I was a critic once. It was forty years ago. I wrote book and movie reviews for my high school newspaper. The only pieces I remember are ones of John le Carré’s novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and the disaster flick The Towering Inferno. I liked giving my opinion—yea on Tinker, Tailor, nay on Inferno—and had no qualms about savaging work executed by professionals, a courageous critical stance enhanced by the certainty that my targets didn’t read The High Times. Since they were relegated to cultural backwaters like London and Hollywood, there was little chance of running into le Carré at the club, or that Steve McQueen would show up at my door to punch me out. Adding to my assurance was the fact that I had no conflicts of interest that could call my motives into question. I harbored no aspirations to write spy novels or disaster movies. I was impeccably above the fray.
I didn’t write about plays because there weren’t any plays to review in Steubenville, Ohio, except in high school, and I acted in those. I knew it was unethical to praise my performance as Jack in The Importance of Being Earnest, even under the pseudonym “Bunbury.” Consequently I never encountered the dilemma—at least I imagine it’s a dilemma—faced by the theatre critic: how to respond to a live performance of a play, knowing that my opinion may alter its subsequent performances, not to mention its future. You can always tell when reading a review has done damage to a show. Actors’ previously unacknowledged subtleties begin to announce themselves. Audience responses (laughter, applause, standing ovations) are divided into “Before the Reviews” and “After the Reviews.”
My career as a critic was brief: two years, tops. My career as a playwright has lasted longer. I’ve received reviews that were pans, raves, mixed, and shrugs. I think I’ve grown a thicker skin, but I always believe the bad reviews and think the good ones were written by my mother. Criticism has a power over me that I can’t shake, especially theatre criticism. I seldom had the chance to see the plays I read about in newspapers and magazines. This was the era of theatre critics like Walter Kerr, Brendan Gill, and Edith Oliver. Years later I became friendly with Edith, but I always felt like I was with a fictional character. I read about, but never saw, plays like Travesties, Follies, Equus, and No Man’s Land, so the reviews were my only experience of them. Even films, which I could see, took up to three months to arrive in the hinterland, and since I always read the reviews as soon as they came out in New York or L.A., the movie often felt like an afterthought, mere confirmation of what had been written by Jack Kroll, Vincent Canby, Andrew Sarris, and—most particularly—Pauline Kael, whose prose was so electric, in praise or disdain, that it was seared into my brain.
Because of this, I can’t escape the nagging conviction that the critic’s opinion is real, whereas the show isn’t. The review, printed in ink, burned into paper in intimidating fonts, is lasting in ways plays and performances, ephemeral and subject to the vagaries of production, can never be. I know it isn’t healthy, but I’m not the only playwright who thinks this. It’s one of the reasons we love to write about critics. It’s our only revenge. Playwrights and screenwriters have defined the critic in ways no critic has ever come close to. Our image of the erudite, scathing, and witty taste-maker comes from Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner, Waldo Lydecker in Laura, Addison DeWitt in All About Eve, and, before them all, Mr. Puff, along with his comrades Sneer and Dangle, in The Critic.
In the film Theatre of Blood, a 1972 gore fest, Vincent Price and Diana Rigg play a ham actor and his daughter who kill-off London’s theatre critics in murders derived from Shakespeare: a head cut off, a heart cut out, a drowning in a butt of malmsey. The critics, played by the likes of Robert Morley, Michael Hordern, Jack Hawkins, and Coral Browne, are depicted as pompous, vain, jealous, groveling, gluttonous, and cruel; and the relish with which they are dispatched is proof the screenplay was written by someone who knew what it was to open a newspaper and find himself dead, and not on the Obituary page.
Sheridan Whiteside was based on Alexander Woolcott, the 20th-century’s most famous critic. So, too, was Waldo Lydecker, but where Kaufman and Hart’s revenge fantasy was benign (Woolcott even acted in the play for a time), Vera Caspary’s version was malignant. Addison DeWitt might be based on another powerful critic, George Jean Nathan, but as written by Joseph Mankiewicz, Addison is the critic Freud would conjure from a patient’s nightmares.
And Puff? Did Sheridan write him as an overblown cartoon, a huge bubble made up of every sin a playwright could imagine of a critic? Yes. And for his crimes, what punishment does Sheridan hand down to Puff? The Critic decides to become a Playwright.
Only one who knows could devise such a hell.