Intercriticism and the Myth of Critical Distance
Que veut dire le terme (forgé pour le colloque de Maribor) « intercritique » ? Dans cet exposé, Don Rubin, sans prétendre connaître le sens du mot, explore plutôt la possibilité que l’intercritique puisse être un critique prêt à se dispenser du mythe de sa prétendue « objectivité », pour devenir activement impliqué dans la formation de la culture théâtrale ; l’intercritique pourrait ainsi être considéré, pour utiliser un mot français, comme engagé. Dans sa communication, Rubin expose cette idée au moyen d’anecdotes riches, souvent drôles, tirées de son parcours personnel dans la critique de théâtre.
The term inter-criticism is quite clearly one that has been made up for this particular colloquium. I wasn’t sure what it meant going into this paper and, having now completed my paper, I am still not sure what it means. Personally, I run from big words as something that tends to get in the way of real communication and whether it can be useful either as part of a growing taxonomy of critical language or not, I really don’t know at this point. Academic criticism has already jargonized itself into irrelevancy in the world of theatre so is this term going to help change that? I doubt it but let’s see if it can be defined at least into some sort of usefulness.
What is it exactly that our hosts are intending to examine when they created this term? Certainly if one takes the example used by them -- Hitchcock’s film Rear Window-- we understand that from a critical perspective it has something to do with objective-subjective, with distanced seeing versus seeing from within the work of art or seeing from a position much closer to that of the artist who created it. It is not difficult to see how that can serve as a useful metaphor for the critic who gets enmeshed in certain types of aesthetic, cultural or even quasi-political activities. So let’s go one step further and speak here about the critic who IS genuinely invested in the creation of the work of art, who really does have something at stake in its production and in its reception, who is involved in what may be called the politics of art. The French term for this type of criticism is engagé. It means connected, committed to the success or failure of a work of art going in. Brecht worked as a critic for a time and he was very quick to say that the real role of the critic is not to say if a work is good or bad but rather to say if a work of art is useful or not useful to society as a whole. He took that position going in, a position as far from any notion of critical objectivity as one could get. Going in one’s attitude toward certain kinds of art is clear. Is this the real root of what we mean by “inter-criticism?” And is it really such a bad thing?
Personally, I make no pretense toward “objectivity” in my work as a critic though once upon a time I did. That was when I worked as a daily critic in the US where I regularly covered productions on Broadway, off-Broadway, in regional theatres. Production went up and my review went out. I had no critical or personal stake -- or interest -- in going beyond that.
And then I moved to Canada, a country back in the 1960s and 70s lugging around a very heavy colonial past, a country when I arrived that seemed determined not to want to create but only to re-create, not to originate anything but only to turn out carbon copies of New York or London or Paris. Culture for most Canadians seemed to be something from some other place and some other time. Canada’s de facto national theatre in the early 70s on the English side was the Stratford Festival devoted to the works of William Shakespeare, a dead foreigner. Yes, I said a dead foreigner. Its second largest company was the Shaw Festival, another well-endowed body dedicated to producing the works of yet another dead foreigner, George Bernard Shaw. Now please don’t get me wrong. I like plays by dead foreigners but should a national theatre be devoted to that vision? Even Montreal’s largest French-language theatre at that time – Théâtre du Nouveau Monde – was committed to major productions of plays from France by Moliere and Claudel. Again, with all due respect, dead foreigners.
I learned when I moved to Canada that one of the reasons for this was because living foreigners were running most of these theatres (and if they were not genuine foreigners than they were usually Canadians who were trained abroad, Canadians who often spoke with acquired British or French accents. would-be Britons or Franks). So it amounted to the same thing.
As someone new to the country, I found it all quite odd. But who was I as a critic to get involved in this type of cultural politics. As a critic, I had a responsibility to stand back and simply respond to what was given, what was presented. I had no responsibility to get involved in that side of things. Or did I? Let me tell you here that the rest of this paper will deal with my own voyage across that divide and will explain where I am today and how I think this may well be an example of what is being called inter-criticism.
The change for me started in the early 1970s when I began a new theatre journal, Canada’s first, the Canadian Theatre Review. In the time leading up to its creation – and there was never any intent in the beginning to make it political in any way – I was still writing about whatever I saw and teaching my criticism students at York University about how to write objectively about whatever they were being offered. Frankly, it never dawned on me then that I could teach them about how to change what was being offered, how to use the critical function to actually intervene in the artistic process somehow, how to practice what I now seem to be calling inter-criticism.
My own change began when, at that same time, CBC Radio sent me off to Russia and Poland to do a documentary about a tour the Stratford Festival was on. And the Stratford Festival had quite provocatively decided to call itself for the tour “the Stratford National Theatre of Canada.” Even then, I didn’t question what the company’s mandate was but interestingly for me, the Polish and Russian critics I met along the way did.
The question I got asked over and over was: if this is the National Theatre of Canada, why weren’t they bringing with them any Canadian plays? Why were they presenting only plays by Shakespeare? I couldn’t answer. I didn’t know why Stratford was doing what they did. By the end of that tour, however, by the end of that documentary, I began to wake up and I began to understand why I – and my brother and sister critics -- needed to answer questions like that going in, take a more active role as critics if Canada had any hope to create its own culture. And I can’t tell you how much I wanted Canada to create its own culture. I had grown up in New York on new work and I really missed it. A few months after that tour, Stratford announced that its artistic director was stepping down and that its Board of Directors was appointing yet another foreigner in his place – in this case the British director Robin Phillips. And for Phillips’ first year on full salary, he would be given a budget to do nothing but travel across Canada just getting to know the country. It did strike me as a bit odd that a theatre as highly subsidized as Stratford should be able to use its funds in this way, to try and teach a foreigner what every Canadian theatre artist already knew. And there were some pretty good Canadian theatre artists then working in the country. But then, as a still relatively “new” Canadian myself it seemed a bit bizarre to me that I should be the one concerned about other people coming from abroad. On the other hand, as a working theatre critic, as the first editor of the new theatre journal, perhaps I did have some responsibility to comment; or to get others to comment.
It was at that interesting moment in time that I was invited back to Poland, to be one of several critical commentators at a student theatre festival in Wroclaw. I hoped I could find some answers to my predicament there. And on arrival, I started to hear my name called both figuratively and actually. At the airport two friends were waiting for me, Canadian director John Juliani and his wife, Donna. The Julianis had been travelling through Europe that year seeing theatre, talking with theatre people in other countries, and investigating Canada’s theatrical image abroad. John had also been invited to the Wroclaw festival and, learning that I was coming as well, decided to connect with me.
On the drive to Wroclaw, John was eager to be filled in on what was happening at home. And eventually, the subject got around to Stratford. John hadn’t heard about the Phillips’ appointment and when I told him, he didn’t seem surprised. What else could one expect? But when he heard about Phillips being put on salary for a year simply to travel around the country, he got irked.
“Didn’t anyone complain?” he asked. I told him that a few people had expressed their unhappiness but that it was also obvious that most who might want to work at Stratford just couldn’t afford to risk offending the country’s largest theatre company.
“But we’re talking about creating our own theatre, our own culture,” he said. “We’re not talking about careers.” And then he went silent.
Again, I felt myself at a loss. I really didn’t know how to respond. Was I at that moment a reporter whose job it was to go back home and tell the world that a Canadian director was unhappy about what was happening? Or was I a reviewer whose job was simply to comment on the Wroclaw Festival and let these issues pass by? A few days later, Juliani brought it up again.
“If this were 200 years ago,” he said, “I could have challenged Phillips to a duel. But now?” We both laughed. After a long silence, John looked up at me and said, “I suppose I could still challenge him to a duel, a duel to defend the honour of Canada’s emerging theatre tradition.” By the time he had finished talking, John had managed to convince both himself and me that it somehow made sense, that such an outrageous theatrical gesture could somehow make the point to both Canada’s own theatre community and the Stratford decision .
After Poland, I was going to London for a night. Juliani asked if I would deliver the challenge to Phillips personally. I thought for a bit and then agreed to do it. After all, in the process I could probably get an interview with Phillips which CBC would appreciate having. Sure, I thought, why not do it. By the next morning, John’s wife, skilled at calligraphy, had hand-printed the Phillips’ challenge on a piece of parchment-like paper.
I, in turn, asked John to write a piece for the first issue of CTR explaining why he felt as he did. It seemed as good a cause as any to launch a new journal on and the Phillips’ interview along with the Juliani commentary would provide the kind of balance that I still thought important. But I hadn’t counted on John’s imagination. Yes, he would do a piece but in interview form, as if he had just been appointed artistic director of some other country’s national theatre, Italy’s national theatre. In this satirical way, he felt the point could be made. But I had to help him again. I had to ask the questions. Once again, I agreed. That night, the two of us did the interview. Both of us, as I recall, asked the questions. Both of us created the answers.
And I was hooked. Right or wrong, in good taste or not, the plot had been hatched and I was off to London. John wished me luck and then, as I left for the airport, he added, a bit too casually, “remember, you also have to slap Phillips with a glove.” Now that really stopped me. Slap him? A glove? Of course. How could someone be challenged to a duel without a slap across the face? What had I gotten myself into? When I finally reached Phillips, he was in rehearsal with a show at the tiny theatre he was running in Greenwich. But if I could come to see him there, he would talk to me. Rehearsals begin at 9 in the morning, he said. Why didn’t I meet him in front of the Greenwich Station at 8. The next morning, I arrived armed with tape recorder and parchment challenge at about 7:45. Waiting for Phillips, though, it suddenly hit me: the glove. I hadn’t brought a glove. At 7:55 I bought the only type of gloves I could find – a pair made of heavy red rubber, the kind used for heavy construction and gardening.. But, by God, they were gloves. Quickly stuffing one in each pocket, I returned to the station. A few minutes later, Phillips arrived and we began to talk.
I asked him if he was aware that his appointment had started a bit of a controversy in Canada. He told me that he “was aware before it happened that it would be happening and said it was very difficult consequently to decide whether or not” to accept the position. “And,” he added, “it’s understandable. We had similar shouts and screams when Zefirelli came over to England to do Romeo and Juliet.”
It was at about that point that I stopped the tape recorder and stood up. “I’d like to ask you a Question off the tape,” I said. He looked at me rather suspiciously. He was clearly baffled. I seized the moment. I withdrew one of the tacky red rubber gloves and brushed it across his face. I then tossed it cavalierly to the ground, reached into my pocket, withdrew the parchment challenge and handed it to him. “I’ve been asked to deliver this to you. Please read it.” He read it. He looked at me somewhat incredulously. I turned the tape recorder back on and asked him the following question.
CTR: I understand that John Juliani has challenged you to a duel. How do you react to that?
PHILLIPS: I’m frankly amazed that anybody should bother for a start. I like his writing. But the most interesting thing is to be challenged with a rubber glove. It’s a quaint connection with the past, I guess, and so that means it should be a glove. But I wonder what disease he thinks he’s going to catch.
CTR: For all the obvious humour, at the root of the challenge is something fairly serious. A director such as John has clearly found your appointment to be an insult to him as a Canadian artist. Do you accept that?
PHILLIPS: No, I can’t accept that at all. No national pride can ever be so closely guarded, so protective of itself to be worried or upset by any sort of challenge from what they consider to be the outside.
A few hours later, I was on my way back home. When I got back, I did manage to include excerpts from this Phillips’ interview – including the challenge segment – on my CBC broadcast. One of the Toronto papers picked it up. Then a Canadian wire service picked it up and soon, the challenge was known right across the country. When the press found that they couldn’t reach John (who was still driving through Europe) they asked me to comment. I tried to decline as politely as I could.
“The challenge speaks for itself,” I said, believing that I was still not involved. But I was involved and by the time the first issue of CTR appeared, the challenge, the Phillips interview and the Juliani interview/satire piece were, to coin a phrase, hot items.
By that time as well, I had also decided to use the Phillips’ appointment as part of my first CTR editorial and the whole thing, as you can imagine, immediately characterized CTR and me as political, as extreme and as non-objective. It did not characterize us as academically respectable or as thoughtful or reflective. Right across the country, theatre people and academics broke into sides over CTR. Even at my own university, sides were drawn up.
What was this new publication? Didn’t it know anything at all about critical distance? Objectivity? Yet I had allowed myself to be drawn in and I had allowed the first issue of what I hoped would be Canada’s first outlet for serious theatrical criticism to be turned into a bit of a scandal. Had I really become an inter-critic without knowing it?
The positive voices, the supportive voices, came along in the weeks and months that followed. Playwrights. Directors. A few critics who had dared to take similar stands. The academic community came along shortly thereafter not quite sure, I think, what this new politically committed journal was but intuitively feeling that something of significance was taking its course.
The Phillips’ incident made me look deeper into myself at that time both as a human being and as a critic working in a developing theatre. I came to understand that a culture in the process of finding and realizing itself does need critical voices on the front lines as much as it needs them in the darkened theatres. It needs engaged, interventionist critics who take cultural positions even at the risk of losing objectivity. The Phillips’ incident made me understand that criticism is not – nor could it ever claim to be – objective if it really wanted to deal with theatre as living culture rather than as theatre simply as a branch of literature or performance. That the myth of critical distance was just that – a myth.
Some of my university colleagues sneered then and some of you may still sneer at the idea of Critic as Activist, at the whole notion of inter-criticism as I have tried to define it here through this very personal story and through this very Canadian series of events. Some may see it as being vulgar. And in some ways it may be. Vulgar is, after all, of the people. But if it is vulgar in the common sense of the word, then the man whom many consider to be the father of modern theatrical criticism – Gottholt Ephraim Lessing – was exceedingly vulgar too, for he dared to provoke, to impose a theatrical as well as a social vision on the marketplace of a disparate collection of regionalized peoples in what was to become Germany some two hundred years ago. In doing so, he created a new form of critical writing, a form that linked creativity and critic in a way that had never been done before. Out of that grew a culture that became the envy of all the world. An inter-critic before his time. His challenges in Hamburg Dramaturgy two hundred years ago are to me what criticism, living criticism, is about. Provocative and creative, connected to ideas like engagement and commitment and society. If we can call that inter-criticism and Lessing the first real inter-critical critic well then maybe the word does have some promise after all as a useful critical tool.
 Don Rubin is the General Editor of Routledge’s six-volume World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre and a Professor of Theatre Studies at York University in Toronto.