A Critic's Commandments
No, we're not God
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois
I was listening to an episode of This American Life, the radio show hosted by Ira Glass which presents a series of stories, each week, around a central theme. (Listen to it. It's on iTunes.) Last week's episode was on The Ten Commandments and it started by listing the commandments of various groups and organizations like umpires (Thou shalt keep your eye on the ball). Immediately I wondered what my commandments - a critic's - would be. Feel free to add your own or modify these in the comments section below.
Thou shalt not be cruel nor personal.
You can say a production is bad and must explain why, but you needn't hammer the message home by rephrasing the sentiment twelve times. John Simon mentioning Liza Minnelli's "blubbery lips" made readers laugh but it also made him a dick.
Thou shalt not display erudition for the display of it.
You might mention that Olivier thought Iago was gay for Othello; but when you start discussing the weaknesses of the folio used compared to another then, indeed, you should be smacked.
Though shalt have a primary viewpoint and be able to explain the primary viewpoint in a few words. "You should go." "You should not go."
Thou shalt then elaborate clearly.
"The play was brilliant because it changed my mind on an important issue."
"The play was deeply flawed because it was one-sided and pretended to be fair."
"The lead actor was seriously miscast because of her youth."
Thou shalt take a vacation or sabbatical or write for the sports section if you stop enjoying theatre as this lack of enjoyment will clearly show in your sour reviewing.
Though shalt admit...that you do not like forms (mime), eras (ancient Greek, Restoration), writers (Goldoni); that you do not understand a play; that you left at intermission; that you arrived late.
Thou shalt engage the reader so that they continue the dialogue that is theatre; art lives in discussion.
Though shalt read other critics, especially if they disagree with you. Future opinions are stronger and more informed when one is challenged.
Thou shalt be professional: respect deadlines, word counts and curtain times, turn off phones, take notes surreptitiously, treat publicists as allies, and ignore attacks on you of the "eunuch in the harem" variety.
Thou shalt never get old and shalt maintain a sense of humour and joy. It is not called "play" for nothing.