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Sunday, November 04, 2012

Critical Signoff

From the Vault Dept.: In honor of today’s Critics Roundtable, of which I was a participant – part of the Capital Rep-Proctors Theatre Next Act new play festival – here’s my 1987 review of critic John Simon’s appearance at Union College. And a sidenote of trivia. Kenneth Mars plays a character named Hugh Simon in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 film comedy “What’s Up, Doc?” and modeled the character’s manner and accent after the notoriously acerbic critic.


Calmly, quietly, and wearing a handsome suit, acid-tongued John Simon spoke at Union College last night ostensibly to herald a series of classic movies but actually to pay eloquent tribute to the role of the professional critic.

John Simon
“There is,” he stated, “in the American public consciousness, as it surveys the performing arts, a strong sympathy for what sells, because it is entertainment, and an equally strong aversion to what fails, because it contains too little fun, or too much art, and is either way boring or depressing.

“So, if performing arts criticism at the present has a primary function, it is to convey to the public that the word “arts” is of equal importance in that term as the word “performing.” And that art is not only not the opposite of entertainment, but indeed a bigger, better, more lasting form of it.”

And he added, with his delightful flair for despair, “To bring this truth home to an appreciable number of theater- and film-goers may well be a lost cause.”

Which precisely is why the critic should continue the struggle, Simon maintains. He is the drama critic for New York magazine and film critic for National Review, and maintains that there is less difference between the two disciplines than supposed purists suggest.

More important is the preparation the critic himself receives, through keen absorption of the entire spectrum of the arts, through example and, of course, criticism.

Simon defined criticism as “seeing more sharply, comprehending more deeply, and expressing oneself more suggestively (than the audience). The critic who knows only as much as the audience does not know enough to be a critic. And hardly enough to be a reviewer.”

Using examples from such other respected critics as Wilfrid Sheed, James Agee and Kenneth Tynan, Simon burrowed into the viscera of the critical document itself, illuminating how the good critic must combine that knowledge with a keen use of language.

Above all, however, he stressed the need for courage and independence of thought. “A job that requires belief in one’s unerringness must be squared with the realities of a life that is made up largely of errors.”

“Still, the Pope has managed to reconcile his infallibility ex cathedra, with his fallibility the rest of the time, and the critic can draw some encouragement from that.”

The summary was as shrewd as it was opinionated, and there seemed to be a general warmth of agreement among the many critics who audited the talk:

“For the critic today falls a difficult four-fold task. One: he must convey to the public that greater knowledge and keener understanding of the arts are more than expendable frills.

“Two: he must persuade people that he possesses such knowledge and understanding, which causes them to resent him doubly; first, because everyone knows himself to be an expert on theater and film, and second, because a display of superior understanding of anything (with the possible exception of hard science) is manifestly undemocratic.

“Three: he must have the skill, wit, charm, poetry, persuasiveness to make people swallow that bitter, undemocratic pill anyway.

“Four: he must also have the humility, grace and the reasonableness not to turn himself, or allow others to turn him, into an oracle. To enthusiasts who tell him that they read him religiously he must have the good sense to say that he would rather be read atheistically, or at least agnostically.”

“Criticism can only thrive among free-thinkers.”

Although Simon offered to spend a question-and-answer period discussing current films, the audience preferred to remain in the philosophical realm, discussing matters as diverse as the attitude a critic should bring to a community-theater production and how a critic can get more money from an editor (“Make yourself indispensable”).

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, October 6, 1987

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