For as long as there have been plays, there are critics to be found. As the optimistic adage goes, “Everyone loves a critic”—at least in the fantasy environs of Cloud Cuckoo Land.
In real life, though, however happily the Esteemed Class of Critical Punditry may yearn for popular approval, a profession that elevates itself by judging others offers a ripe target for snarky comments itself. A complicating factor today is that social media has entered the fray and declared that everyone’s unvetted judgment is worthy. In an eye-level world, lofty criticism is passe and democracy rules: “Everyone is a Critic.” xxxxx
Historically, the critics’ role is both ubiquitous and problematic: their job is to make public judgments, and they don’t take stage direction. Playwrights who have invented the words and characters being played out on stage can only stand by and wait: will the reviews trample their work, or will the show go on? It is a kind of cultural warfare, and all playwrights carry battle scars. Sir Noel Coward, renowned for his chic and sophisticated plays, angrily railed against “filthy notices, really very vitriolic,” but kept his upper lip stiff and carried on—“I shall always pop up out of another hole in the ground.” (Cole Leslie, Remembered Laughter, pp. 288-289)
But revenge can be very sweet, and because playwrights know how to use their words as weapons, the annals of stagecraft are replete with wicked farces that pillory critics as hapless fools. Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company is currently presenting two of these comedies in tandem—Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Critic (1779) and Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound (1968).
The opening moments of The Critic set the stage by establishing that profession’s rising role in late eighteenth century London. Mass media has emerged as a vastly influential force, and our host, Mr. Dangle, is himself one of the new class of theatrical tastemakers who shape public opinion in the pages of broadsheet newspapers. As Mr. Dangle rips through one broadsheet after another at breakfast, his first guest of the day arrives: Mr. Sneer, a tastemaker like himself. He is soon followed by the entrance of Mr. Puff, a quintessential p.r. flack who excels at “puffery.” He himself is a spectacle, with puffed up wig, rosy red cheeks, and outlandishly foppish attire: his purpose in life is to be noticed. The gist of this one-act play is that Mr. Puff himself has written a play and has come blushingly to ask Mr. Dangle and Mr. Sneer to watch a rehearsal and give him their critiques.
Left: The cast of ‘The Critic’ and ‘The Real Inspector Hound.’
Up to this point, The Critic is witty in a Noel Coward kind of way; Jeffrey Hatcher has updated Sheridan’s dialogue, which now includes brash characterizations straight out of the 2016 presidential campaign. About Puff, Hatcher writes in the printed program, “Did Sheridan write him as an overblown cartoon, a huge bubble made up of every sin a playwright could imagine of a critic? Yes. And for his crimes, what punishment does Sheridan hand down to Puff? The Critic decides to become a Playwright.” (Shakespeare Company Asides, p.17)
Right: Sandra Struthers (Actress 1), John Catron (Actor), and Charity Jones (Actress 2).
After the witty first scene, which Sheridan considered the best he had ever written (including his 1775 The Rivals and the 1777 The School for Scandal), The Critic spends the rest of the play tapping into the other side of British humor—Benny Hill slapstick. At one point, enormously full and fluffy costumes somehow get caught up in a stage set of ocean waves energetically rolling: clothes are ripped off by the waves and soon everyone is jumping around in their underwear. Bring on the custard pies! Curtain down!
Robert Stanton is superb as Puff, and goes on to play a key role in the second offering, The Real Inspector Hound. Tom Stoppard, one of the “Angry Young Men” who transformed British theater in the 1950s and ‘60s, here constructs a darker but still funny one act that enmeshes two bored and myopic second-string critics into a play-within-a-play based on Agatha Christie’s murder mystery, The Mousetrap, which was already long-running in London in 1968. The play opens with the two critics sitting alone in the audience, and one asks, “Has it started yet?” The set is a drawing room of a country residence, and a dead body lays under a table unnoticed until nearly the end of the play. A radio occasionally blurts out that a madman is on the loose in the area, and Inspector Hound arrives to investigate if a murder has occurred. The Inspector is a Clouseau-like figure who wears a well-waxed mustache much in the style of Hercule Poirot—who would be appalled at such a fool paying homage to Poirot, the world’s greatest detective!
Left: Robert Dorfman (Inspector Hound).
Like The Critic, The Real Inspector Hound stumbles into an ending after it’s gone on long enough. But no matter, Michael Kahn’s direction is perfectly paced and the ensemble cast that performs in both plays is enthusiastically up for all the great fun that ensues.
One further note on the critical class: we all hope to inject our knowledge and spark greater understanding among the public, and some of us write books that explain why that’s important. This week’s New York Times reviews such a new book by their chief film critic, A.O. Scott. Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism argues that “a critic is a person whose interest can help to activate the interest of others.” Because “art” is the subject of professional criticism in one medium or another, Scott writes that the “Better Living” of his title refers to how he hopes to further that goal: “It’s the job of at to free our minds, and the task of criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom.” (Quoted in Michael Wood review, NYT online, 2/3/16)
By Amy Henderson, Contributing Writer
The Critic and The Real Inspector Hound will be performed at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Washington, D.C., through February 14, 2016. It is produced in association with The Guthrie Theater.
Amy Henderson is Historian Emerita of the National Portrait Gallery.