Ethical Context of Theatre Critique

 

Introduction

In addition to theatre studies I am also interested in philosophy. I therefore decided to combine these two disciplines and make them a foundation for the discussion about the emotional and cognitive substrate of the theatre criticism.

The Code of Practice, a document recently promulgated by the International Association of Theatre Critics, is yet another paper that includes demands of moral behaviour, and thus is evidence for the strong presence of ethical assumptions and demands in one more professional activity, in this case, an activity related to art.

 

 

 

It is possible that when a theatre critic performs his/her job, the consolidation of two different areas of emotional experiences, both closely related to the valuation, might occur. One of the areas has aesthetic overtones that result from the artistic and theatrical experience; the other one, moral properties.

As such, these two areas, in the speculative sense, are subjects of two autonomous disciplines of philosophy – that is, aesthetics and ethics – in its theoretical, not empirical sense. Although modern philosophy uses the results of empirical investigation, it does not run this type of investigation by itself; further, it shuns them.

It is worth noting that these two disciplines are derived and primed in axiology. Axiology is the discipline of philosophy that deals with values, i.e., it is the discipline that deals with the essence, source, meaning, properties, types, and forms of values, as well as the values’ means and range of influence, values-related experience, and values comprehension (including the aesthetic and moral values).

 

The concept of theatre critique

In general, the concepts of theatre review and theatre critique are treated as synonymous terms (compare with a different view, emphasizing the autonomy of the concept of theatre review, Skwarczynska 1979, pp. 36-49). It can be assumed that the first has a narrower meaning. It primarily refers to reviewing and evaluating at least one performance presented either at the location where the evaluated team usually performs, or during a theatre event or festival.

Also, it can be assumed that the meaning of the second concept includes the meaning of the first term ­­– the theatre critique can deal with the evaluation of one or more performances. But additionally, the theatre critique sets goals and tasks that may, in someone’s point of view, go beyond the area of the theatre review. Those tasks may include, for instance, the characteristics of the repertoire of one theatre’s season or in general, the repertoire of a particular theatre, the development and achievements of the chosen form of theatre such as drama play or music theatrical performance including operas, operettas, musicals, and ballet. It may also refer to the concept of repertoire, development policy, and fiscal policy of more or less important state institutions. A theatre critic may make suggestions on the topic of the continuation and development of participation in shaping the aesthetic trends on a regional, national, continental, or global scale.

In this paper, however, despite the aforementioned differences, I assume the two concepts can be regarded as having analogous meaning. These are understood as such by Slawomir Świątek (Świątek, 1979, p. 52) and Albert Budzinski, to mention just two authors. The latest author announced in the early twentieth century that he would devote more room in journal Drużyna for „theatre critique, that is theatre review” (1918, p 17). The common ground of the two concepts – in his and my opinion – is marked by the fact that both of them express „judgment, evaluation and articulated opinion” (Budzynski, 1918, p. 14).i Incidentally, in Rozważania metodologiczne (The methodological consideration; part one of the monograph under the title Krytyka teatralna. Rozważania i analizy [Theatre criticism: considerations and analysis], 2000, pp. 11-88), as well as in Krytyka i teatr (Criticism and the theatre, 2009, pp. 5-11) Eleonora Udalska fundamentally avoid the concept of theatre review. In this case, it is an important original and methodologically distinguishing factor. Then, Tomasz Miłkowski (in a humorous text from 2009, pp. 31-37) and others do not avoid this kind of terminological association.

Conclusively, three positions on the relationship between the concepts of theatre review and theatre critique can be distinguished. They indicate:

a) the autonomous status of the concept of theatre review (S. Skwarczynska);

b) the independence status of the concept of theatre critique (E. Udalska);

c) the analogy and the interchangeability of these two concepts.

I’m convinced that the outcome of any dispute concerning the identity or distinctiveness of these two ideas might be influenced by an opinion-making practice. As a reviewer and critic, I’ve experienced that people involved with performing art, as well as people from outside the theatre society, often treat tasks and responsibilities related to these two concepts interchangeably. The lack of a precise indication of the semantic scope of these two concepts – the concept of theatre review and theatre critique – considerably conduces the possible outcome of the dispute. Currently, the more stylish and institutionally popular term seems to be the notion of theatre critique compared to a theatre review. This fact is probably conditioned by the activity of various national associations and the International Association of Theatre Critics, the organizations that are associated with the concept of theatre critique.

Referring the concept of critique to the philosophical tradition, two basic forms of such can be distinguished with regards to the cognitive approach to the reality, which is characterized by philosophers. The most illustrative representation of these forms are – important from the perspective of this paper – to be found in work of two German philosophers: Friedrich Nietzsche and Immanuel Kant. One of them died at the end of nineteenth century, the other, in the early nineteenth century.

In the case of first aforementioned philosopher the critique has a classic form of undermining the already existing philosophical concepts, including, among others, the theory of knowledge, culture, civilization, religion (especially Christianity), and the assumptions of contemporary morals and principles of education. Nietzsche called for a revaluation of all values and setting the theoretical and practical activity of man beyond moral good and evil. He proposed his own, original and memorable, but very controversial, solutions.

In the case of the second aforementioned philosopher, in his main works, entitled Critique of Pure Reason, Critique of Practical Reason, and Critique of the Power of Judgment, the notion of critique apparently plays a leading role. The thinker from Konigsberg didn’t mean peculiar or commonly understood critique. He didn’t understand critique as a way to undermine the tradition of the philosophical legacy, or as a polemic against the contemporary achievements of other thinkers with whom he didn’t agree or whose theory or part of them he rejected. The aim of works of Immanuel Kant is to present a description, explanation, comprehension, and justification of human cognitive qualities, (the author identified as cognitions rational and a priori, as well as, a posteriori, or empirical), human needs and moral and aesthetic objectives (concerning beauty and art)

The utterance of a theatre critic combines these two elements of critique:

1. The first element concerns the negation – in a way that resembles Nietzsche style (for example, in relation to the works of Richard Wagner’s opera) – of what is present, and can therefore become a subject of judgment. This approach is perfectly expressed in Zygmunt Przybylski’s thought that „a good critique is the critique that blames everything, that is a negative critique” (Przybylski, 1878, p. 5). However, according to Kazimierz Gajda (2003, p. 15), Przybylski sought a compromise between this negative critique and positive critique „in order not to ‘frighten’ the audience away from the theatre, and not to ‘discourage’ the actor „(ibid.).

2. The second element is related to an attempt to achieve an unemotional, objective justification of one’s position (Kant style).

Therefore it can be concluded that the content of the considered form of the theatre critique includes:

a) a subjective element, and therefore relative valuation, that is based on experience – observation of the performance;

b) factual arguments derived directly from a variety of source data: for example, domestic or foreign theatrical documents, trade journals, or newspapers or weeklies;

c) a justification that refers to specialized (not commonplace) knowledge of theatre.

Indicated above, the rationale and justification, in this case, play a subordinate role compared to the evaluation of the performance. They authenticate – to a greater or lesser extent – the subjective and intuitive point of view of a critic.

 

Theatre – the value and the cognition

Conclusively, a critic is a person who primarily valuates the artistic facts. A theatrologist primarily aims to describe, explain, and to understand the artistic facts independently from the axiological descriptions. The theatrologist avoids – as much as it is possible: the evaluation and related accusations of subjectivism: the situational ethical approach (that is, when his/her judgment depends on a particular situation, such as additional remuneration); relationism (that is when his/her statement depends, for example, on the social entanglements of the author); and relativism. These approaches prevent the theatrologist’s statement from considering it in the category of logical truth or falsehood, that is, in the light of the formal conventions adopted in the general methodology (Kosiewicz, 2011, pp. 21-85).

I do not agree – in the light of the above statements – with the approach cited by Eleanor Udalska (it’s not her own view) – that the differences between theatrical studies and critique (and reviewing activity) can be erased. This is also the opinion of Artur Zavodsky’ego, who treated theatre critique, as well as the theory of theatre and theatre historiography, as part of theatrical studies. Both theatre critique and theatrical studies deal with the theatrical play, yet each of them in a different way (Udalska, 1979, pp. 13-16). Hence, I lean towards the point of view of Herbert Ihering, who believes that theatre studies and theatre critique should be separated. In his opinion, critique, as opposed to theatrical studies, excludes objectivity (Ihering, 1964, pp. 29-32; Srna, 1979, pp. 25-26).

An evaluative statement as a statement with emotional overtones cannot be valuated with the universal criterion of truth and falsehood. Such a statement contains mainly information about personal or joint emotional attitude towards the artistic event in question. Generally speaking, it indicates whether the artistic event raised appreciation or not.

Kazimierz Ajdukiewicz distinguishes in the humanities (theatrical studies are included within a scope of humanities) descriptive disciplines (idiographic), explanatory disciplines (nomothetic, including comprehensive judgements), as well as the evaluative disciplines (axiological) (Ajdukiewicz, 1985, pp. 306-313). In the case of theatrical studies, however, the statements – as opposed to normative ethics and aesthetics or critical texts with emotional overtones – aim at the evaluation resulting from the comparison of different aesthetic, dramatic, architectural as well as social directions and trends. In the latter case, it regards political, cultural, religious, or economic conditioning of the development or decline of theatre in general. This type of valuation, of more theoretical character, minimizes the subjective emotions. It also is conducive to objective reasoning in theatrical studies. It helps to understand and explain the causes of changeability of various phenomena in theatre, including the differences and similarities between them.

Statements of a theatre critic also include, as was mentioned above, strictly cognitive and non-axiological elements. They include erudite expressions, which show a broad understanding of theatrical studies, history of drama, and theatre history and theory. This also includes knowledge of achievements of particular theatres, teams, or directors, and other relevant facts related to the staging and the reception of particular theatre by audiences and critics. This kind of knowledge factually strengthens the arguments that justify judgment. However, no matter how important the descriptions and explanations of the stage facts (for example, relating to persons participating in the creation of the show, artists or maintenance crew) or other objective data regarding the performance, they will always have a subordinate role in relation to the valuation, i.e., an aesthetic and artistic evaluation of properties of performance.

 

Profession with regards to the legal and ethical standards

Each professional activity and each profession, whether a car driver, a lawyer, a clerk, a businessman, a pilot, a teacher, a doctor, a fruit farmer, an electrician or a locksmith, is determined by relevant rules, regulations, and provisions more or less strictly related to the codes of practice that have administrative, civil and legal character. A violation of these rules may even result in severe criminal penalties.

Therefore, group-related or general moral sanctions have a weaker impact and are less important. What matters is whether the behaviour is (or is not) in conflict with the relevant national law.

It may be assumed – which seems to be consistent with the facts (although it raises a common-sense objection) – that moral norms are external to the rules of practice with pragmatic and utilitarian overtones, which are characteristic for different occupational groups. Those rules are situated beyond moral good and evil. This does not mean that morality cannot punitively affect the offender of legal standards. However, moral norms are of secondary importance and have external resonance, as they don’t have the legally confirmed validity of the principles of professional conduct. If moral principle becomes a part of any form of democratic state law, it ceases to be an ethical norm. It becomes law. Failure to obey law might result – regardless of its legal sanction – in a variety of ethical sanctions.

Ethical sanction may arise, for example, from codes of practice created by various professional groups. A failure to comply with the moral demands included in the professional groups codes of practice bears no signs of illegal activity and does not cause legal penalty. However, it may bring – not only in the case of society connected with theatre – some social and group restrictions, but with no legal overtones.

For example, in the film by Wojciech Hass entitled How to Be Loved, the main character was accused of an artistic collaboration with the Germans in occupied Warsaw. Corporate Peer Court limited (unfairly) her right to practice as an actress.

The unwritten code of practice forbade people connected with theatre to support or collaborate with authorities in governing positions in the early 1980s as a result of martial law. Society connected with theatre was in this respect – albeit with a few scarred exceptions – disciplined and consistent.

The above argumentation – though not as a whole – seeks to show that there are forms of professional activity, which:

  1. primarily have an autotelic character, not pragmatic or utilitarian in the common meaning of these terms;

and

  1. principally realize strictly evaluative aims with a predominantly evaluative task over pragmatic ones. Thus, any theoretical activity associated with the profession cannot be considered mainly in view of the law. In this case, because of the nature of the professional activity, the legal assumption has secondary importance in relation to the primarily task, that is the evaluation.

An example of first feature might be the profession with missionary overtones, the essence of which is to realize a subjectively perceived vocation. Generally it is assumed that the goal of spiritual activity, as in the case of a priest in a Catholic parish, is a specific moral good and connected with the salvation of members of the religious group. The goal of such activity is not the personal benefit of the pastor. Pastoral activity is to fulfil the goal itself, an autotelic goal, not to fulfil the instrumental guidance. He doesn’t treat his charges as a means to achieve self-interest and selfish benefits.

Another example of activity that can be characterized by autotelic cognitive mission is the vocation to certify the deepest human wisdom and knowledge to the extent possible for a human being, is to be found in the activity of Pythagoras, Socrates and Giordano Bruno.ii Pythagoras and Socrates emphasized that they do not practice any profession, but even so, they were in field of philosophy – like Giordano Bruno – the renowned professionals.

The second aforementioned feature concerns, among others, the profession of a theatre critic. But it also includes critics from other forms of art and literature (compare with: Ewa Wąchocka, 1992, pp. 38-59). The critic’s activity aims, above all else, to judge the aesthetic and artistic qualities of a presented work, to express only their point of view, i.e., not be subject to the objective and universal criteria dictating its confirmation or rejection.

The theatre critic’s utterances, just as with any other critic involved with art and literature, are sui generis. Their success and appreciation come from – in addition to the necessary erudite elements, showing a higher or lower theoretical (not evaluative) professional qualification – an intuitive ability to determine the properties of art that deserve special attention: the approval and praise or rejection, and possible practical suggestions. The necessary ground for this intuitive ability is some kind of empathy, the ability to understand the aesthetic and artistic expectations of the general public, or certain societies with more or less sophisticated needs, that are not explicitly expressed and difficult to define. It is important for a theatre critic to have a sort of radar, an ability to anticipate new challenges and directions of the development of performing art.

Source reasoning, the one that a critic reaches by himself, and strictly of a theatrological nature – strengthens the conviction of the rightness of the judgmental reasoning. Ultimately, however, the actual value of the critique is determined mainly by the emotional and evaluative attitude of the recipient.

Even if the critic’s utterance is considered to be unreliable, biased and unfair, the author will not be threatened with legal consequences on condition that the content of the piece doesn’t contain the elements covered by the legal sanction; that doesn’t exceed artistic and aesthetic evaluation – for example, doesn’t contain slander or doesn’t violate personal dignity.

 

Code of Practice – critical remarks

An important solution – in addition to being well prepared for the profession – that may prevent unreliable judgment of the stage events, seems to be a Code of Practice of the theatre critics. The code won’t of course guarantee a good quality of critical utterances. There is no implicational relationship between moral values and a critic’s technique. Knowledge of ethical standards (and even their approval) does not affect directly the accuracy of the aesthetic and artistic judgment of the reviewed works.

Moreover, any normative ethics and related code-based valuation is relative and ambiguous.

The valuation depends on many different factors, including the culture and civilization development of a particular state or nation, the historical traditions and their variable reception, on the religious, ideological, political, parliamentary, governmental, administrative, business, social involvements of the specific theatre society (for example, in Poland during martial law), even on the geographical conditions.

The code in question (presented in its full version in Endnote 3),iii probably involuntarily, undermines the ethical liberalism of John Stuart Mill, who emphasized the appreciation of the human needs of liberty (Mill, 1959, pp. 129ff). The code displays the attempt to limit freedom of expression of theatre critics, imposing on them various moral rules. It is the utilitarianism of rules, which distributes rules and limits the freedom.

A solution for such limitation is the use of utilitarianism of actions. It is to consider the consequences of a particular act, for example, concerning scandalous reviews, judgments, and supporting arguments. It may raise the attempt to neutralize their potential in the form of polemics; it may contribute to minimizing any damage to the person that has been harmed.

Regardless of any theoretical framework or meta-ethical overtones of any code, it is worth it, when creating such code, to minimize doubts, ambiguities, or errors.

But, unfortunately even the first two sentences of the Code of Practice may raise some criticism. The authors state that:

1. „Theatre is among the most interactive of the performing arts.” Although it is indeed true statement, it does not justify the need for the code. Any demands with regard to the profession stem from the statement; the statement does not provide the ethical guidelines. As no obligation cannot be inferred from description of actual states of affairs (Hume, 1947).

2. „As privileged spectators, theatre critics share with audience and performers the same time and space, the same individual and collective stimuli, the same immediate and long-term experience.” Therefore, the question might be raised whether spectators of the after-premiere performances, when there are usually no critics in the audience, actually share the same stage experience?

The main part of the code includes 10 demands with regards to the profession of theatre critics. I would like to share a few doubts regarding some of the statements.

1. The first point states that theatre critics should „write what they believe to serve the best interests of the ideals of the art of theatre.” It is worth noting that based on such a statement it cannot be ruled out that even contemptuous, arrogant, or libellous text can be written – according to its author – in the best interest of the performing art.

2. Point number three suggests, „Theatre critics should speak truthfully.” It has not been determined how the authors of the code understand the truth. At that point I would like to note that a theatre critic that evaluates the aesthetic and artistic content of the performance cannot be seen through the criterion of truth and falsehood in the logical sense, as in the case of formal and empirical sciences, as well as in humanities. This criterion can be applied selectively, for example, in relation to certain factual parts of critique, or to those that refer to the history and theory of theatre. In general, the concept of truth is relative; it depends on, among other things, philosophical, common, and religious points of view.

3. Referring to point number five of the code, which recommends „to motivate discussion”, it can be said that the purpose of critic – apart from the judging the stage phenomena – is to fuel interest in the theatre in general, in the theatre’s current events, and to stimulate an exchange of views, as well as aesthetic and artistic disputes (that is, discussions with the thesis).

4. A kind of paternalism can be heard in the formula of points number two and six. It is assumed – probably unintentionally – that critics need to be protected against the effects of their own actions. The suggestions included in these sections function as a father’s recommendations to the novice that has been lost in the world of art.

a) point number two indicates that the „theatre critics should recognize that their own imaginative experience and knowledge is often limited, and they should be open to new ideas, forms, styles and practice.” It sounds like the instruction addressed to the ignorant.

b) point number six informs theatre critics that they „have to come to the theatrical performance in their best physical and mental condition, and should remain alert throughout the performance.” This resembles an instruction that a teacher is giving to the participants of a school trip to the theatre. You can even add that critics should sit quietly and not shoot slingshots.

6. Point number eight and nine, which relate to the external pressure, corruption and conflict of interest, can be combined into a single statement, with no harm to meaning.

The use of paternalism – even in a mild form in relation to the discerning viewers and specialists in the field of performing arts, as theatre critics certainly are – is unnecessary. Although in the reality of art reviewing some individual failures and distortions certainly happen, and they can and even must be condemned, it is not required to tease the whole society of theatre critics with regulative instruction.

In the twentieth century, many people that exercised the highest functions in the state made various errors – sometimes dramatic – in their professional practice. But no one had the idea to create a universally valid, ethical, and professional code of practice for all presidents, prime ministers and dictators, even though the reckoning of their deeds took sometimes a tragic ending.

 

Jerzy Kosiewicz

 

(translated by Sylwia Willcox)

i Nota bene, the quote by Wacław Budzinski refers only to theatrical criticism, however, contained descriptions are applicable to characteristics of the reviews (after K. Gajda, 2003, p. 39).

ii Nota bene, when referring to the first of these thinkers, we are dealing with the case of autotelic activity; with the vocation of both philosophical and religious overtones. The first aspect is confirmed by the message contained in the anecdote about Pythagoras, in which he ruled that „we, philosophers came to this life from another life, in order not to gain fame or money, but in order to search for nature of things, that is for the reality” (Cicero, V, 3, 7-9, Diogenes Laertius, VIII, 8; Malingrey, 1961, pp. 30-32; Domański, 1996, pp. 3-4). The second aspect is associated with the pious and ascetic moral ethos called the Pythagorean life, derived directly from the principles of ethical rules of Orphicism and the Orphic life. According to the soteriological ethics of Pythagoreans (the ethics of salvation, leading to salvation), the practice of philosophy (for instance, mathematics and astronomy) was – to put the matter in a nutshell – a sign of ascetic behavior and also a form of cult activity.

 

In the case of the second thinker, we are dealing with the moral vocation of strictly philosophical overtones, with uncompromising mission of spreading the truth. Socrates preached that virtue is good, good is associated with knowledge and wisdom. He devoted his life, defending his own innocence to the end, and – related to his own attitude – the universal (in his opinion) moral convictions; he rejected ethical conformism in favor of justice understood in the absolute way (Plato, 1982, pp. 227-307).

 

The third person, Giordano Bruno, above all else valued not so much religious and moral as strictly cognitive, that is, philosophical beliefs about the structure of universe, including convictions about the plurality of worlds, in particular plurality of planetary systems similar to the solar system. Giordano Bruno’s belief system – more revolutionary than the Copernican – includes the vision of the universe, the concept of hilozoism (which assumes that the universe is composed exclusively of organic living beings) and panpsychism (which indicates that all beings have a soul) couldn’t be and wasn’t accepted by the Catholic Church, which fought with such thoughts by means of the Inquisition. Giordano Bruno identified himself with his philosophical vocation, and he didn’t deny it despite the strong urging of the Church, and died for it by being burned in the stake (Suchodolski, 1963, pp. 405-425).

iii International Association of Theatre Critics

Code of Practice

 

Theatre is among the most interactive of the performing arts. As privileged spectators, theatre critics share with audiences and performers the same time and space, the same individual and collective stimuli, the same immediate and long-term experiences. As working theatre commentators, we seek in our individual ways to articulate these interactions as a frame for discussion and as a meaningful part of the interpretation and significance of theatrical performance. The International Association of Theatre Critics therefore urges its members worldwide to accept as an agreed starting point the core professional guidelines articulated in this document.

1. As writers and thinkers in the media and/or as scholars participating in various branches of academic discourse, theatre critics should always remain aware of the norms of their professional practices; they should respect artistic and intellectual freedom, and write what they believe to serve the best interests of the ideals of the art of theatre.

2. Theatre critics should recognize that their own imaginative experience and knowledge is often limited, and they should be open to new ideas, forms, styles and practice.

3. Theatre critics should speak truthfully and respect, in what they say and write, the personal dignity of the artists whose work they are discussing.

4. Theatre critics should be open-minded, and they should, as part of their work, expose prejudice, both artistic and personal.

5. Theatre critics should have as one of their goals a desire to motivate discussion.

6. Theatre critics should strive to come to the theatrical performance in their best physical and mental condition, and should remain alert throughout the performance.

7. Theatre critics should try to describe, analyze and evaluate the theatre performance as precisely and specifically as possible, illustrating their points with concrete examples.

8. Theatre critics should make every possible effort to avoid external pressures and controls, including personal favours and financial enticements.

9. Theatre critics should make every possible effort to avoid any situation which is, or might be perceived to be, a conflict of interest; thus, the critics should decline to review any production with which they are personally involved (or to refuse to serve on a jury if such a production is in competition).

10. Theatre critics should not do anything that would bring into disrepute their profession or practice, their own integrity or that of the art of the theatre.

(IATC – draft February 2010)

 

 

References

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Wąchocka, E. (1992). Krytyka wobec sztuki. [Criticism of art]. In Między sztuką a filozofią. O teorii krytyki artystycznej Stanisława Ignacego Witkiewicza [Between art and philosophy: on the theory of art criticism of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz]. Katowice: Uniwersytet Śląski, p. 38-59.

 

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