Makers, breakers, and appreciators

Everyone is a critic - especially at the Edinburgh Festival. Ask anyone for an opinion, a judgment, an assessment at the annual three-week-long celebration of culture, and it is sure to be forthcoming.

Newcomers and longtime attendees, amateurs and professionals, all are willing to tell you what they think. It is a camaraderie of critics.

The elegant lady during the intermission at "An Evening of Operette" was typical. As I stuffed my mouth with Danish (culture always makes me hungry), she gave me her cogent thoughts on this concert of delightful French songs lifted from the comic operas of Paris at the turn of the century.

"Enjoying it?" I had asked stickily.

"Yes, very much," she replied. "Of course, 'operette 'is a world long gone. Like Gilbert and Sullivan. Or like the royal yacht Britannia, which I went to see this afternoon. A thing of the past. But they're doing it really very well, I think. The orchestra is fine. The chorus is fine. The singers are excellent. Particularly the soprano. Real verve. Real stage presence. So difficult to perform cold, without costumes or set, so hard to warm up the audience. Not easy. But it has the right touch. After all, it is French, light, and nimble. Not like Italian or German opera. It's good. Yes."

A friend says a good critic is the one who agrees with you. I thought this lady a good critic. We chatted on, giving each other the benefit of our opinions until the bell sounded for the second half. And the second half (I never did finish that pastry) really took off. All the ingenious frivolity of the genre came across, leaping the century, catching the spirit of this transient phenomenon from a lost period.

The final applause was a happy swell of appreciation. The houseful of critics (the audience) left smiling and voluble.

But one critic had left snarling. Could it have been the portly gentleman a row in front of me? I noticed he never returned for Part 2. But surely not. No self-respecting, responsible, salaried critic would abscond before a performance ended - surely not!

Maybe I got the wrong man. But the next morning, in the Herald, was an over-the-top review of "An Evening of Operette" so virulently dismissive that you'd think its author breathed fire, not ordinary air. He even said the tenors were so bad he wasn't going to print their names.

This display of llama-like verbal spit-and-hiss chiefly made the critic himself look ridiculous. All the same, it cannot have been a pleasant diatribe for the performers to read over breakfast.

Of course we critics - the traffic police of high culture - live a strange twilight existence. Perhaps we don't deserve, and the likes of this one certainly don't court, popularity. The very name of the job requires that a critic be "critical." Nightly reviewers particularly - going straight from theater or concert hall to computer to meet improbable deadlines - are under considerable duress. Those who cover the Edinburgh Festival (this man sometimes had three Festival reviews in one issue of the Herald) are arguably heroic.

Yet the power of some critics, able to abort productions before the public can make its own judgments, able to set back or destroy careers, is out of all proportion to the significance of one person's opinion (or prejudice), however well-informed or brilliantly expressed.

The trouble is that the critics who damn are also the critics who praise to the skies; they are makers as well as breakers. And the further trouble is that many critics aren't answerable to anyone. If they feel like meting out cruel and unusual verbal punishment, who regulates them? Who critiques the critics?

In the history of the profession there are critics of general benevolence, real lovers of their special beat, more disappointed than angry when a performance doesn't come up to expectations. And there have been critics who are real analyzers, appreciators of immense subtlety and ever-growing knowledge. And there have even been critics on friendly terms with performers.

In the 1940s, John Gielgud, playing Macbeth, received a letter from the critic Alan Dent detailing points he admired and points he did not.

"In the Banquet," he wrote, "the wide gesture with the red robe ... is superb, just after your first shriek." But he also wrote: "So far as we can see, you come out of Duncan's chamber after the murder with no more expression on your face than anybody shows on coming out of a lavatory.... " If such a remark had been printed (as such remarks and worse often are), it would have been lethal. In a letter, it probably made the famously witty actor laugh - and think.

Ronald Hayman, Gielgud's biographer, describes how, later in the play's run (when it was being played, incidentally, in Edinburgh), Dent "thought it much improved."

Gielgud, he wrote in his review, "gains in facial expressiveness ... [H]e comes out of Duncan's chamber ... with some inkling on his face that he has just done a deed of dreadful note."

Which suggests that critics don't have to commit murder to be effective.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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