Vers une histoire du commentaire théâtral professionnel

Don Rubin*


En octobre 2008, deux douzaines de critiques de théâtre et d’universitaires se sont réunis à Toronto pour affirmer leur intérêt à rédiger une histoire mondiale de la critique de théâtre. Il a été entendu qu’aucun ouvrage semblable n’existait encore, mais les paramètres d’une telle publication n’ont pas encore pu être tracés avec précision. Dans cet article, le professeur et critique Don Rubin, qui a accueilli ce colloque, témoigne de son intérêt personnel et professionnel sur le sujet, exprimant l’espoir que d’autres colloques se penchent sur la question et présentant les exposés de quatre des participants.

In October of 2008, some two dozen critics and theatre scholars met in Toronto to ascertain interest in putting together a world history of theatre criticism. It was agreed that no such work currently exists but the parameters of the work could not be clearly established. In the following article, professor and critic Don Rubin, host of the event, explains his personal and professional interest in the subject, expresses his hope for future conferences on the subject and introduces reports and papers by four of the participants.

I started working as a professional theatre critic at the age of 16 in New York City while studying acting at the then largely unknown High School of Performing Arts (now known as the model for the stage play, film and television series Fame). Trying to get an edge on other young actors (this is actually frightening to admit), I applied for a job as an office boy at a well-known trade newspaper, Show Business, which was well-read for its Broadway casting news and which happened to be based right across from my school. I thought I could beat everyone to the casting offices by hanging around this small but busy newspaper office.

Over the next year or two, I must admit that I didn’t manage to beat anyone out for acting jobs but I did beat out some of the other staff people for tickets to see the latest new shows opening off-Broadway. So many shows were opening at that time that press agents simply sent open invitations to the office which were posted on a bulletin board. Anyone was welcome to take the invitation and see the show so long as they wrote 300 to 500 words (one or two typed and double-spaced pages) about it. That seemed a good deal to a 16-year old with theatre dreams and a limited budget.

Thus began my career as critic. At that time, virtually every professional production in New York was reviewed in the major papers so whatever I went to see and whatever I wrote about could be compared with what the so-called professional critics were saying. And bulging with ego, I compared myself at 16 with the stars of New York criticism of that time: Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times, Richard Watts Jr. in the New York Post, Walter Kerr wherever it was he was writing at that time. I could even compare my work with newer and more trendy writers in weeklies like The Village Voice and The New Republicand in alternative trade papers such as Women’s Wear Daily, the home of critic Martin Gottfried.

Was it like this everywhere, I wondered? Did every country have dozens of people writing about the theatre? Was it always like that? Let me just check the theatre history books, I thought.

And I did.

And it was there that I first encountered silence on the subject of the history of public theatrical commentary

When I eventually moved on to university and started asking my professors about that history, no one seemed to know very much either. Not really. Something about the rise of newspapers. Something about Aristotle. Or was it the British coffee houses? Or Hazlitt. Or was it Lessing. I did all the requisite reading but still I couldn’t find out very much about the history and practice of the form that was to become my own profession. Yes, I was doing it but I was never quite sure exactly what “it” was or where “it” came from or why “it” was important. I never could quite find out these things back then.

Theatre history became one of my passions later on in university but the standard books always seemed to ignore critics and criticism. As I dug further into this history I realised that — in the English-speaking world at least — there was a huge empty space and for me, it needed to be filled. But who had time to fill it? As a working critic and later as something of a theatre encyclopedist, I was busy just doing it. Just writing about the theatre. Too busy in my professional life to worry about understanding its past.

When I later wound up moving into the academic world myself, one of my first course proposals was for a history of theatre criticism. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find enough books to justify it. Collections of reviews existed. Biographies and autobiographies existed. But no history history. How could public theatrical commentary be a field without a history? I was baffled. As my studies moved to other parts of the world, I asked about their histories of theatre criticism. Little seemed to have been written on the subject.

Brooks Atkinson
Brooks Atkinson

Happily, over the years gaps in the field have been filled but many gaps still remain. The fact is, there is no comprehensive history of theatre criticism that I know of, no history of the evolution of what I have started to call “professional theatrical commentary,” the work of describing, evoking and responding to professional theatre practice. The best I can do at this moment in time is to identify what amounts to little more than a handful of studies that have been done in France, in England, in Germany, in Canada and in a more systematic way in numerous eastern European countries including Russia. But they are only a handful.

About four years ago, a number of us working in this field met at one of the congresses of our own professional organization – the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC). We were all teaching theatre criticism and we were all complaining about the lack of textbooks in the field, especially histories of the field. I was delighted to find that I wasn’t alone, that others had the same curiosity about the past. We took our concerns farther and farther afield. Apparently it was true: ours was a field without a written history and without a core library. Who were students to study as models across time and geography? How had the field changed over the decades? The centuries? In fact, how old was the field? Was it really just a history of journalism or did it go back earlier?

Under the auspices of the IATC, it was finally agreed to set up a series of meetings in different parts of the globe to try and define the historical and theoretical spaces that needed to be interrogated if such a history was ever to be written. As a start, we agreed that at least three kinds of books were needed – a volume or volumes that would make up a history of public theatrical commentary possibly following linguistic groupings (a Germanic scientific style; an impressionistic anglophone style etc.); a volume or volumes of representative examples of the best of such styles from around the world and across time; and finally a volume or volumes looking into the changing pedagogies of professional theatrical commentary. Prof. Sanja Nikcevic from Croatia agreed to try and coordinate the study on pedagogy. Prof. Maria-Helena Serodio from Portugal – editor of Critical Stages – agreed to coordinate the study and publication of representative texts. I agreed to try and coordinate the study of the history of the form.

To me fell the first meeting. My questions were put out there early. Do we as professional theatrical commentators actually have a history? Is it contested or accepted? How old is professional theatrical response? Does that even make sense as a starting term? And where do we start to look for answers? I next invited through IATC a number of noted professional theatre commentators from around the world to a conference at York University in Toronto. Would this group of what I hoped was representative and interested scholars and journalists simply help begin the conversation, to look into the history of their own art and to speak about it.

I was amazed by the responses. No one turned me down. Everyone was curious – hesitant and somewhat distrustful that it would all turn into some irrelevant investigation – but willing to give it a serious shot.

In October 2008, some two dozen of us gathered at York and shared our tentative responses, thoughts and, in some cases, quite impressive scholarly research. Some of the participants – they came from Africa, Asia, Europe, the Pacific and from across the Americas – looked at their own national traditions and tried to trace them back in time. Some spoke very personally about the failures of the form today and/or the failures of publishers to recognize and support their work. Some spoke about the end of criticism as an art and the birth of a new world rooted in blogging and personal opinion, a world in which professional theatre commentary is disappearing and in which everyone’s opinion counts equally. Others went back in time and looked at the roots of the form. Still others tried to analyse its evolution. Some took a clear scholarly approach. Some chose to be anecdotal. Some commented on the whole notion of commentary. No clear consensus of approach emerged. But the interest was palpable. We had made a start. First materials were emerging.

Clearly, this triple-headed project has a great distance yet to go. Other conferences must still take place before we can even begin to bring the material together in any kind of responsible and useful book form. But as we begin that long process, it seemed useful to share with readers of this new critical journal some of the thoughts that came out of that first conference in Toronto in 2008[1].

What follows here are just a few of the fascinating papers that were written. They were chosen for inclusion at this time not necessarily because they were the best or the most interesting – clearly some were — but because in some way each helped us mark a beginning in establishing the parameters of the very long conversation that is obviously starting to be defined.

To set what follows in context, the first piece by Ian Herbert – the immediate past President of the IATC – is part conference paper and part post-conference report. It appeared in its current form in Theatre Record in the UK, a publication edited by Ian Herbert for many years and a publication to which he contributes a regular column on international activities. Because it deals with the general subject of the origins of critical practice, it seemed to make some sense to include it as a starting point of sorts for both the conference and the subject.

Following this is a contribution by a long-established and well-respected working journalist, Israel’s Michael Handelsalz, critic of the influential daily Ha’aretz. It too was both post-conference report and conference rumination on the subject of criticism generally. Handelsalz looks at some of the realities of writing about theatre on a daily basis while discussing a wide range of issues from impressionistic writing to audiences. Being a true man of the book, he winds up suggesting that if we are really looking for origins we might need to go back to Genesis where God himself passes the world’s first aesthetic judgement by saying of Creation “and it was good.”

The third paper represented here was specifically written for and presented in Toronto by Professor Ravi Chaturvedi of the University of Rajasthan in Jaipur. President of the Indian Society for Theatre Research, his paper represents both a look at one of the origins of theatre criticism in Asia – Bharata Muni’s 2500 year old Natyashastra – and the often overlooked chapter in the Natyashastra on appropriate ways to respond to live performance, advice for would-be critics and connoisseurs.

The final paper published here is an impressive scholarly examination of the field of criticism as it has developed in Eastern Europe generally and Hungary specifically. Prepared for lecture presentation at the Toronto conference by Dean of the British and American Study Centre at the University of Debrecen, Peter Szaffko, the paper sets theatre criticism in an historical and sociological context from 1790 (the date of the first Hungarian-language troupe) to Hungarian criticism today.

Dare one ask in this presentation of such a wide range of approaches and reports if a critics’ conference like this one was “good?” Is good even the appropriate word here? Or is “useful” perhaps a better term? Whatever one’s response to the reality it was certainly both good and useful as a start on the mammoth task of creating a written history of theatrical commentary. The real question here is whether an international project like this one has the legs to continue. Will another university pick up the idea and invite these and many others out there to come together again to deal with this disciplinary look back into theatre history. The parameters of the research are still to be formally established. The questions for this study are still to be articulated. The goals are still to be identified.

But at least we have started the task. That is significant. One way or another, I have no doubt that the conversation will be continuing. IATC has assured us all of that.


[1] Participants in the Toronto conference — Theatrical Commentary: Tracing the Traditions (held at York University between October 6 and 13, 2008 — included Ian Herbert, John Elsom and David Adams of the UK: Paulo-Eduardo Carvalho and Maria-Helena Serodio of Portugal; Carmelita Celi of Italy; Michael Handelsalz of Israel; Lucia van Heteren of Holland; Kalina Stefanova of Bulgaria; Andrzej Zurowski and Tomasz Milkowski of Poland; Nikolai Pesochinsky of Russia; Ivan Medenica of Serbia; Lis Sveningsen of Sweden; Peter Szaffko of Hungary; Akiko Tachiki and Manabu Noda of Japan; Yun-Cheol Kim of Korea; Ravi Chaturvedi of India; Don Rubin, Anton Wagner, Kamal al-Solaylee, Patricia Keeney, Robert Cushman, Alvina Ruprecht and Michel Vais all of Canada; Halima Tahan of Argentina,Travis Weekes of St. Lucia; Temple Hauptfleisch of South Africa; and Octavian Saiu of New Zealand.


*Don Rubin is the Founding Director of the Graduate Program in Theatre Studies at York University in Toronto. He is the Founding Editor of the Canadian Theatre Review and the General Editor of Routledge’s six volume World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre. He has worked as a daily critic for the New Haven Register in the US and for the Toronto Star in Canada.

Copyright © 2009 Don Rubin
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Towards a History of Professional Theatrical Commentary