Monkey Business: How Theatre Makers, Critics and Audiences Came To Distrust Each Other

 

If a monkey were given a typewriter and enough time, he would put on paper all of Shakespeare. This is common knowledge and ancient wisdom. Ancient, because it mentions a typewriter, and not a laptop. Note also that English is the language of monkeys. No self-respecting monkey would waste a thousand years to reproduce something in Finnish, or Georgian, or Latin, even if the result were a classic.

But if one were to ask the general public, it is not Shakespeare that the monkeys are busy with. It is criticism. Over millions of morning newspapers readers cry out loud in frustration ‘any monkey could write that!’ meaning, anybody could write a more perceptive article than the critic.

In fact, often it is true. When I gave lessons to young future journalists, instead of showering them with instructions I showed them warning examples: don’t write like this. And where did I get all those bad examples, those stupid sentences? From a website which collects everything that critics publish in Finnish newspapers. I told my pupils to do the opposite: be precise, know your grammar, and know what you are talking about.

 

The triangle of theatre makers, critics and audiences depend on each other. In this paper I first describe the interdependency, the balance of terror if you like. Then I will trace reasons, why the triangle is collapsing in mutual distrust.

The arrangement used to be solid just because it was so flexible. Two corners of the triangle always used to be picking on the third. This is called art talk, and it was kept alive by the coming and going of alliances between the corners of the triangle.

As long as the corners were aware of their interdependency, they would not hurt each other in earnest. E.g. theatre makers could lure the audience into believing that these groups communicate directly and that critics are only a hindrance in that perfect understanding. Or, critics could side with theatre makers as defenders of art with a capital A. Or, audiences and critics could join forces in disapproving the celebrity arrogance of artists. The corners of the triangle took turns in feeling superior.

Now that this arrangement has become invalid, it is more difficult to justify that public funding participate in the maintenance of art talk. There are growing doubts that art talk is not among mankind’s greatest achievements, but rather a self-congratulatory lie.

 

Let us begin in the theatre makers’ corner. The invitation to this symposium mentions the idea that some theatre makers claim to work on the level with the audience. I love this cliché! It means two things only. Either the theatre makers are artistically and intellectually so lazy and incompetent that they are unable to create anything that would surpass what the audience already knows. Or they make theatre for children.

Children’s theatre always gets a good word in ceremonial speeches, but among theatre makers it is not in high esteem. Those who for one reason or another must do children’s theatre claim that a child audience does not forgive even a tiny lapse of intensity from the performers. That a child audience cannot be fooled into applauding something which is not genuinely good. That it actually takes more skill to perform to a child audience than to grownups. This is rubbish, of course.

Nothing could be easier than to manipulate children. If the performance is going nowhere, simply give a fart, and your child audience is royally entertained and will accept anything from the stage, in anticipation of the next fart. For the sake of clarity: I do not object to farting on stage, but to cynical farting, which is not a celebration of liberated air, but a false cover for a lazy and incompetent intellect.

Speaking of children, theirs is an extremely conservative taste. Anyone who has trained his or her baby to eat knows this. If a baby could decide, he would repeat the taste of his first-ever meal for the rest of his life: mashed carrot with mashed apple and mashed potato. They are the foodstuffs which gradually replace breastfeeding from the age of three months. It is the parents’ responsibility to introduce new tastes to the baby. Likewise, audiences must be raised to try and eventually enjoy new tastes in art. This is the task of both theatre makers and critics.

Babies do not know the outside world. They have no idea about the rich variety of oral pleasure which exists beyond their mothers’ breasts. Grownups, however, are aware of a wide range of possibilities out there, but still, grownups prefer hamburgers and pizzas. It is difficult to imagine that people who strive for bad quality in their daily bread would be willing to make an effort to develop their taste in arts.

 

Finnish jazz critic Jukka Hauru says that in jazz and rock festivals there is no longer anything for the critic to write about. Those festivals are not about musical and artistic quality, but about the overall atmosphere. Mr Hauru calls this ‘the totalitarianism of light entertainment’, where an unwritten law forbids one to criticize mass culture (Helsingin Sanomat July 22, 2010). Indeed, newspapers often cover festivals with reportage instead of criticism. The reporter asks members of the audience if they are having fun.

It is acceptable never to abandon the pop/rock music of one’s younger years. (My generation grew up in the belief that Gary Glitter and Sugar Baby Love by The Rubettes were unsurpassable artistic achievements.) With some reservation, the same goes for motion pictures, but in relation to other art forms it is only human to expect some development.

In today’s society it is important to stay young till one’s dying day, which means that grownups act against their age and against their knowledge. We stubbornly eat our teenage favourites, hamburgers and pizzas, even though we know they make us fat and sick. We read detective stories instead of literature.

In the theatre it is different. It is common knowledge and ancient wisdom that theatre does not attract enough young viewers. This is something both theatre makers and the press always worry about. I wonder why the young are worshipped, because it is educated women over forty years old, who buy most of the tickets. Without their presence theatre could not survive. Why cannot we simply admit that theatre belongs to women over forty? Why would it be so bad if they have something of their own in the arts? The young have their music and their computer games. Besides, there will always be a few misfits, who enthuse about theatre from an early age. Let us support them in their belief that this enthusiasm makes them the brightest of their generation.

And what is more, educated women over forty still recognize good acting when they see it, because their past has made them familiar with it. Two thousand characters is the maximum allowed to me when writing about a performance. When criticism is so short, there is no space to evaluate actors. When nothing is ever said about the quality of acting, audiences start to believe that exposure means quality. If one sees a particular actor in television soaps or commercials or game shows or human interest interviews, consequently he must be good, because he is in demand.

At the same time we critics lose our ability to analyze and describe acting; after all, it is an unnecessary relic. The same goes for actors. If there is no one who would appreciate their best efforts, why bother.

At the moment critics often circumvent any opportunity to write about acting. We characterize the role with an adjective and put it in front of the actor’s name, as if role and actor were one. Here are three illustrations. These could be actual quotes, but they are imaginary examples: ’He was a natural in the role of the monkey. He was an intense Hamlet. She was a fragile yet aggressive Ophelia.’ It may be accurate to describe Ophelia in some production with these adjectives, but what I would like to read is how she did it. Did the actress use certain gestures or other means, and if so, to what extent and with what consistency? Did she build her interpretation against the interpretation of Hamlet, or against whom, or with whom? What critics do is we paraphrase the dialogue of a character to describe the interpretation of the actor; we depend on words. If you think that is difficult, try The Sound of Silence by the Latvian director Alvis Hermanis. Three hours with no dialogue. How does a critic trace and analyze character building?

 

When one takes a step back from the triangle of theatre makers, audiences and critics, in the bigger picture one sees that behind each corner of the triangle there looms a threatening figure. They are the real culprits. I am aware that this sounds like a conspiracy theory.

Behind the audience is their sheer mass. Behind the theatre makers there are the art institutions. Behind the critics, meaning, in support of the critics, there used to be the media owners and publishers. They have withdrawn their support. In the bigger picture the triangle is just something that media owners kick around. Media owners used to see covering the arts as an end in itself, as their share in building the society, but this is no longer the case.

A major Finnish newspaper is toying with an idea to replace criticism with text messages from readers (Kritiikin uutiset 1/2010). One reader of Aamulehti says that ‘critics possess no superior expertise or perspective compared to any man in the street’. The newspaper answered this reader that ‘indeed the significance of criticism should not be overestimated, because a critic expresses nothing more than his own opinions’.

To me this speaks of the panic which the internet and its social media have created among newspaper publishers. They will throw away any content which does not bear a resemblance to internet discussions or Facebook updates.

Give a monkey endless time and a typewriter, and he will reproduce all of Shakespeare. Yes, and give a publisher modern communication technology, and he will reproduce random words endless times. And not only that, but he will charge you every time this eternally recycling loop attacks your eyes and ears. Remember that it all began when you paid for the privilege of sending your text message review to the paper. From a media consumer’s point of view this must be monkey business.

You may think the 160 characters of a text message is too short to write a proper piece of criticism. But if a paper will print text messages from ten readers, it can be defended as something better than a mere opinion of one critic; it is a multitude of voices and a democratic diversity of perspectives, or so the publisher would have us believe.

In internet discussions it is the number of clicks that counts. It is not at all about the content or quality of the contributions. Internet discussions simply pile reaction on reaction. All reactions are equal, but the combined force of zero content is, nevertheless, huge. Finnish quality newspapers moderate their internet discussions, but if one reads them for ten minutes, one loses all hope of a better tomorrow for mankind. It is a never-ending avalanche of hatred, racism, prejudice.

 

To continue in the vein of conspiracy theories, art is something where a hierarchy based on expertise can be abolished, because art is unimportant. Art keeps us occupied so that we pay no attention to real decisions being made elsewhere. We worry about the marital bliss of a fictional couple and could not care less about a nuclear power plant being built in our backyard. Critics cannot write about performances which do not exist, and audiences cannot ask for performances which have not been created. It is the theatre makers’ task to see what is wrong with society. One example is Ylioppilasteatteri (Student Theatre) in Helsinki and their performances Valtuusto (The City Council, 2007) and Välikysymys (The Interpellation Debate, 2008). The dramaturges Susanna Kuparinen and Ruusu Haarla edited the minutes of specific city council meetings into theatre, which blows the politicians’ cover in their very own words.

 

Media publishers have shortened every piece of criticism down to far-too-short. There is no space for the critic to give reasons as to why a performance is bad. Therefore, the critic will avoid labelling something as bad, because the critic takes a responsibility for what he writes. Shortness makes criticism so non-committal that it is useless, just as media owners would have audiences say.

For a few years now I have watched performances knowing that all this analyzing is in vain, because I have not enough space to report my findings. I have motivated myself by thinking that watching theatre is an enriching experience for me individually, even though I will never be able to share my wisdom. But with these riches of my inner world, when I go to the exchange desk of the real world, I get nothing. In order to keep believing in the value of one’s inner treasures, one needs a fair amount of self-deception.

To spare us critics from continuous self-humiliation I suggest theatre premieres take their first intermission fifteen minutes into the show. That is a good time for the critics to leave. By then we have already seen more than we will be allowed to publish.

 

Matti Linnavuori

 

Matti Linnavuori, freelance thatre critic since 1980 for Finnish newspapers nad periodicals. Empoloyed by BBC in London in 1985. Writer, co-writer of stage play at Koko-Teatteri in Helsinki, 2006. Since 2009 a member of the editorial board of Crital Stages, the IATC web journal.

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