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An essay by Israel Zangwill

Critics And People

Title:     Critics And People
Author: Israel Zangwill [More Titles by Zangwill]

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.

Nor am I more certain of the use of the art critic. He is far too conflicting to be of any practical value, and he as often contradicts himself as his fellows. He hides his ignorance in elegant English, sometimes illuminated by epigram, and from his dogmatic verdicts there is no appeal. Not infrequently he is resolved to be a critic "in spite of nature," as Sir Joshua has it in a delicious phrase which was possibly given him by his friend "the great lexicographer." In a letter to the "Idler," the painter recommends those devoid of eye or taste, and with no great disposition to reading and study, to "assume the character of a connoisseur, which may be purchased at a much cheaper rate than that of a critic in poetry." "The remembrance of a few names of painters, with their general characters," says Sir Joshua, "and a few rules of the Academy, which they may pick up among the Painters, will go a great way towards making a very notable Connoisseur." He goes on to describe a gentleman of this cast, whose mouth was full of the cant of Criticism, "which he emitted with that volubility which generally those orators have who annex no ideas to their words."

When I once expressed to Mr. Whistler my conviction that, with the single exception of religion, more nonsense was talked on the subject of art than on any other topic in the world, that great authority refused to allow religion any such precedence. Certainly during the season when, for the middle-class Londoner, art "happens," the claims of art to that proud pre-eminence become overwhelming, if only temporarily so. Everybody gives his opinion freely, and it is worth the price. To criticise painting is only less difficult than to execute it. Fifty per cent. of art is sheer science, the rigid, accurate science of form and perspective, I do not say that accuracy is necessary to art. Still it is what most people presume to judge. But does one person in a hundred know the true proportions of things, or possess the eye to gauge the anatomy of a figure? Owing to the neglect in schools of the rudiments of drawing, our eyes barely note the commonest objects; we remark just enough of their characteristics to identify them. "Consider!" as Mr. John Davidson writes in his "Random Itinerary": "did you ever see a sparrow? You have heard and read about sparrows. The streets are full of them; you know they exist. But you could not describe one, or say what like is its note. You have never seen a sparrow, any more than you have seen the thousand-and-one men and women you passed in Fleet street the last time you walked through it. _Did_ you ever see a sparrow?" And then there is colour. Do you really know what the colour of that landscape is, or what complex hues mantle the surface of yonder all-mirroring pool? Do you know that, the appearance of nature is constantly varying with every change of light and every passing cloud? Do you know how Primrose Hill looks at night? Perhaps you think you know how a haystack looks in the sunlight; yet across the Channel the illustrious Monet devoted months to painting one haystack, making fresh discoveries daily. I do not believe you know how many Roman figures there are on your watch-dial. You probably think there are twelve. But what is far more important, you may be quite devoid of artistic sensibility. Yet you would not hesitate to criticise the Academy or even to be paid for it. I had occasion to buy a doll the other day. It was a she-doll. There seems, by the way, a tremendous preponderance of the fair sex in dolls: what difficult social problems must agitate the Dolls' Houses! This was a pretty doll, with wide blue eyes, and a wealth of golden tow, and an expression of aristocratic innocence on its waxen cheek, faintly flushed with paint, and I bore it home with pride. But when I came to examine it, I found it was but a sawdust abomination. Oh the modelling of the arm, oh the anatomy of the leg, oh the patella proximate to the ankle! I felt that if I gave that doll to the expectant infant, she might grow up to be an art critic. Thus, then, mused I sorrowfully, is the nation's taste made in Germany. We are corrupted from the cradle, even as upon our tombs badly carved angels balance themselves dolefully. Let me make a nation's dolls: I care not who makes its pictures. Was it of these dolls a late President of the Royal Academy was thinking, when he said that the German genius did not find its best expression in plastic art? The Academy will not be permanently improved until we improve our dolls.

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Israel Zangwill's essay: Critics And People