At the National Writers’ Conference at this year’s Emerging Writers’ Festival, four of Australia’s best emerging arts critics appeared on a panel, ostensibly representing the critical analysis of four major art forms: film, theatre, literature, and television (though in fact all four critics have each written about multiple forms). Rebecca Harkins-Cross, Jane Howard, James Tierney and Chad Parkhill were brought together on a panel to discuss “Why do we like what we like, and should we even care? Why do we dissect things, and what value is there in examining the merits of the latest band, book, or show?”. The conversation was wide-ranging and showcased just why the Emerging Writers’ Festival is leading the way.
For the panel, each of these four critics was asked to prepare a five minute introductory provocation. Such is the quality of these short pieces—and their overlappingness is also excellent—that The Lifted Brow asked if we could publish them all, one a day, this week.
Yesterday we published Rebecca Harkins-Cross’s provocation. Today we are thrilled to bring you Jane Howard’s.
It’s 2015, of Course it’s Feminist
by Jane Howard
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about age and criticism.
Recently, I was writing about Look Back In Anger, considered ‘the birth of contemporary British theatre’ in 1956. In the process of writing that piece, I read a recent essay by Michael Billington where he mentions seeing it in 1957.
When I read this I had a realisation: “Oh. That’s how old he is.”
Billington is the first-string theatre critic for the Guardian, a paper he has been with since 1971. That year is inconceivable to me.
Last year, he wrote a series of essays called “Best Shakespeare productions.” In it, he wrote things like this from a piece about Cymbeline: “I’ve seen a succession of fine Imogens including Peggy Ashcroft (1957), Vanessa Redgrave (1962), Susan Fleetwood (1974), Harriet Walter (1988), Joanne Pearce (1997) and Emma Fielding (2003).”
Want to know how many times I’ve seen Cymbeline? Zero. Want to know my chances of guessing the lead character in Cymbeline was Imogen before I read this? Probably also zero.
In 2012, Three Kingdoms opened in London, a play that, by some, was dubbed the new birth of contemporary British theatre[i]. A collaboration between the British Lyric Hammersmith, the German Munich Kammerspiele, and the Estonian Teater NO99, it clashed together a British script with European direction in ways that astounded.
And Billington wrote “everything is overstated and overheated […] it’s as if the manic moments of Fawlty Towers had been choreographed by Pina Bauch.”
every so often everything would come together in the most beautiful fucked-up musical bit with a guy singing or half-singing or mumbling maybe and Glitter an den richtigen Stellen and shadows in the right places and it was just really really really BEAUTIFUL to watch.
As the season of Three Kingdoms played, this divide existed everywhere: young online writers who thought the work was magic and exciting and difficult and EVERYTHING; and old print critics who thought the work was wrong.
I’m a young critic. I’ve no received authority. But I watch new work and think, with every fibre of my being, ‘That was EVERYTHING.’
An essential part of being a critic is the thought that you are the most right. Or, at least, you have the ability to be the most right. I started to take my theatre criticism more seriously, in that it moved from a hobby to a profession, when I realised how wrong all of the other critics in Adelaide were. The critics in Adelaide are largely male and largely old, and facing that I had the ability to be right.
An early moment in this was when an explicitly feminist dance work opened, and I was the only female critic who reviewed it. One critic said the work showed “the quest to be perfect [that] some women have inadvertently placed on themselves.” I was irate.[iii]
Last year, Othello opened in Adelaide . If you don’t know the plot of Othello, it’s this: Othello marries Desdemona. Iago lies and tells Othello that Desdemona is cheating on him. Othello kills Desdemona.
This was pretty well signposted as a feminist production: the 26-year-old female director’s last work was about teenage girls; Desdemona was reading a copy of Patti Smith’s Just Kids. Just Kids! It’s all there.
And critic Barry Lenny wrote: “Presumably the idea was to show Desdemona as a self-assured, independent, modern young woman, but she came across as too far down that road.”
After three more paragraphs of telling us how much of a slut Desdemona was, Lenny concludes that when her husband kills her, “we really don’t care that much as we cannot possibly see her as an innocent”.
It seemed every young critic found it astounding, while the established critics couldn’t find a way into the work at all.
Let’s not pretend this is an Adelaide thing. Two weeks ago, I saw The Wizard of Oz in Sydney. It seemed every young critic, including myself, found it astounding, while the established critics couldn’t find a way into the work at all. And then Kevin Jackson wrote:
the Department of Social Services ought to have being called to help those poor artists […] to aid them in their seemingly continuous cyclic wheel of depressive experiences of being a woman. […] No progress in sight at all for those female psyches it seemed.
And every time, I just want to take the shoulders of these men and yell “It’s 2015! Of course it’s feminist!”
I know it’s too simple to say this is an age thing.
Billington writes so intelligently about remounts of classic British plays; the knowledge he can bring to Shakespeare after having seen so many Imogens is astounding.
Closer to home, Alison Croggon is one of our best critics, and is constantly insightful about contemporary performance. She started in print in the 1980s, but in the 2000s her blog Theatre Notes pioneered online theatre criticism not only in Australia but internationally. Australian criticism would be a much poorer place if it weren’t for her.
We’ll never be an authority like print critics once were.
In this, perhaps what I’ve been thinking of an age divide is actually about how the internet shapes our craft as critics. We all have to think we’re the most right, but when confronted with the internet that rightness is challenged. We’ll never be an authority like print critics once were. Does the internet allow us to be an authority more open to challenges? The most right, but with endless questions?
Perhaps what I’m really trying to grapple with is not an age divide between critics at all, but the age divide that will occur in me. What will it look like as I grow older as a critic: will I be able to gain knowledge while retaining sheer excitement for those things I can’t quite understand? I hope the internet and its refusal for singular authority lets that be true.
Because all I know is this: I hope, from here until forever, I’ll be able to always look at a new, scary performance and feel like it is magic and exciting and difficult and EVERYTHING.
Jane Howard is an arts journalist, critic and researcher. She is theatre and performing arts columnist for Kill Your Darlings and a regular contributor to Guardian Australia and The Lifted Brow.
[i] I’ve tried rather hard to find a specific reference for this idea, but Google is not helping me at all. The only conclusion I can come to is this was the general spirit of the conversation; or at least what the general spirit of the conversation looked like to an Australian theatre critic watching the conversation take place on twitter and blogs. The closest I can find is Maddy Costa: “Three Kingdoms plays in London for just two and a half weeks, yet it has the potential to affect British theatre far beyond that.” Considering the conservatism and love of narratives in British theatre, she goes on, “No wonder so much work on British stages in 2012 feels as though it could have been made any time since the 1950s. Perhaps Three Kingdoms really is a gratuitous mess. But a new generation of theatre writers begs to differ – and they might just be the people who help to drag British theatre into the future.”
[ii] Vaughn came up again in discussion with the panel in response to a questioner from the audience worried about her own book reviews being too consistently positive. Vaughn (for the most part) only writes about performance when it excites her, and this in turn truly excites me about her work. Also she reviewed a show entirely in emojis, so.
[iii] After I criticised this and other reviews, another male critic told me if I ever wanted to be taken seriously as a critic I would need to “check my feminism at the desk” [sic]. I think he would be shocked to learn just how many feminist editors I’ve had.