All this past week, Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre has been hosting Critical Failure, a series of panels examining the health and relevance of arts criticism in contemporary Oz. Wednesday’s panel was on theatre criticism. In the comfy chairs were Julian Meyrick, director and historian, Alison Croggon, critic and blogger, Stephen Sewell, playwright and provocateur, and Cameron Woodhead, critic and jejune poseur. It turned out a wonderful little four-hander, almost like a well-made play, with secrets revealed, old conflicts revived, touching reconciliations, impassioned monologues, moments of general disorder, comedic repartee and plenty of merry-andrew buffoonery.

But there wasn’t only drama. Despite the tame leads offered by the panel moderator, Peter Mares, the debate covered much interesting ground. While the cut-and-thrust of unstructured argument left the panellists struggling to make their points always exactly coherent, the psychology evidenced as each approached the various topics was truly fascinating and in some instances quite telling.

Stephen Sewell, for example, at times appeared genuinely confused by the entire raison d’etre of modern criticism. At one point he turned to Woodhead, who was at that moment mid-way through a defence of traditional theatre criticism’s claim to objectivity, and announced, “You fascinate me.” Before asking, with wide-eyed perplexity, “What does a critic do?”

Later in the night, Sewell, by then a little more tetchy, confronted Woodhead directly:

SEWELL:           Can I ask you a question? How does theatre matter? Why weren’t the arts a part of the federal election?
WOODHEAD:   Can I ask you a question? Can you imagine life without art?
SEWELL:           That’s a dumb question.

First of all, this snatch of dialogue shows what a great playwright Sewell is. But, second, it also shows how difficult he found it to engage with the issues and attitudes covered by the other panellists. Perhaps his most significant contribution, as the panel’s arts representative, was this very bafflement:

One of the reasons that I find it so difficult to write is that when I do write it appears to have no significance at all, in exactly the same way as 100 000 people can march against the war in Iraq and it not matter one jot.

Which led the panel to unanimously emphasise the important role of criticism in empowering the arts and the different modes of political engagement that artists like Sewell are forever testing. Meyrick added that criticism can’t just sit back and say to art, well, good luck cutting through all that indifference, we hope you succeed, but if you don’t we’ll be here to bag you.

The question of blogging, online criticism and the erosion of critical authority also excited, as expected, some heat. Croggon was enthusiastic about the online potential for dialogue, community and internationalism, and spoke passionately of the advantages that criticism gains when working online. She was especially positive about the rise of amateur critics and the potential for the internet to transform our ideas of where the critic sits in relation to the rest of society. She quoted Jay Rosen and his advice to journalists formerly known as the media: critics should not position themselves above the public, should not claim that they have no stake, no perspective, no situated self. Try to level with the users and let them know where you are coming from. Transparency is the new objectivity.

This didn’t go down well with everyone on the panel:

WOODHEAD:   Sounds like a license for narcissism to me.
CROGGON:       No, I don’t think so, because the idea of objectivity is really just a cover for a rigidly conservative ideology.
WOODHEAD:   Well, were you seriously thinking of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus when you saw Lally Katz’s Terrible Mysteries of the Volcano?
CROGGON:       Yes. I didn’t make it up.
WOODHEAD:   I think sometimes reading your reviews you’re more interested in sounding clever than in telling the truth. [audience splutter] Not that there are not different kinds of truth. [audience laughter] But, but, but there’s obviously a tension there.
MARES:             Yes obviously there’s a tension.

Quod erat demonstrandum, really, regarding the rigidity. Woodhead, representing the kind of authoritarian newspaper-review-as-aesthetic-legislation critic now threatened by the proliferation of published opinion on the internet, seemed genuinely appalled by goings-on online, saying flatly, “My experience of the internet is that it’s full of trolls.” And, although he also bemoaned what he saw as the internet’s low literary standards—

If you sit a monkey at a type writer long enough he’ll write the complete works of Shakespeare. That is basically what we’re seeing. Of course we’ll get all kinds of masterpieces, and the internet will provide us with them, but, you know, generations and generations of humans will live and die and experience nothing but gibberish.

—his chief preoccupation was defamation: not the defamation of theatremakers by reviewers, but the online defamation of print-media critics such as himself: “You see all kinds of year-ten stuff,” he lamented, “like making fun of people’s surnames”. Woodhead, however, saved his sharpest words for fellow panellist Julian Meyrick, who last year sparked controversy when he wrote a letter posted on the Melbourne Theatre Company’s website in which he attacked both Alison Croggon and Cameron Woodhead for their reviews of his production of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party. During the panel discussion, Woodhead called Meyrick out on this letter, describing it as “defamatory” and saying that Meyrick had thrown a “hissy fit”. Meyrick, with a certain air of resignation, offered to explain some of the accusations in his letter, prompting the following exchange:

MEYRICK:        [This whole question of partisanship] is important for both of you, actually, and you may perceive that my manner in that letter was kind of punitive, and it was a little bit, but that wasn’t the only—
WOODHEAD:   Like a whiny little bitch, actually.
MEYRICK:        That doesn’t really characterise me very well.

No, it doesn’t. But it wasn’t the only time during the night when Woodhead, although appalled by gossip and name-calling online, felt compelled to court scandal and scuttlebutt himself, later relating to a sceptical audience how he once overheard MTC Artistic Director and 2010 Helpmann winner (Best Director, Richard III) Simon Phillips, after what Woodhead described as a particularly atrocious production, say, “What else can we do but lie.”

The issue of how critics themselves should respond to criticism was particularly interesting. Croggon appeared to welcome the opportunity for dialogue, explaining to Meyrick that she really appreciated Meyrick’s response to her review. Croggon said that she never considers what she writes as “the last word”. What she longed for, she said, was “intelligent conversation”. Woodhead, on the other hand, was less welcoming of criticism. He said that he hadn’t responded to Meyrick’s letter at the time because he’d wanted to “starve it of oxygen”. He certainly had the bellows out on Wednesday night. When pressed by an audience member to elaborate on his own feelings about being criticised, he admitted that Meyrick’s letter had forced him to “reflect”. He then announced that the real critical failure in Australia was not with criticism, but with how we respond to criticism. He did not specify whether he was thinking of the artist’s response or the criticised critic’s.

Woodhead’s fopdoodle antics were at times plain weird, almost as though he were deliberately trying to sidetrack the discussion. One would almost think he had a vested interest in stifling debate and preserving the status quo. But surely that’s nonsense.

Regardless, interesting points were still made. Meyrick, for example, began an absorbing discussion on the formal aspects of theatre criticism and how it is that the protocols and conventions still employed in contemporary newspaper reviews developed gradually over the hundred years following the emergence of the industrial printing press, and comparing that process with current developments online, noting that the internet is yet to evolve its most important conventions and therefore define itself in terms of its aspirations.

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