best emotionally flawed, at worst sociopathic. Their reviews are not seen as an honest attempt to engage in the theatrical event, as I believe them to be, but as an expression of a warped personality, a way of exacting revenge or yielding power. The image persists when, perhaps acting out some unconscious desire, the artist kills off the fictional critic. Only when fictional critics are shown to be theatre lovers, which in my real-life experience is most commonly the case, do they take on a personality that is not defined by their profession. Let’s look at each of these categories in turn.


Critic by profession, critic by sensibility

In October 2014, Ben Brantley, lead theatre critic on The New York Times, had the tricky task of reviewing a show featuring multiple references to a character called Ben Brantley, lead theatre critic on The New York Times. The updated revival of Terrence McNally’s backstage comedy It’s Only a Play had just opened on Broadway, its action pivoting on how the critics, including Brantley, would react to the first night of The Golden Egg, a play within a play. Brantley described his fictional incarnation as ‘self-important’ and ‘vitriolic’ (2014), attributes we will see repeatedly in this survey. He gamely played along by at first denying, then admitting to, the accuracy of the portrayal. More telling for our purposes was his subsequent observation that when the play was staged in 1986, the same character had gone by the name of his predecessor, Frank Rich. He speculated that a future revival would have to feature the name of his successor, whoever he or she may be. ‘I still find it hard to take the references too personally,’ wrote Brantley with justification. What this suggests is that people find the symbolic image of a theatre critic – one who, according to Brantley, was ‘described in terms that are mostly unprintable here’ (2014) – more potent than the truth about any individual journalist. In the public imagination, critics are interchangeable. They are regarded as the same, even though nobody could deny Rich and Brantley were different people.

The less sophisticated the portrayal, the more likely the critic is to have an intense dislike of the theatre and to carry their animus into real life. They will be proud, arrogant, callous and negatively critical of everything around them. When you reach level six of the videogame Psychonauts (2005), you get to confront Jasper, the resident critic in Gloria’s Theatre. Baring his many teeth, this purple-headed amphibian sitting in a theatre box promises to unleash ‘the full destructive force of an angry critic’ on the stage. He’s a crude caricature, but he could be a descendent of John Hannigan, the theatre critic of the San Francisco Dispatch in Mr Monk and the Critic (2009), an episode of Monk, the light-hearted American TV detective series. In this one, Adrian Monk accompanies his assistant Natalie Teeger to the theatre where her teenage daughter is performing in a community show. As they take their seats, they spot Hannigan settling down in a box. Played by Dylan Baker, with a stately air and a patronizing drawl, this critic is high-handed, aloof and arrogant. Inevitably, he gives a damning review of Natalie’s daughter (‘had me begging for less’) and when she confronts him at his desk in the newspaper office, he is rude and dismissive. Tellingly, his downfall is brought about by arrogance. Stung by such an inaccurate review, Natalie successfully proves Hannigan wasn’t there. In truth, he had sneaked out of the theatre to murder his lover in a nearby hotel. The preposterous twist matches the comic tone of the show, but what persists is the idea of the critic-murderer, killing women and reputations with equal callousness.

Moving into more subtle territory, Addison DeWitt in All About Eve (1950) projects an image of the suave gentleman about town. He smokes a filter cigarette, invariably wears a suit and carries himself with an urbane confidence. On the surface, he is tolerated, even befriended, by the theatrical circles he mixes with, yet he is variously referred to as a ‘venomous fishwife’ and a ‘professional manure slinger’. He is a man too powerful to shun and too slippery to trust. The best insight into his personality, however, is his own. Confronting the fraudulent Eve Harrington, an apparently meek actor who seems to have landed a lucky break, he says: ‘You’re an improbable person, Eve, and so am I; we have that in common – also a contempt for humanity, an inability to love and be loved, insatiable ambition and talent. We deserve each other.’ DeWitt is a credible creation – you can imagine him writing witty, polished, even authoritative reviews – but once again, he is a sociopath, someone drawn to the job because of his inadequacy as a human being.

In that, he has much in common with Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942). This ‘first man of American letters’ slips on the ice on his way to dinner and is compelled by his injury to spend Christmas in a family home in small-town Mesalia, Ohio. Annexing the first floor without waiting for permission, he is rude, patronizing, demanding, bossy, manipulative and elitist – charming to his cosmopolitan friends, arrogant towards everyone else. His secretary, played by Bette Davis, calls him a ‘selfish, petty egomaniac’. Based on the 1939 play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, the film was inspired by the critic and broadcaster Alexander Woollcott who had behaved in a similarly domineering manner on an unexpected visit to Hart’s house. The foundation in real life makes Whiteside a horribly credible character, even if the portrayal reinforces the notion of the critic as pompous misfit, someone whose personality equates with their profession.

Excerpt taken from ‘Do They Mean Me? A Survey of Fictional Theatre Critics’, by Mark Fisher, in Theatre Criticism, edited by Duška Radosavljević. Theatre Criticism is available for purchase now at 10% off R.R.P.