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Critics And People
by [?]

What is the critic’s duty at the play? Does he represent Art, or does he represent the Public? If he represent Art, then he is but a refracting medium between the purveyor and the public, which will therefore be wofully mistaken if it seek in his critiques a guide to its play-going, as it to some extent does. For while people do not always like a play because they are told it is good, they often refrain from going to see one because they are told it is bad. When I was a dramatic critic–a phrase that merely means I did not pay for my seat–nothing struck me more forcibly than the frequent discrepancy between the opinions of the audience at a premiere and the opinions of the papers. Again and again have I seen an audience moved to laughter and cheers and tears by a play which the great outside public would be informed the next morning was indifferent or worse. The discrepancy was sometimes explicable by claques, which are almost as discreditable to managements as the keeping of tame critics, who eat food out of their hand. Sometimes it was not professional claques, but amateurs come to see a friend’s play en masse, and applauding out of all proportion to its merits, not so much perhaps from friendship as from simple astonishment at finding any merits. But putting aside claques, it remains true that an audience will often heartily enjoy what a critic will heartily damn–sometimes in half a dozen papers, your capable critic being like a six-barrelled revolver. And so–often enough–the piece, after futile efforts to masquerade in the advertisement columns in a turned garment of favourable phrases, dies in an odour of burnt paper; the treasury is robbed of its due returns; and numerous worthy persons to whom it would have given boundless pleasure are deprived of their just enjoyment. The obvious truth is that the public and the critics–the people who pay to see plays and the people who are paid to see plays–have different canons of criticism. Sometimes their judgments coincide, but quite as frequently they disagree. It is the same with popular books. And the reason of this is not far to seek. The critic is not only more cultured than the average playgoer, he is more blase. He knows the stock situations, the stage tricks, the farcical misunderstandings, the machine-made pathos, the dull mechanic round of repartee, the innocent infant who intervenes in a divorce suit (like the Queen’s Proctor), the misprised mother-in-law, the bearded spinster sighing like a furnace, the ingenuous and slangy young person of fifteen with the well-known cheek, and the even more stereotyped personages preserved in Mr. Jerome’s “Stage-land.” They all come, if not from Sheffield, from a perpetual tour in the provinces. The critic knows, too, which plays are taken from the French and which from the English, where the actor is gagging and when he is “fluffy.” A good deal of the disillusionment of the scene is also his: he knows that the hero is not young nor the heroine beautiful, nor the villain as vicious as either.

How different the attitude of the occasional playgoer! Seeing only a tithe of the plays of the day, he neither knows nor cares whether they repeat one another. The most hackneyed device may seem brilliantly original to him, the stalest stage trick as fresh as if just hot from the brain; and jokes that deterred the dove from returning to the ark arride him vastly. Per contra, for his unjaded imagination absolutely new scenes and dialogues have no more novelty than the comparatively aged. Probability or truth to life he demands not, perfection of form were thrown away upon him. His soul melts before the simplest pathos, he is made happy by a happy ending, and when Momus sits on a hat “he openeth his mouth and saith Ha! ha!” He is a flute upon which you may play what false notes you will. In some versions of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” he placidly accepts two Topsies. I s’pec’s one growed out of t’ other. He hath a passion for the real as well as the ideal, and in order to see a fire-engine, or Westminster Bridge, or a snow-storm, he will perspire you two hours at the pit’s mouth. He could see them any day in the street, but it gives him wondrous joy to see them in their wrong places. How absurd, then, for the average critic to be play-taster to the occasional playgoer! He no more represents him than an M. P. represents the baby he kisses. As well might one ask a connoisseur to choose the claret for a back-parlour supper-party. Thus the critic cannot honestly represent the Public. That he cannot represent Art without injuring the Theatre as well as the Public, has already been shown. The conclusion one is driven to is that the critic has no raison d’etre at all in the topical press. There he should be replaced by the reporter. The influence of cultivated criticism should be brought to bear on the drama only from the columns of high-class magazines or books.