Critics should never say in writing what they cannot dare to say to the subject in person: Interview with Ian Herbert
by Savas Patsalidis*
After leaving Cambridge University in 1961 with a degree in Litterae Humaniores, Ian Herbert began his career as a publisher with Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons. He left Pitman after sixteen years, finishing as the Director of the company responsible for its general publishing programme. In this position he was able to edit two editions of Who’s Who in the Theatre, often described as the ‘bible’ of London and Broadway theatre. He took Who’s Who with him to join the Gale Research Company of Detroit as its European Director, leaving in 1980 with the publication of Who’s Who‘s final, sixteenth edition.
A past Chairman of the UK’s Society for Theatre Research, he is now consultant editor of Theatre Record, which he founded in 1981 as London Theatre Record. He was its editor and publisher from 1981-2003. He also edited the technical journal Sightline from 1984-91, and several editions of the International Theatre Institute’s publication World of Theatre. (As a member of the ITI Communications Committee, he was instrumental in settting up this publication, as well as the companion World Theatre Directory).He has written extensively on sttage design, and served as a jury member for both the Prague Quadriennal and the biennial exhibition of World Stage Design. He was European Editor for the two volumes of World Scenography.
He has written regularly for theatre journals worldwide, including The Stage newspaper. President from 2001-2008 of the International Association of Theatre Critics, having spent the previous seven years as its Director of Training, he is now an Honorary President.
As IATC President, he was joint editor of the proceedings of the Association’s 2008 Sofia Congress, published as Theatre and Humanism in a World of Violence. He is a board member of the Europe Theatre Prize, and a trustee of the UK Critics’ Circle. A former visiting professor of several US universities, he has lectured on criticism and taught critics in many countries of the world.
Ian, you started off your career as a publisher, going on to edit Who‘s Who in the Theatre in the 1970’s. Then you moved on to launch London Theatre Record. What made you start all this, to begin with? Have you felt that it was something British theatre scholarship needed at that time?
Starting London Theatre Record in 1981 was a last attempt to find a living. After I left Gale Research I found that the recession in British publishing meant that there were no worthwhile openings at board level. I became an adviser to the British Centre of the International Theatre Institute on its publishing activities, and joined with Simon Trussler of Theatre Quarterly and Malcolm Hay of Time Out to plan the ultimate British theatre magazine. The previous leading theatre journal, Plays and Players, had ceased publication owing about £100,000, and its publisher had committed suicide. When my friends and I looked for finance for our proposed publication, and had to explain the fate of Plays and Players, doors closed rapidly in our faces.
Left to my own devices, I wanted to continue the record-keeping function of Who’s Who, and add to it resources which were available in the USA but not in Britain. New York Theatre Critics’ Reviews collected the local critics’ reactions to Broadway shows, while a number of newsletters gave hints about producers’ plans for upcoming productions. Having consulted a number of London critics, and found a helpful local printer, I spent the last of my savings on printing and distributing the first (double) number of the fortnightly London Theatre Record. It contained the unabridged theatre reviews of the major London critics, together with the cast lists and other credits which had been a feature of Who’s Who. A centre section gave information on future planned productions, plus box office and press contacts for shows currently running.
My considerable contacts in the theatre world meant that I had a good mailing list for that first number, and enough of them came back with subscriptions to pay for the printing of the next issue. This pattern has continued for the life of the journal, where income has kept just ahead of expenditure.
As a follow-up to the previous question. Looking at the craft of the reviewer in the wider context of British theatre of the second half of the 20th century do you see any similarities and/or differences? For example, what was the background Kenneth Tynan was writing against and what was yours? Have you ever felt when you first started that there were things that had to be changed? And if so, what?
I started the journal as its publisher. It was only after a couple of years’ assembling the critics’ views that I decided I could offer my own. Like many of the existing critics I had no training other than seeing a couple of thousand shows, in London and New York as Who’s Who’s editor, and by now in Europe as a British representative of ITI. In the latter capacity I met other publishers of theatre journals, as well as their critic contributors. I became aware of the differences in approach to criticism in different countries. (I recall an ITI conference on the training of critics, in Tbilisi, before perestroika, where the ‘Eastern’ critics explained that as part of their seven years’ Doctoral training they would attend many rehearsals of a production, and as many performances, before committing themselves to analysis and commentary. We ‘Westerners’, on the other side of the conference table, admitted that we simply went to the theatre rather a lot, and often gave our views immediately after a production’s first night.)
In terms of British theatre criticism, I had been fortunate to grow up reading the likes of Kenneth Tynan, who addressed not only the quality of performance―which was the main aim of his predecessors― but the nature of theatre and its extension beyond ‘entertainment’ to the absurdity of Beckett and Pinter and the socio-political commitment of Osborne and Wesker.
Most of the critics I was reprinting had responded to the next wave of major British playwrights, the ‘class of ’68’―Brenton, Hare, Stoppard. The London Fringe was thriving, the National likewise under Peter Hall, and the RSC’s Barbican home nearing completion. With the success of homegrown musicals beginning to challenge Broadway’s monopoly, this was a good time on all fronts to record London theatre.
The journal gathered together the unabridged reviews of all the major British theatre critics. Was there any other journal following the same policy?
I must give credit to New York Theatre Critics’ Reviews, which sadly no longer exists. Nor does Australian and New Zealand Theatre Record, which followed my London example for some years.
If I remember well the Times did not join you at the beginning. Why? Was it a matter of different ideas about writing? Different policy regarding the selection of plays to review? Conflict of interest?
Times Newspapers refused permission to reprint their reviews, on the grounds that I might affect their circulation. I still think of this as quite a compliment. It was not until Benedict Nightingale became the Times critic, and wondered aloud why he was not to appear in his major journal of reference, that The Times relented, followed quickly by its Sunday sister.
Talking about selection policy: were you after reviews with any particular emphasis, say on politics, engaged works, mainstream works, theory etc.?
I printed all the reviews of the London critics, extending the geographic coverage quickly (in 1983) to the shows they visited outside London. That alone determined what was included.
Do you remember the volume of your readership? Was it large enough to keep you, financially speaking, afloat?
As I said earlier, there was always enough money in the bank to pay for necessities, and not much more. As for readership, I quickly found in my conversations with international publishers and editors of theatre journals, that my print run of around 1,000 was the norm― with serious exceptions such as Russia’s Teatr.
What feedback did you get from your readers? Did they make you feel that you were doing something they really needed?
I got a steady stream of letters from critics and theatre people, mostly complimentary, sometimes angry, often correcting errors in published reviews. My editorial, Prompt Corner, was partly intended to moderate when a production seemed to me to have received too much praise―or too little.
How was the journal’s reception by academia? Have you ever felt they were antagonistic? Was theatre reviewing something British Universities would welcome in their curriculum back in the 70s and 80s?
The teaching of criticism in academia was still in its infancy. You have to remember that as late as the sixties there was only one University drama department in England, that at Bristol. As the teaching of drama spread, so did attention to criticism, which made Theatre Record a valuable tool, and not just for research.
Would you call Theatre Record mostly a local journal? Does anyone who is not very much interested in British theatre as such have anything to gain?
In my time I was able to invite my international critic friends to publish articles on the theatre scene in their country, and I could also give regular reports on my own trips to world theatre events, largely thanks to my positions within IATC. But the main purpose of the journal remains to record British theatre.
Now the journal is run by other people. Ian Shuttleworth has been succeeded by Julian Oddy. I know that you are still actively involved as consulting editor. Has there been any change in terms of focus and policy since you handed over the journal’s leadership? For example, the journal went digital. Any gains from that shift? Any change of perspective? Of philosophy? Of principles?
Since January 2019 the journal has been purely digital in its input under the supervision of Julian. Digital subscribers have the possibility now to check up on reviews almost as soon as they appear. Not only that, they have quick and easy on line access to the entire printed archive of the Record since its foundation in 1981, as well as the most comprehensive available listings of productions running and to come throughout the United Kingdom.
There will be those―myself included―who regret no longer having this information in printed form, but the gains are unquestionable. Since we no longer have to pay for printing and distribution, we are able to offer the new, instantly accessible Theatre Record, plus its complete archive,to individual subscribers for little more than they would have paid in 1981 for the original printed journal. The one absent feature―no more provocative Prompt Corners from myself or my friend Ian Shuttleworth. What we can offer, however, is access to the views of a selection of leading bloggers.
Looking at the electronic archive of the journal is there anything you regretted not having done and anything that you shouldn’t have done?
When I started the journal, I wanted it to be the basis of a searchable database of UK theatre, by person, by production, by theatre. At the time, I was told that to create such a database would require computer power far beyond the capacity of even a University department. Subsequent requests for grants from academia to create the database, as computing power developed, were turned down. Now we are able to create that database from our own resources, starting with the 2019 volume and in time going back over the archive. On the other hand, my guess in 1981 was that the growth of the then fledgling internet would render the journal obsolete in five, maybe ten years. It’s still there.
Back in Greece, my home country, most reviewers are not paid. And I know that this is more or less what prevails in most countries. In my mind this attitude betrays contempt and total disregard for the art of reviewing. It is quite discouraging. I wonder, what is the situation now in England? The advent of the internet and the rapid decline of newspapers have changed many things in the field of reviewing. For better or worse?
On the one hand there are far fewer opportunities for arts critics to be paid even the paltry sums they have been accustomed to earn. On the other hand, there are infinite possibilities for anyone to express an opinion, informed or otherwise, on line.
Printed reviews are fewer, shorter and often subject to the dangerous system of star ratings, which means that potential readers may look no further than a review’s headline to make their choice of theatregoing. Online reviewers, on the other hand, often have unlimited space in which to express their opinions – a situation which is equally open to abuse. Just as published work of all kinds, be it a novel or a scientific paper, may no longer be monitored (and brought down to size?) by a skilled editor, so theatre reviews will often lack this form of control.
The Critics’ Circle of which you are a member (and a Trustee) believes in professional and impartial criticism as an essential ingredient of a healthy society. Nowadays there is a growing trend that supports subjective criticism against, so called, “objective criticism”; participatory and embodied criticism as opposed to detached. What are your thoughts about all this?
I think your premise is questionable. In my many years of teaching (in reality learning from) young critics, I have always been at pains to stress that there can be no such thing as objective criticism. It is far more useful for the critic to make his or her prejudices and background clear, so that readers can then judge that critic’s opinions from their own perspective. What organisations like the Critics’ Circle can try to do, is to give their approval to critics who have shown through long experience that their opinions have some validity.
Internet fans claim that thanks to technology theatre reviewing is now experiencing phenomenal freedoms. They talk about the “democratization” of writing and the fair distribution of power. In short, they come to support the slogan, “everybody is a critic”. Do you share this enthusiasm?
Yes, everybody can be a critic. But there will always be those few whose criticism is worth reading, be it because of their greater knowledge of the art form, or their greater skill in communicating that knowledge ―or best of all, both.
Are there any limits regarding the freedoms of the critic? And if so, who sets the limits?
In today’s strange world of snowflakes and trolls, critical freedoms have their place and I would not want to place any limits on freedom of critical expression. Personally, however, I grow quickly tired of negative writing that relies on expletives and insult.
I strongly support the view that critics should never say in writing what they cannot dare to say to the subject in person, face to face. We should also remember, in responding quickly, perhaps in very few words, to a theatre piece, how many weeks or months of effort on the part of its creators it represents. Whether that effort has been worthwhile, we remain free to say.
The previous question also brings forward the word tolerance? A very “hot” issue in our days? How do you understand the term in relation to the theatre we see and review? Anything goes?
Anything goes, but I don’t want to go along with much of it.
There is a whole argument about evaluative criticism/reviewing, as being arbitrary, restrictive and limited. Do you think there can be any form of reviewing without evaluation?
No. One should always ask Goethe’s three questions: what is this piece trying to do, how has it tried to do it, and has it succeeded?
There is a growing tendency towards deprofessionalization of reviewing. Do you think it would have liberating effects?
I’m more concerned about the ‘professionalising’ influence of academic attitudes to theatre, which can lead to long, apparently well informed articles so steeped in jargon that the ordinary theatregoer finds them of no use whatever.
Also there is a dismantling of hierarchical positions of power towards more collaborative forms of criticism/reviewing. Do you think that reviewing can be a team work as opposed to what it was: a loner’s adventure?
If the best theatre is a triumph of teamwork, I suppose we should also be prepared to see whether team reviewing can have its uses. Certainly, critics can learn from colleagues whose opinions differ from theirs: it’s one of the benefits of reading Theatre Record.
Yes, listening to different voices is useful. At the same time, however, the circulation of too many voices, too many perspectives, too many angles create a confusing maelstrom of opinions which do not really help you separate the wheat from the chaff.
There is always room for dialogue between critics and practitioners, although there are those practitioners who claim never to read criticism. They are usually the ones who can quote back to you a bad review from many years ago. When it became possible for the general public (and practitioners) to comment on newspaper reviews, it resulted in some vile insults as well as considered reactions. Not all ‘open online conversation’ is worth reading.
Reflecting on what you just said, I would like to add this: the eponymous influencers are no longer the people who run the game. Now, it is the time of the anonymous influencers. People who use the media in order to make money and a personal brand rather than serve theatre. For many, theatre is an alibi for being out there. That I find a bit scary.
This is a fascinating phenomenon about which I know little. Apparently large numbers of young people take pleasure in watching their peers engage in everyday activity, like shampooing their hair, getting dressed or putting on make-up. These new video stars then earn large amounts of money from the producers of the shampoo, clothing or make-up.
I look forward to the time when on line viewers are similarly glued to the sight of an armchair critic saying how much they enjoyed an obscure production, and that critic then earns handsomely from the production’s ensuing transfer. Unfortunately, if the present pattern is followed, that armchair critic is likely to be a semi-articulate teenager who knows nothing about theatre.
Now public bodies tend to fund theatre and reward quantity of activity over quality. When everybody acts critic don’t you think that there is a similar “funding” of theatre with quantity but not quality?
There has been much discussion in Britain following the decision of our funder, the Arts Council, to put diversity of both audience and practitioners above the excellence of what they fund. I would prefer our funders to start by demanding excellence in whatever they fund, then proceed to concentrate on areas ―diversity, cultural deprivation―where that excellence can be best applied. There will always be enthusiastic companies prepared to take their own financial risk, regardless of the quality of what they create. To my old-fashioned mind, state funding should only be added to support the efforts of those who have demonstrated quality.
Critics used to write for a particular readership, mainly national. Now that the character of this “national” is so diversified who is the target group of a critic?
Ultimately, a critic can only give their own opinion of what they see. If that opinion is based on their having seen a wide variety of theatre, and is expressed with a style and enthusiasm that can encourage their readers to go see for themselves, they will have done a good job. If the critic’s view and experience is limited to that of a specific social or ethnic group, they can at least hope to encourage that group.
As a follow up to my previous question. I know that you travel a lot watching theatre all over the world. How difficult is it to write a good review of cultural products that are far away from your native culture and at the same time do justice to them?
I’ve been doing this for years, since it has been my pleasure to watch a great deal of theatre in languages or theatre traditions that are not my own. At least I’ve been able to offer the reactions of someone with my background and preferences.
Do you think that as we will probably see real time collaborative audience reviews using Twitter and the like, we will need the specialist theatre writer to provide a more informed view on the play, the production?
It’s happening already. And it has to be admitted that the word of mouth transmitted by social media is now often more influential than the word of established critics. The great gain is that shows which might never reach the attention of the established critic do at least provoke reactions, well informed or not.
Consider a world without critics. Is there any value left in the act of criticism?
I agree with your suggestion that everyone is a critic, so this will never happen. But I also believe that good, well informed, well written criticism is still of value ―I even have a sneaking suspicion that with the growth of online writing, there is much more such criticism available to those who can seek it out.
Taking into consideration all the changes technology has caused what is the role of a good critic nowadays? To be a community binder or just be him/herself?
First and foremost to be true to oneself. This applies to both the good and the bad critic.
Are there any British internet reviewers today that you think stand out? What makes them different from newspaper reviewers?
There are plenty of good reviewers now writing online only, many of them former critics for printed media. Their only problem is the temptation to write at excessive length―it’s difficult but necessary to be one’s own editor.
*Savas Patsalidis is Professor of theatre and performance history and theory in the School of English (Aristotle University, Thessaloniki), the Hellenic Open University and the Drama Academy of the National Theatre of Northern Greece. He is also a regular lecturer on the Graduate Programme of the Theatre Department at Aristotle University. He is the author of fourteen books on theatre and performance criticism/theory and co-editor of another thirteen. His two-volume study, Theatre, Society, Nation (2010), was awarded first prize for best theatre study of the year. His latest book-length study Theatre & Theory II: About Topoi, Utopias and Heterotopias was published in 2019 by University Studio Press. In addition to his academic activities, he works as a theatre reviewer for the ejournals lavart, parallaxi, and thegreekplay project. He is currently the president of the Hellenic Association of Theatre and Performing Arts Critics, member of the curators’ team of Dimitria Festival and the editor-in-chief of Critical Stages/Scènes critiques, the journal of the International Association of Theatre Critics.
Copyright © 2019 Savas Patsalidis
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