Edited by Duška Radosavljević
337 pp. London: Bloomsbury
Reviewed by Katerina Delikonstantinidou* (Greece)
Of all the scholarly volumes I have recently read and reviewed this is certainly one of the most engaging. Notwithstanding, it took the longest to finish because it woke up something of the compulsive student in me. At some point, I had to exert substantial effort to convince myself not to read the same page for the sixth time—by the fifth I had memorized it but still needed the extra confirmation given the wealth of information in this book.
The volume’s title and subtitle, Theatre Criticism: Changing Landscapes, leaves little to the imagination as to the book’s subject matter and main argument. This is a collection of seventeen essays, ranging from interesting to inspiring, aimed at charting the changing ecologies and economies of theatre criticism in view of twentieth century developments in culture making, in general, and in theatre making, in particular. Half of the contributions consider the notion of theatre criticism as theatre/art/culture making, while the other half exhibit a sustained emphasis on the digital world and, more specifically, on the diverse ways it has transformed the face—if not the nature—of theatre criticism world-wide.
Credit for this undertaking goes first and foremost to editor Duška Radosavljević from Serbia. The animating and guiding spirit behind this enterprise, she also writes the introductory chapter of the book in which she delineates the factual and conceptual contours of the “landscapes” the volume sets out to map. Besides contextualizing the diverse contributions within the realm of arts and theatre criticism—academic, print and online—by sampling insights from a number of relevant resources, and laying out methodological premises, Radosavljević’s chapter situates theatre criticism in relation to the twenty-first century’s turn to the digital. Her succinct discussion “of the changing nature of the public goods and . . . of the intellectual commons” (5) that the digital turn involves and, particularly, of how this radically affects criticism in material and discursive terms ripples through the following chapters.
Echoes and elaborations of the challenges and potential for theatre criticism the editor identifies are to be found in all the responses to the conversation she initiates. Interestingly, many of them meta-discursively/meta-critically revolve around the multivalent concept of “conversation” itself, touching upon the question of its inherency in the blogosphere, where much of today’s arts/theatre criticism takes place, and reflecting on the possibilities opening for the future of criticism—possibilities predominantly considered by her contributors as democratizing and emancipatory.
The first part focuses on different “Contexts and Histories of Theatre Criticism,” allowing for connections to be mined with contexts and histories not represented in this volume. George Hunka opens with an overview of post-1945 U.S. theatre criticism, looking at what it reveals about “the interrelationship of style and substance,” and finding, with undisguised regret, style triumphant (39). Hunka is, I think, the contributor who partakes the least in the editor’s optimism about the cyber-inflected future of criticism.
Drawing from an ostensibly different, East European context, Valda Čakare shifts to the politically charged question of whether criticism—style, substance and all—can be relied on as a source of theatre history given the multiple ideological and other expediencies influencing the practice; a question which she answers in the negative. Although Čakare refers explicitly to the Soviet and post-Soviet Latvian context, her commentary resonates in the Greek cultural “landscape” to which Savas Patsalidis—editor of this journal—next directs us. His brief account of the history of theatre criticism in Greece and of the challenges facing the praxis of criticism in the current climate of crisis ends in an uplifting call for a worldly, activist criticism thoroughly “immersed in life’s intensity and openness” (82).
Kristina Matvienko offers a very similar call to that of Patsalidis, a call for enhanced solidarity among members of the Russian cultural community, after also having registered another kind of crisis, this one threatening the very existence of “contemporary arts in Russia” (97).
More ethical issues are interwoven in the discussion by Margherita Laera and Vasco Boenisch, the former addressing the legacy and new, less idealistic, configurations of “militancy” in Italian criticism—that is the critics’ active engagement in theatre practice— and the latter the need to bridge the gap between the critics’ assumptions and the readers’ expectations that cause “communication dysfunctions” (133) in the German theatre context.
Andrew Haydon’s concise “History of Online Theatre Criticism in England” offers useful landmarks but prudently withholds predictions about the future of criticism, although the writer seems quite positively predisposed towards recent cyber developments. Personally, I find the rather manichaeistic distinction between the “bad” “Dead White Males” of the older paradigm and the “good” new independent critics rather simplistic and less-than-generous, but I applaud the editorial decision made here to place this contribution at the end of the first part where it effectively sets the stage for the following chapters which more directly engage with online theatre criticism per se.
Most of the next section’s chapters are attuned to the digital paradigm, its peculiarities and promises. The exceptions are Mark Fisher’s amusing survey of twentieth and twenty-first-century portrayals of critics in specifically British and North American contexts, Nataša Govedić’s stimulating survey and performance of the concept and practice of “articism” (a compound of art and criticism) (273), and William McEvoy’s essay on the perks of “performative criticism” as a bracing alternative to conventional modes of critical writing.
Among the “Critics’ Voices” in this part of the volume, Mark Brown’s is the most confrontational and clear-headedly skeptical. Brown, from Scotland, effectively interrogates the celebratory rhetoric surrounding criticism’s shift to the digital, disputing and, in as sense, deconstructing both the rise of the “citizen critic” as well as that of the “death of the [professional] critic” (175). He argues for the critic as “artisan” (176), for theatre criticism as “evaluative literary craft” (179) and for, what British playwright Howard Barker has called, “radical elitism” (182). These, he says, should be contemporary criticism’s modus operandi. American scholar Jill Dolan and Maddy Costa weigh in with vibrant, empirically based defenses of feminist and “embedded” criticism respectively.
Together, these three “Voices” present brisk alternatives to more mainstream frames of critical praxis today and thus provide a kind of scaffolding for the even more radical arguments concerning the “Changing Forms and Functions of Criticism” advanced in the third part of the volume.
This section opens with a philosophically-inflected tour de force essay by Diana Damian Martin, an essay radical both in its methodology and in its political standpoint. Martin seeks to carve out here a theoretical space for a more nuanced understanding of criticism, online and otherwise, not only “as a political event” (231), but also as an event pregnant with “gesture[s] of dissensus” (230). Although her contribution is nothing less than insightful, I must admit it also gave me the sense that it is too erudite and ardent for its own good. Conceptual and verbal pyrotechnics here light up the landscape a bit too much for me, at points creating a dazzling effect that disorients rather than clarifies.
Matthew Reason elaborates the potential inherent in what he calls the online “rolling culture of debate” (238) of which criticism is now a part and, specifically, in its organizing principle: human conversation—multi-directional, contingent, performative. The notion of conversation’s intersection with criticism in the digital realm is where the next contributor, Canadian Michelle MacArthur, points as well. MacArthur discusses what she calls “crowdsourced theatre criticism” (257) while probing into the possibility of even newer archival strategies that can emerge out of and harness theatre criticism’s multi-threaded digital presence.
In the last section, “Samples of Critical Practice,” Alison Croggon, Mary Patterson, Rachel Lois Clapham, Alice Saville and Megan Vaughan deliver essays on critical ingenuity, experimenting with literary and non-literary genres, as well as with tongues native to the digital. I thoroughly enjoyed these pieces as performances of “articism,” and because they got me thinking about whether, in their effort to straddle the artistic and the critical, contemporary critics are now rendering criticism less user-friendly than it has been in the past.
Are we, to use Boenisch’s term, flirting with new kinds of “misunderstandings” as we get rid of the straightjacket of the critic-intellectual? Or, to draw from Fisher, are we just replacing one sort of critic (the critic-intellectual) with another (the critic-artist)?
Ultimately, the volume’s significance lies precisely in its ability to activate concerns and reflection on what it means to practice theatre criticism or to engage in it as a reader at a time when all the realities of theatre, theatre criticism and readership are being reconceptualized, reconfigured and resignified. Because of its functionality as well as its timeliness, Theatre Criticism is a fascinating volume for anyone even remotely interested in understanding the “changing landscapes” of twenty-first-century culture.
*Katerina Delikonstantinidou is a Ph.D. Candidate in the School of English, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Her articles have been published in numerous volumes and journals, and her research work has been presented at national and international conferences. She is also the recipient of a number of grants and scholarships. She has been a member of the web team for Critical Stages since 2014. Her research areas include Theatre and Performing Arts, Ancient myth, Greek Tragedy and Ethnic Studies.