By Mark Fisher.
280 pp. London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama.
Reviewed by Don Rubin* (Canada)
In matters connected to writing – and with only a few honourable exceptions — “How To” books are usually best to be avoided by all but the most inexperienced in a field. How To Write A Play. How To Write A Poem. How To Write a Presidential Tweet. Enter at your peril. But this recent contribution to what is really a fairly dubious form – Mark Fisher’s How To Write About Theatre – is actually quite good as an entry level primer for would-be reviewers, curious students and ambitious bloggers interested in getting into the field.
Formulaic, of course (as “How Tos” must be), this modest paperback by a well-known Scottish critic (Fisher has long been one of The Guardian’s go-to theatre reviewers from Scotland and he is also the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide) actually does more than focus its users on the lowest common denominator with standard (read boring) advice. It even offers up some useful theory and history as it enthusiastically bounces along its “How To” path.
Among its twenty short chapters are some useful words on “How to learn from critics of the past,” and “How to do research.” There’s some sage advice about “How to find your voice” and “How to write about context,” “How to write in the moment” and “How to write about culture, society and politics.” These are not the usual banalities found in such guides.
Fisher tells us disarmingly right at the beginning that “Writing about theatre is an act of translation” turning “the languages… of performance into the language of words.” He adds that as a translator “whether you are writing a tweet, a Facebook update, an overnight review, a critical essay, a blog, a radio broadcast or a YouTube review, you will find yourself moving from the rich Babel-like conversation of live performance to plain two-dimensional prose.” And he adds, “Things will get lost in translation.”
Fisher provides valuable historical context by touching on numerous early critical thinkers and writers from Aristotle to the British writer Richard Steele of the 18th century journal The Spectator whom Fisher says was “one of the first journalistic theatre critics.” In the same section the quotes Coleridge (in a How To book?) and even David Mamet.
In his mini-history of criticism, he impressively ranges from Horace to neo-classicism, from “the birth of the newspaper in England in the 1600s” through London’s coffee shop criticism of the late Restoration period to the appearance of The Gentleman’s Journal in the 1690s and The Prompter begun as a twice weekly publication in 1734 by Aaron Hill and William Popple. The latter two, he says, were arguably “the first professional theatre critics.”
In a very short space, Fisher manages also to look at early theatre coverage in the US and even in Canada (though he does not mention Anton Wagner’s major study of the field — Establishing Our Boundaries: English-Canadian Theatre Criticism (University of Toronto Press, 2010).
Fisher’s history is of necessity a very modest and very potted one but it is certainly a useful starting point for discussions about the long tradition of critical discourse.
When it comes to evaluative criteria, Fisher’s how-to does turn to the old standby – Goethe and his three core questions: what was being attempted, how well was it done and was it worth doing. The surprising difference here is that he suggests that these critical ideas were not first put forward by Goethe but rather by the Italian Allesandro Manzoni, a novelist and playwright (and someone whose name I was certainly not familiar with).
“Manzoni,” says Fisher, “came to the conclusion that every work of art had its own reason to exist and should therefore be judged on its own terms” and not according to some set of pre-established rules. In Manzoni’s preface to his play The Count of Carmagnola (1819), he wrote that the following questions should be asked of every work of art: “What did the author set out to do? Was this a reasonable ambition in the first place? Has the author achieved what they set out to do?”
Fisher argues that Manzoni’s preface therefore contained “the first iteration of a philosophy that has characterized theatre criticism to this day.” He tells us that though Manzoni’s play was a failure, these evaluative ideas were picked up by Goethe who championed them in Germany from 1821. Goethe, he says, was also “dismissive of dogmatic rules-based criticism and in favour of a more fluid, artist-centred approach….Goethe usually gets the credit for these three questions,” says Fisher, “but they properly belong to Manzoni.”
Perhaps most useful in this book for the teacher of critical writing as well as for the neophyte student are Fisher’s dozens of suggested writing exercises. These include, for example, writing 250 words focusing specifically on the intentions “of the theatremakers” to see if it makes the writing harder or easier looking from their perspective; writing 200 words as a reporter containing “no judgement and no direct evidence of your own presence”; writing 400 words connecting the production to some issue in society at-large.
Near the end of the guide, Fisher has a section called “Criticism for theatre’s sake” in which he takes on the old saw “Those who can – do. Those who can’t – criticize.” He says that the words can be easily switched around and they make just as much sense: “Those who can – criticize. Those who can’t – act.”
He argues that most “critics take up the job not out of desperation nor to wreak revenge on an industry that has let them down, but because they want to. That may be a difficult concept for a theatremaker to grasp,” he says, “but all the unpaid bloggers who write reviews for the love of it demonstrate it to be the case….What’s wrong with wanting to be a critic and aiming to be a good one.”
He then quotes musician-critic Roseanna East who once said that “performing and reviewing happen simultaneously, but in parallel worlds….What matters most to the participants, isn’t always the most important thing to the wider world.”
Fisher ends his how-to with basic sage advice: “There are no rules…get out there and paint.”
*Don Rubin has been writing professional criticism and teaching it at York University in Toronto for nearly 50 years. His work has appeared in newspapers, magazines and journals in Canada and the US as well as on radio and television. He is the General Editor of Routledge’s six-volume World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre. He is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Critical Stages as well as its Book Review Editor.