theatre criticism

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In the journalistic sense, began in Britain in the early 18th cent. Despite earlier attempts by Dryden in his Prefaces and Rymer in A Short View of Tragedy to uphold French neo‐classical principles, it was not governed by a continental adherence to aesthetic rules. Its emergence was determined by pragmatic factors: the rise of the opinionated essayist, the strength of Restoration acting, and the need to protect the stage from moral censure. Steele claimed: ‘There is no human invention so aptly calculated for the forming of a free‐born people as that of the theatre.’ But while Steele and Addison were occasional commentators, Aaron Hill and William Popple in The Prompter (1734–6) became the first professional theatre critics pursuing a campaign for realistic acting that paved the way for Garrick.

The proliferation of late 18th‐cent. journalism, the centrality of the stage in London life and the presence of great actors all promoted a lively criticism based on personal observation. But it was Leigh Hunt and Hazlitt (both of whom were witness to legendary performances) who transformed dramatic criticism from a transient record into a durable art. Hunt was often at his best writing about comic actors such as Charles James Mathews or Robert William Elliston; Hazlitt was inspired by the demonic genius of Edmund Kean. His reviews of Kean's Shakespearean performances combine astute technical analysis with vivid impressionistic images: describing the battle scenes in Richard III, he writes that Kean ‘fought like one drunk with wounds.’

Actor‐led criticism continued in the later 19th cent. with Lewes and Joseph Knight; but the emergence of Ibsen and the new drama brough new rules. Shaw used his coruscating columns in the Saturday Review in the 1890s to attack the reigning actor‐manager, Irving, and to endorse a drama that addressed social and moral issues; he was keenly supported by Archer. Shaw's successor, Beerbohm, was more a whimsical essayist than an embattled campaigner, and Agate, who wrote for the Sunday Times from 1923 to 1947, was a distinguished connoisseur of acting rather than a reliable analyst of plays. But the separate traditions of graphic reporter and militant enthusiast converged in Kenneth Tynan, who both enshrined legendary performances (particularly those of Olivier) and used his Observer columns to champion Brecht and Osborne. Harold Hobson, his opposite number on the Sunday Times, was equally persuasive about the work of Beckett and Pinter. American theatre criticism, with a shorter historical tradition, produced in the 20th cent. a pugnacious essayist in Nathan, a gracious stylist in Stark Young, and a distinguished blend of academic, practitioner, and journalist in Eric Bentley, Robert Brustein, and Harold Clurman. The distinguishing feature of English‐language theatre criticism remains, however, a suspicion of intellectual theory and a trust in subjective impressions.

Subjects: Literature — Theatre.

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