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.

I do not know how it is to be done, and of all places at a first night. A first-night audience is as though a very large family had suddenly been reunited in the bronchial ward of a hospital. And the critic must reach across this uneasy state of affairs, and be in perfect communion with the complexities of play, players, and production. Upon his judgment depend the livelihood and career of nerve jangled men and women who have been working at high pressure for several weeks. He must have a subtle understanding of playwriting, acting, and production, so that a fault shall not be laid at the wrong door -- a misjudgment which happens in criticism often enough to be a major problem. He must have the patience and concentration of a bird-watcher, the eye of a sleuth, the capacity for experience of an explorer. I wouldn't undertake a profession so full of complications and pitfalls if you paid me; and if, in this essay, I am only a faultfinder, it is not because I can see no good in critics, for I do; and I know how willing many of them are to turn and say, "Well, we didn't expect that, did we?" ; it is because I should like to trace, if I can, those things which divide us in understanding.

I suggest that if it is possible for the artists to learn from the critics (and I think it is), then it shouldn't be altogether improbable that the critics could sometimes learn from the artists. The history of criticism through the centuries isn't one unbroken progress of accurate judgment; and I don't know why critics, like Victorian parents, should be disturbed by admitting to their children that they also make mistakes. There is no progress that way. It's a hardening of the arteries of understanding. A man's work is what his life is; and he can only grow where he seeks.

Sometimes when I am trying to work I think of the picture of myself which emerges from the press cuttings, and it seems, in a way, very splendid. I see a man reeling intoxicated with words; they flow in a golden -- or perhaps pinchbeck -- stream from his mouth; they start out at his ears; they burst like rockets and jumping crackers and Catherine wheels round his head; they spring in wanton sport at his feet and trip him; but trip him or not, he loves them: let them all come, go where they may; let them strangle sense, flood the stage, break the dams of form; facility shall have its day. His typewriter continues to chatter long after it has been put back in its case. Words will grow out of him, like fingernails, for some time after his death.

            Then having looked at this picture and marveled, I turn back to my typewriter. Like an ancient Red Indian chief, I sit for some hours in silence. At last I am ready to speak, and say "How," or perhaps some slightly longer word. My two fingers withdraw from the typewriter and the night wears dumbly on towards dawn.

The Lady's Not for Burning, the play which first gave rise to the bacchic figure vomiting his careless words, was five or six months finding its shape before writing began, and eight months in writing. I don't mean that slowness in writing is a virtue: it is an incapacity; but it's hard to relate it to verbal intoxication; it feels more like a slow death by ground glass.

What do I think I'm doing, then, so painfully creating a false impression? Why so many words? Why so many apparent interruptions of the relevant action of the play? There is no doubt that, looked at from many points of view, these are most reasonable questions to ask; and I can only try to explain what was in my mind.

So many words, for instance. We know this criticism doesn't precisely mean what it says. There are the same number of words as in any other play; you have only to count them. It means, I think, that I don't use the same words often enough; or else, or as well, that the words are an ornament on the meaning and not the meaning itself. That is certainly sometimes --perhaps often -- true in the comedies, though almost as often I have meant the ornament to be, dramatically or comedically, an essential part of the meaning; and in my more sanguine moments I think the words are as exact to my purpose as I could make them at the time of writing.

And then the question of relevance. The question is, relevance to what? The relevance of one kind of play is not necessarily the relevance of another; I tried to say so in The Lady in the line: "That same laughter, madam, is an irrelevance that almost amounts to revelation," and I think what I am most anxious to do here is to ask that criticism should look more deeply into the nature of a play, and to pursue the reason for its nature, rather than to try to force it into a category to which it doesn't belong. If a criticism is to be understood and profited by, writer and critic must start with the same premise.

Comedy is not a drama with the addition of laughs. It is a world of its own, and when we leave it again, it can have given to the world of action we rejoin something of a new cast. It is a world of its own, but not a world all of one kind--it may be of situation; or the sunny, tensionless world of As You Like It where, for all Jacques' talk of time, there is all the time in the world; or a world of wit, such as The Way of the World, where plot is an infernal nuisance, so huddled together to be out of the way of the true comedy that it took me hours to work it out before I produced it at Oxford; and after a few days of rehearsal I could no longer explain it to any member of the cast who thought perhaps he should know what the story was about.

As comedy is not a drama with laughs, so a verse play is not a prose play which happens to be written in verse. It has its own nature. In a talk on Poetry and the Theatre I tried saying something more about this, in these words: "The dramatist must view the world of his play, and the people of that world, with great precision: the poet-dramatist with the greatest poetic precision. The whole structure depends upon it, what scene follows another, what character goes and what character enters, where description or landscape becomes part of the action, or where it needs a bare exchange. The poetry and the construction are inseparate. Who understands the poetry understands the construction, who understands the construction understands the poetry, for the poetry is the action, and the action -- even apart from the words -- is the figure of the poetry . . . ." I do not mean that my own plays live up to this definition; but this is the ground upon which, now and in the future, I must meet the critics.

If this all seems to be turning into a defense of Fry, it is not at all what I mean by it. For every point I raise there are half a dozen more which, in the circumstances, I don't intend to refer to, preferring to withhold, as far as possible, the stick which the critics could beat me with. But it is a fairly general experience of writers, producers, actors, to find themselves being judged from some altogether other part of the forest, where the critic has dug himself in as though for a siege; and I can best show the kind of misunderstanding I mean by instances from my own experience.

There are many orders of such misunderstanding. There is the criticism which seems wantonly to misrepresent, so that it can make a point; as when, for instance, a well-known critic, to prove that I sometimes wrote pretentious nonsense, quoted a line which was not in the play at all!

Or there is the kind of criticism which seems anxious to pick a hole at all cost: such as that which soundly berated an artificial comedy for having no lines in it as simple and highly charged as those in King Lear. Or this: in Venus Observed the Duke ends a speech with "And I, as unlaborious as a laburnum tree, hang in caresses of gold," and the critic then comments, “An inaccurate observation, since a laburnum is only apparently unlaborious.” I see what he means: like the only apparently untoiling and unspinning lilies of the field. These are small matters, but they show the larger fault: that sometimes a critic will rather cavil at the surface than give judgment in depth. A few paragraphs ago I mentioned the word “pretentious.” I will slate my belief that it is not a critical word. It usually means that, in the critic's opinion, a man's reach has exceeded his grasp, and what hope is there for the theatre without such temeritous reaching? There may be times when we lay ourselves open to it by an insincerity, but even so, it is a dangerously facile word, and too easily covers up a critic's impatience.

A critic rightly expects that those he criticizes should go as far as their powers will take them in whatever art they practice: they should be honest, devoted, sensitive, laborious to perfect what they do, never content to rest on what they have done, but ever restless to increase the scope of what is still to follow. Are they not to expect as much from their critics? But round and about those who know the gravity of their work are others whose ability is to make rapid decisions about everything and everybody; and the less they are inclined to consider, the greater is their air of omniscience.

They do not belong, evidently, to a recent race of beings. John Gay, in The Rehearsal at Goatham, says, "They can scarce be called critics who must hear and read a thing before they will venture to declare their opinion. Anybody can do that." And, though I have no doubt that they now in fact attend what they criticize, it is equally sure that they do not take in what they criticize or would even know how to set about it; and, to make up for this apparently unimportant deficiency, their power of scorn is tremendous.

I could give you examples of the games they play, but it is better to move on to something of a more interesting sort; and I must ask your forbearance while once more, and for the last time, I bring my own work in as an example. 'In this instance it concerns critic and playwright, but, in its kind, it might equally be true of critic and actor, or critic and producer --an example of their not being in accord, and yet the critic serving as that outward eye which can be of such value. Sometimes when we say the critic is, wrong, we might do well to ask what, in ourselves, led him to be wrong.

There is a climax in my play The Firstborn which several critics whose opinion I respect found to be insufficiently prepared. It was the moment when Moses suddenly understands that the last plague of Egypt, the Death of the Firstborn, means the death of his nephew-by-adoption, Rameses. The critics felt, very reasonably, that the affection between Moses and Rameses had been so barely touched on that three quarters of the impact of Moses' realization was lost.

Now I had not imagined any such personal affection on the part of Moses. In the play he meets Rameses for a bare five minutes, is touched by his hero-worship, recognizes the boy's sincerity and humanity, and that is all. What I hoped I had shown, and hadn't, was that to Moses the boy represented Moses' own boyhood when he was Prince of Egypt, represented also that love for Egypt which Moses couldn't shake off even while he was fighting her. There are certainly speeches to that effect, and Moses, in the moment of realization, cries, "Egypt, Egypt! He was meant for Egypt!"; but the speeches were not enough: I had, in this instance, led the critic to be wrong; and since the writing of The Firstborn I have been learning too reluctantly that neither audiences nor critics are clairvoyant.

I hope to mend my ways. We are all, I think, anxious to mend our ways, once we can see clearly where and how they should be mended. But we cannot trust the critic to tell us unless he also knows moments of prayer and fasting and self-distrust; unless he judges,. not by a jaunty reflex action, but by drawing into himself what he judges before giving judgment; unless we can be sure that he gets no pleasure from wounding, or belittling others to give himself the appearance of size; and that he has always before him, like a fearful warning, those evasions, dishonesties, and tricks protective of self esteem which are the badges of the little critic who knows what he likes but will never know anything more. I made a character in a play describe justice as the crossing of mind with mind; and I believe this to be true of just and creative criticism.

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