call for competence

There is an interesting conversation happening on Theatre Notes about the role and burden of the critic. Really, any conversation in which libel is thrown around every other paragraph is interesting, but it reminds me (of course it does) of Peter Brook’s The Empty Space:

When the man in the street goes to the theatre he can claim just to serve his own pleasure. When a critic goes to a play, he can say he is just serving the man in the street, but it is not accurate. He is not just a tipster. A critic has a far more important role, an essential one, in fact, for an art without critics would be constantly menaced by far greater dangers. . . . His angriest reaction is valuable–it is a call for competence.

That is not to say there are not bad critics. There are. We all know that there are. They are those who pass judgment without purpose. Those who are concerned with their own cleverness rather than “the man on the street.” But the purpose of the critic is quite noble at its core: “the prices are too high,” and the man on the street “cannot afford to take the risk alone” (Brook). The critic is the Robin Hood of the art scene, though the theaters are rarely all that rich and potential patrons are rarely all that poor.

But possibly more important than the preservation of our patrons’ pocketbooks, the critic protects the audience from seeing crap, and thereby discourages theaters from producing crap through the beauty of capitalism. And we should all be thankful for this: our audiences are continuously bombarded with crap and told this crap is theater, then they are going to stop coming.

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