The Artist Views the Critic

For the playwright
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I feel like a fourth-form boy who has been invited up to the masters' common room to comment on the year's teaching: somewhat overwhelmed by the privilege, somewhat emboldened by the nudgings of my schoolmates and their last urgent whispers of "Go on; you tell them, Fry," and, as a precautionary measure, copies of all the newspapers folded into the seat of my trousers, the dramatic criticism outwards.

I don't know how I can help feeling like this, for to some extent this is what the relationship has become between critic and artist or whatever word will serve to cover actor, playwright, producer, and designer. The masters write their reports: "Could do better if he tried," or "Seems to make no effort to be intelligible," or "Has ability, but should try to concentrate on the matter in hand"; and the boys draw irreverent caricatures in the margins of their manuscripts. It isn't a very rewarding relationship; neither is it one which is unavoidable, but it has come about, and it would be good if we could discover why.

The simplest explanation is that, on the one hand, no man's judgment is infallible; and, on the other, that an artist thinks well only of a critic who thinks well of him; and, I admit, it is interesting to hear the writer say to the painter, or the film director say to the theatre producer, "Of course, your critics aren't so bad, but ours are terrible," and the cry of anguished protest that comes in reply.

So simple an explanation, however, accounts for no more than the moments of disappointment or injured vanity. No man in his senses expects a critic always to be right -- indeed, it would be very disconcerting if he were: we should have to believe him, and the knowledge of his fallibility is often a great comfort. The simple explanation also falls short on another point: the artist, at some level of himself, will respect an adverse criticism if he can understand it; he has no wish to get away with anything, and he is so close to his work that he is, or should be, glad of a more distant eye.

But he must also be allowed a certain arrogance: a degree of carefree confidence, if his work is not to be in some way blunted. Whatever medium he works in, words, or paint, or notation, will see to it that he is never far from humility. He knows before he starts that he is attempting the impossible; he knows that existence cannot be demonstrated, or even adequately commented upon, except by existence; and he would sometimes prefer to be doing something comparatively easy, such as cleaning the Augean stables, or, as he may think in his less amiable moments, such as being a critic.

An artist's sensitiveness to criticism is, at least in part, an effort to keep unimpaired the zest, or confidence, or arrogance, which he needs to make creation possible; or an instinct to climb through his problems in his own way as he should, and must; and it isn't surprising to look back to Hardy putting down his novelist's pen after, the reception of Jude the Obscure; or to Tennyson walking the Downs and saying over and over again, "He says I'm not a great poet; he says I'm not a great poet."

He may not have been a great poet, but he was a good one, and might, I think, have been even better if the critics had been as creative in their way as he was in his. But creative criticism-- by which I mean criticism that takes as its starting place the individual talent it deals with, and not some ready rule of thumb or personal preference -- creative criticism has always been rare, and continues so, and much of the rest, though plentiful, is as boring as a small child who insists on being looked at. And everywhere today can be heard the patter of tiny criticism, the busy sound of men continually knowing what they like. How anything manages to create itself at all is a wonder. The newly sprouting acorn is dug up several times a week, and solemnly told that, whatever it may think to the contrary, it is not an oak tree. It must understand that it is nothing more nor less than an acorn being pretentious.

I am not, you will have noticed, yet talking particularly of dramatic criticism. That is a grave thought towards which I am feeling my way sentence by sentence; for if I think that dramatic criticism is not all that it should be, it is because I think that no criticism is all that it should be. And artists themselves are often the worst offenders. One might think that a man who knows, by his own experience, how difficult it is to convey anything to anybody, even to himself, would be patient and forgiving to his fellows, however clumsily they flounder forward; but the history of literary feuds is long; and it is no uncommon thing to find one writer attacking another, ignoring what strength, or promise of strength, there may be for the pleasure of declaring the weakness. Whereas he should know to fall on his knees and cry, "This man has written a sentence: he has actually written a sentence!"--or, if that should be an overestimation, he might say: "Look, look; here are two words which have come together in God."

That is the only true method of criticism between artists. But critics may reasonably feel that something further is expected of them. Dramatic critics, for example, may hesitate to say, "No one who loves the theatre should fail to pay fifteen shillings for a stall at the Globe where, in the second act of Mr. Fry's new play, he may hear several minutes of dialogue which is not entirely inapt." Something further is expected of them; and something so difficult that I wonder if there is a pin to choose between the ardors of creating and criticizing.

A fine dramatic critic of the future is already with us. He paid, not long ago, his first visit to the theatre, He sat in the front of a box, with five years' experience of the world behind him, and watched a pantomime. His eyes never left the stage; even through the intervals he refused to be distracted by ice cream or lemonade; he stared at the curtain, waiting for it to go up again. Neither the Dune, nor the comedy horse, nor the Broker's men, nor the Dagenham Girl Pipers could win a smile from him. He remained, expressionless and absorbed, the representation of the perfect critic. At the Transformation Scene he turned to his holier and made his only comment. He said: “Well, we didn't expect that, did we?"

I take up your time with this story because it may be that, on our first visit to the theatre, we are innocent of everything except sensibility; there is no confusion: we know when we are touched; and this is a good condition for criticism. I don't mean that a critic must abandon all thought of ice cream or lemonade in the interval, but ideally there should be nothing, no preconception of what a play is, no impatience, no demands, between him and the stage; only a readiness to receive.

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