Should drama criticism be a capital offense? If so, some of today's London critics might face spectacular punishments like their counterparts in a hit comedy at Britain's National Theatre.
Or so it seemed on a recent visit, when current critics' thrusts echoed those heard onstage. They're the wounds a victim remembers even if he doesn't take revenge like the old-time Shakespearean actor-manager in the play.
The fair-warning title is "Theatre of Blood," and there's no secret about making just the right special-effects gore for the doomed critics. They gradually understand why they have been called to a creaking empty theater at night. They voted against the Shakespearean ham for a coveted theatrical award.
The cream of the insane jest is that he uses famous Shakespeare scenes to dispatch the critics one by one (the drinker being plunged into Richard III's vat of wine). He cites those awful things they've said about him. Where others have great stage presence, he has great "stage absence."
So you go out into the sunshine, and you find reviews of other plays you've just seen. "She approaches an emotion with the finesse of someone beating a carpet." "If she were in a girls' school show, rather than the West End, you would think her well above average."
Who could forgive and forget a "dog's dinner of a production"?
Well, invective is nothing new. "Theatre of Blood" is based on a 1973 comic horror movie of the same name, described as the personal favorite of its star, Vincent Price, who chewed the scenery as well as the critics.
Musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky gleefully mined the centuries for "A Lexicon of Musical Invective." He nailed early scoffers - of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, say - who were overtaken by the judgment of posterity. He included an "invecticon," categorizing ways of attack.
Is it harder to be pungent in praise than in put-downs? You wouldn't think so to read a well-written, even overwritten blurb bestowed by an author on another author's book.
Cole Porter found more than 60 ways to say "You're the Top" as his song piled up comparisons like "You're the Tow'r of Pisa" and "You're the smile/ On the Mona Lisa."
One London drama critic didn't say just good or bad, but "the acting has a steely delicacy, like a surgeon's knife."
Another ended a review of jazz violinist Regina Carter with the perfect two words "Floreat Regina." Even that carpet-beating actress made, in other eyes, "a stage debut of breathtaking assurance."
How about "Theatre of Blood - the Sequel"? Here reviewers are summoned to a facsimile of Prospero's island in "The Tempest," where vengeance against invective is replaced with all-expense-paid cruises for those who phrase plaudits more elegantly than sneers.
What about you, dear forbearing reader? How would you say something nice about someone or something? Maybe we'll be able to compile a lexicon of noninvective.