Section Editor: Mark Brown (Scotland/UK)
The role, indeed even the necessity, of the professional theatre critic is being questioned today, perhaps even more that at any time in the past. The strong emphasis upon two related issues, namely, the decline of print journalism and the “democratic” opportunities/”de-professionalising” dangers of the burgeoning internet, is so ubiquitous as to risk sliding into cliché. It is precisely in order to broaden discussion of theatre criticism among professional theatre critics and other interested parties, to consider more deeply the nature of our craft, both historically and in the early-21st century, that Critical Stages has a section entitled Critics on Criticism. In this edition of our webjournal, we are pleased to publish two very different papers, one from England, another from Bulgaria, by way of China, that meet the requirement to engage seriously with critical practice as it is evolving in our rapidly changing times.
In her paper, “Deliberation, Embodiment and Oral Criticism: A Case Study on Spill Festival of Performance,” Diana Damian Martin considers the subjectivities and pluralism embedded within “oral criticism” and “orality” (i.e. public critical discussion). She challenges the notion that criticism is an act carried out a “distance” from, and bearing an “objective” relationship to, the art work, and seems to contend that it was not until the advent of postmodernism that an insistence upon the subjectivity of the critic became common currency.
Damian Martin considers these issues through the prism of her experience as a writer-in-residence, curator and participant in public critical discussion at the Spill Festival in Ipswich, England. She joins that first-hand experience to the theoretical contributions of a variety of authors, including Judith Butler, Erika Fischer-Lichte and, intriguingly, given his noted antipathy to postmodernism, Jürgen Habermas; that intrigue is deepened by Damian Martin’s citing of Habermas as both a point of authority for her own case, vis-à-vis the politically superior qualities of oral criticism, and, more substantially, the creator of theoretical assumptions about the political limitations of the public sphere, with which she strongly disagrees.
Embedded in Damian Martin’s argument, and her practice within the Spill Festival, is the idea that the very nature of performance art, in particular its capacity for problematising and challenging the separation of performer from audience, in turn lends itself to an increased emphasis upon, and widening possibilities for, oral criticism. To those of us who believe, as the contemporary Irish critic Tom Paulin believes (by reference to his hero, the late-18th/early-19th century English critic William Hazlitt), that the critic should be a “pugilist,” Damian Martin’s championing of an ideological stance on contemporary criticism will be most welcome.
Equally welcome are Bulgarian critic and scholar Kalina Stefanova’s optimistic reflections on the future of criticism, as garnered through her recent experience of teaching in the Shanghai Theatre Academy. There is a fascinating cultural and political dimension to the perspectives on theatre and criticism expressed by Stefanova’s Chinese students; many critics in the nominal “Western world” will, I suspect, be taken aback both by the students’ respect for critics and the critical profession and their confidence that, whatever the technological changes in publication, everyone involved in the theatre, from audiences to artists, will continue to require professional and dedicated critics.
Mark Brown is theatre critic of the Scottish national newspaper the Sunday Herald and Scottish critic of the UK national title the Daily Telegraph. He is a member of the executive committee of the International Association of Theatre Critics, for which he is also adjunct director of young critics’ seminars. He is a member of the editorial board of Critical Stages.