Don Rubin[1]


Abstract / Resumé

In the following paperpresented at the final Plenary Session of the Gujarat conference on theatre criticism in India in January 2010Canadian critic Don Rubin establishes a taxonomy of criticism while arguing that expertise and judgment will always be essential elements of the higher forms.

Dans cet articleprésenté à la dernière séance plénière du colloque du Gujarat sur la critique de théâtre en Inde, en janvier 2010, le critique canadien Don Rubin développe une taxonomie de la critique, soulignant que l’expertise et le bon jugement constitueront toujours des éléments essentiels de cet exercice.


The subject this week has been public theatrical commentary. By which I mean criticism at its most sophisticated level; reviewing at its most widely-known and recognised professional level; reportage and personal opinion at its most basic level.

As our discussions and debates have evolved over the last few days, it has become clear I think that there is some confusion about these differing levels of theatrical response, how they work, how they interact and overlap, how they contribute to popular discourse, to artistic discourse and to public and social discourse.

Underlying much of this has been the question of expertise and judgement, two notions currently in intellectual disfavour. But even intellectual fads disappear and I am confident these views too will fade in the not too distant future. So the question remains for us: how much expertise is needed to even enter this field of theatre criticism. Can anyone do it? Indeed, is expertise needed at all? How innocent─or perhaps how guilty─need one be to claim a public voice?

I am reminded here of a story I heard recently about a famous Canadian novelist. Some of you may know her name and her work, Margaret Atwood. She is probably Canada’s foremost literary voice and one of our most ironic and sarcastic voices when she is provoked. As the story goes, she was invited to be the keynote speaker at some major international gathering. At a dinner for guests and sponsors, she was seated at the head table with a group of people who had put much of the money in to sponsor the event. She found herself across from a man in his fifties who told her that he was a brain surgeon and that he admired her books greatly. He went on to tell her that when he retired in a few years, he was going to write a novel himself. I feel I have much to say, he told her. Atwood, without missing a beat, said that she too was thinking of retiring soon. The doctor asked her what she was planning to do in her retirement.

“I’m planning on practicing brain surgery,” she told him.

“But you know nothing about medicine,” he sputtered.

“And you know nothing about writing novels. Why do you believe you can work in my field without training and experience any more than I can work in yours?

We don’t have any record of the brain surgeon’s reply.

What I am trying to say here is that we all know how many people there are in the world who believe passionately that simply because they breathe the same air as artists and writers, and perhaps only because they have opinions on everything from the quality of food in Gujarat to whether they think India can beat Bangaldesh in cricket that they somehow possess the necessary skills to be public commentators on the arts.

The distinguished Korean scholar Yun-Cheol Kim, President of the International Association of Theatre Critics, said this week that he sought a state of innocence whenever he entered the theatre as critic. If some hardened newspaper editor had been in the audience, no doubt they would have said something to the effect that this is why they seek people whose only qualification for such a job is that they are both innocent and supremely average. That is, they want to have the so-called man or woman in the street as their public voice.

They would be profoundly wrong in their understanding of what Professor Kim really meant. The word he used was “innocent,” not “ignorant.” He said “open to experience,” not “without experience.” And therein lies all the difference. It was Michel Vais from Montreal who quickly added to Kim’s statement, “you must be very experienced as a theatregoer to create a state of innocence for yourself as a theatre critic.”

I am sure that a doctor whose mind is clear, whose mind is open to each new patient, who is innocent─medically speaking─performs far better surgery than one who walks into the operating theatre determined to excise some particular part of someone’s brain without first looking closely at what the patient’s problem really is.

Which leads, I think, to that old and probably by now quite tired question about objectivity and subjectivity. Let’s stay with the medical comparison. Is a brain surgeon really objective when approaching a patient? Would you want them to be? Or would you─like me─want your brain surgeon to bring with him or her every bit of personal experience they could muster? Would you not want them to weigh the benefits of what they do at that moment with the long-term effects of their actions? Yes, they could cut out everything in the way of the problem area in two minutes but when that part of the brain is gone perhaps the patient will no longer be able to walk or talk.

Don’t you want a doctor who makes decisions based on a very personal understanding of what quality of life really is. Certainly if you want to define objectivity as not drinking before performing surgery so one can actually see the patient anesthetized on the table then I am obviously all for objectivity. But if objectivity means leaving one’s own humanity at the door and one’s values in the washroom then I say “thank you but no.” I prefer judgements to be made at that moment with humanity rather than by some pre-established notion of intellectual framing. You can keep objectivity. Indeed, I don’t believe that it even exists except as some sort of theoretical pretense.

But let’s move on to publication of experience, the act of re-viewing, seeing again in another form. When that same brain surgeon decides to share her information with the world─when the critic starts to write─to what audience should the writing be addressed, how technical can it or should it be. I am assuming that if the brain surgeon were writing for other brain surgeons─scholars for scholars─technical language would be absolutely appropriate. But if the writing is not aimed at brain surgeons but say others in the general health field or at those who might be looking for understanding or experience─theatre professionals or more general audiences─then it is obvious that the language must change from technical and/or theoretical jargon to genuine communication allowing that communication does not have to be monosyllabic and dull.

We have─let us say it proudly in the field of human communication─progressed beyond grunts. Some of us have even progressed beyond simply saying good or bad about particular experiences whether we are eating biryani or watching a boxing match. Indeed, it was Brecht who said that the arts would be much better off when audiences─and by extension theatre commentators─had as much expertise and sophistication as people who attend sports events. Understand his point well: it’s an important one. Sporting enthusiasts are called fans because they are fanatics. That is, they know far more about their subject than most so-called theatre enthusiasts. Let’s at least strive in our theatre commentaries, said Brecht, to at least reach the level of sports writing and those who attend such activities. Would we really send someone to cover a football game who has only seen a handful of matches and knows little about the sport? I think not. Imagine saying to a sports reporter, tell us what the crowd thought. Don’t include anything that might show us you are expert in this field. Try to show how average you are when you write.

Indeed, should the response of an audience even be part of what is written? Is it included in sports reporting? Certainly not. And if I knew a commentator was swayed by or even modestly influenced by audience responses, I would make sure that my whole family was seated around them and I would instruct them all to applaud wildly throughout the show, to laugh, to cry and so on.

Certainly the only real way to know what an audience thought of something is to take a survey and that is quite another thing. “The audience loved it” is a totally meaningless statement in this context, as is a totally qualified statement such as “many in the audience seated near me seemed to be enjoying themselves for certain periods in act two although others seemed to have no visible reaction at all which could mean they were bored or sleeping.”

Don Rubin
Don Rubin

Let me move toward the end of these random remarks by saying that I think we all learned much this week not only about theatre criticism in India over the last 2500 years but also about Indian theatre in its many traditional and modern forms including my favourite, creative copulation. The performances we saw certainly gave those of us from abroad important insight into the richness that is Indian theatre and the uniqueness that is Indian classical and folk theatre, truly unique forms that exist nowhere else in the world in quite this way, forms which must continue to be treasured and protected. We learned as well that western forms too─whether high or low tech, whether political or escapist, whether literary or post-dramatic─are also clearly alive and battling for recognition in India as they are all over the world. Some of these forms─as many papers we heard suggested─are making real connections with urban audiences while others are as still as exotic in rural communities as Gujarati folk theatre might be to media-mad teenyboppers in Bangalore or Boston.

Which leads me to something that was not spoken of so much this week─theatre and the internet, theatre criticism and the web, the mad, mad world of personal blogging. Is this the future for theatre criticism? Certainly I don’t know. What I can say with some certainty is that even if it is the future, I continue to have no doubt that there will always be a place─even there─for expertise, for experience and for people who have the ability to communicate effectively. These are the cornerstones of almost any field in contemporary knowledge-based societies.

Hopefully by now we have agreed that just as we would not wish to have theatre critics perform brain surgery without expertise or experience, so too do we not want brain surgeons─or any other well-meaning amateur─doing our imagination-rooted work. Art is too important a field to be left to the hands of those who really do not know.


[1] Don Rubin is the founding director of the Graduate Program in Theatre Studies at Toronto’s York University and former Chair of its Department of Theatre. He is the Editor of Routledge’s six-volumeWorld Encyclopaedia of Contemporary Theatre and founding editor of the quarterly journal Canadian Theatre Review.

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

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Too Important To Be Left to Amateurs