Category Archives: quotes

What kind of theatre criticism do we need?

In my informal research on critical thinking on theatre criticism, I have come across an open discussion about theatre criticism held in 2009 in Zagreb, Croatia. Here are a couple of interesting quotes from this discussion, translated into English by yours truly (with the Croatian original, transcribed by yours truly as well).

This is a lateral reaction to the (ongoingly unconstructive) discussion about the critical ethics of Alison Croggon on Cameron Woodhead’s blog. I am not interested in participating in flame wars, but the question of theatre ethics is an interesting, and important one: in particular the questions of the legitimacy of a critic and a criticism; of bias resulting from personal and professional connections (and resulting mutual obligations, however unconscious); and of criticism as an ethical act.

As a preamble, the most interesting quote (for me, personally) about the ethics of theatre criticism in Australia is almost a side remark that John Bailey made in the introduction to his blog, A CAPITAL IDEA – which perhaps says something about the state of the critical debate in Australia:

Disclaimer: This site will be riddled with conflicts of interest which will only sometimes be mentioned. This is because I have PERSONALLY MET and even spoken with hundreds of the many thousands of artists working in Australia today. Just yesterday one came into my shop and bought some rainbow coloured kneepads. A few hours later another came in and bought a nice red jumper. Also, I was once walking home when a really good director pulled up next to me and gave me a lift. It turns out that I used to play SPORTS with his girlfriend, who was driving. I also went to uni with a lot of very talented artists who are now achieving the national and sometimes international recognition they deserve. About a year ago I saw Barry Dickins in the street and said hello and he invited me in for a cup of tea and a crumpet. I had an unexpected dance-off with a FAIRLY FAMOUS WRITER ages ago which ended when she threatened me with a pot of water from the stove. And so forth. Such conflicts of interest can be understood by another name – “HAVING ANY INVOLVEMENT WITH THE ARTS IN MELBOURNE” – and are quite unavoidable. But I like to believe that a certain amount of professionalism and even-handednes will also be on display here.

The following quotes come from Nataša Govedić, possibly the most prominent contemporary theatre critic in Croatia. Govedić writes long-form criticism for Novi list, a highly regarded newspaper published from Rijeka, but increasingly distributed nationally. She is also a theatre scholar, and one of the editors (and one of the theatre critics) of Zarez, the most prominent cultural magazine in Croatia.

I have a lot of professional and personal respect for Nataša Govedić, whose scholarly work has focused on ethics, in performance and performance-making, as well as in theatre writing, writing on theatre, and scholarly writing. I have interviewed her for my thesis, own a book of her essays on performance ethics, and have met her in person – all to my great delight.

Govedić opened the conversation with two statements that I will certainly return to in the future: first quoting Oscar Wilde “It is Criticism, again, that, by concentration, makes culture possible”; and then by stating “Theatre criticism is an art that will exist if it creates the conditions for its own existence.”

I think that the critic is a performer. In other words, the critic performs a few times a week in the daily newspaper, and performs in front of the wide audience of such a newspaper. S/he performs in front of actors, in front of directors. The manner of this performance is very important. So, in terms of performativity, values, argumentation, the encounter between the critic and the creative teams is much more frequent than my personal encounter, as a critic, with individual performers of state theatres. Certain actors may perform four times a year, or even less, and I perform three times a week. And if I am on the public stage three times a week, then people will get to know me. And, in that sense, the critic is undoubtedly NOT outside the process of performance/performativity. And thus s/he is absolutely not PR – I would thus never call myself PR, quite the opposite. The longer I am implicated in this process of performance/performativity, the less it seems to me that my role is to inform the public about what was technically going on [on stage, in the theatre].

If we talk about what criticism might be, it could be, in different senses of the term, a cooperation, centred around this joint, co-creating work. Because the most interesting artsts are themselves terribly self-critical, demolishingly self-critical. They cannot form a single sentence about themselves that isn’t self-denial. Just like critics are certainly to some extent people who create. I therefore don’t see at all why we should insist on such a strong division.

The other thing – I don’t see why we would limit the responsibility of critics to the newspapers, or only to ourselves. There are professional organisations alright, e.g. the Croatian Journalist Association or the Croatian Association of Critics and Theatre Scholars, who do nothing – who meet twice a year, only formally, and I don’t see them contribute to the public dialogue, to the creation of a public, to the creation of context, I haven’t seen them accept the position of a performer. I think that the performer’s position is the most humble, and the most radical, and don’t know why critics should shy away from it. On the contrary, I think s/he should be conscious of it. I think that the critic-as-a-simple-observer has never existed. The critic is always biased, has always held values to some extent, has held an ideology, if you prefer – not just the ideology of the newspaper s/he works for – and there doesn’t exist, nor has ever existed, a neutral critic. Therefore, it is then only fair to honestly admit which values we uphold, and why we believe in certain processes, and why we participate in them. Of course, this doesn’t mean to propagate them.

[The question was: “What kind of criticism, or what kind of critic, do we need? What gives legitimacy to a critic?” The journalist offered a personal view: “For me, it must come from the critic’s work.”]

There is an entire category of scientific evaluation called peer review. When experts evaluate the works of other experts. This often escalates into full-blown wars: there are often deep disagreements about one and the same text, work – and it is often completely impossible to reach a consensus, on any level, on what should be fixed or changed in a text. So clearly, the point of criticism is not in all of us agreeing on how a staged work could be improved. The idea of criticism implies the cultivation of difference among critics, and those critics then having a certain credibility – or not, as the case may be. But they have a certain predictability, that definitely. And it makes them serve as a kind of orientation point, and of course such orientation points should be as many, and as diverse, as possible.

In these discussions about whether criticism should be written by people who clearly have no argument to make, who opt for impressionist reviews – impressionist in the sense of writing down [only] their impressions – I also think that kind of criticism does a lot of damage. But I don’t think it should be censored, because there is a place for such criticism, too. I think what qualifies a critic is first the professional qualification – in the sense that the person needs to know and understand the artform [‘poznavati profesiju’ in original: my translation is arguable]. On the other hand, there is the qualification of seeing… The very fact of sitting in a theatre, day after day, and watching shows is a form of labour, labour which definitely leaves a mark. A critic that gets that kind of education, seriously and with dedication, and then stays to talk to people after the show…

It took me a long time to even accept this idea, that it’s important to talk a lot with people. Now I think it’s as important as to write about theatre. When I started to write criticism, 10 years ago, I was strongly convinced that I have to write, and that I must not talk with the artists, that that’s taboo – because the moment we talk someone is already trying to persuade me. Now I think exactly the opposite, I think one must hear all the arguments and only then have a think about it all. Not so that I can be manipulated, but to reduce to minimum my own manipulation with that visit, that single visit, which was surely not enough to encompass the entire production. It’s rude to claim that one attendance of a show could possibly encompass the extreme complexity of its process. Theatre performances really are different from one night to the other, and the more often we can return to a production, the more ethical we are in that sense.

The entire discussion (for that lone 8-or-so million people who speak Croatian) can be viewed here.

Continue reading “What kind of theatre criticism do we need?” »

Tagged ,


To je ta Evropa, o kojoj piše malograđanski štampa da je velegradska i zapadnjačka, zagrebačka Evropa. Međutim, sve to samo je esplanadska kulisa. Dođite, molim vas, sa mnom prijeko na drugu stranu kolodvora, iza Podvožnjaka, ni dvjesto metara od gradskog centra, slika je zakulisno kobna, kao što je sve fatalno što je zakulisno: trnjanske petrolejke, blato do gležnja, prizemnice s trulim tarabama, seoske bašte (krastavci, tikve, ribiz i grah), kudravi psi bez marke, krave na melankoličnom povratku iz Vrbika, u predvečerje, selendra bez građevinskog reda, bez plana, sve gnjile kolibe s vlažnom horizontalom vodene razine od posljednje katastrofalne poplave koja se tu javlja s matematskom neizbježnošću: sezonski pravilno dvaput, svakog proljeća i svake jeseni, već kako padaju kiše oko Rjavine i Mezaklje na Feldesu. Patke po barama, otvorene toalete, malarija, tifus i sedam hiljada drugih bolesti, kao sudbina felaha u nilskoj Delti, sve sivo, sve bolesno, sve beznadno, sve antipatično, sve balkanska tužna provincija, gdje ljudi stanuju na smeću, gdje ljudi krepavaju kao pacovi, gdje slabokrvna djeca crkavaju od gladi i gdje se uopće krevapa više nego živi u ljudskom smislu […]

Skretati pozornost na prosjačku, zakulisnu bijedu nekih dekorativnih laži nije nikakvo naročito otkriće, ali kad se te dekorativne laži uzdižu na žrtvenik jednog samozaljubljenog idolopoklonstva, koje iz dana u dan sve više gubi najminimalniji smisao za procjenu istinitih vrijednosti, onda nam upravo ljubav za bijedu i neimaštinu naše stvarnosti nalaže da istini pogledamo u oči smionim i otvorenim pogledom.

Stefan Treskanica, Ukrudbene povjesnice, Zarez, XIV/346, p.25


A perfect description of privilege

Stepan Arkadyevitch had learned easily at school, thanks to his excellent abilities, but he had been idle and mischievous, and therefore was one of the lowest in his class. But in spite of his habitually dissipated mode of life, his inferior grade in the service, and his comparative youth, he occupied the honorable and lucrative position of president of one of the government boards at Moscow. This post he had received through his sister Anna’s husband, Alexey Alexandrovitch Karenin, who held one of the most important positions in the ministry to whose department the Moscow office belonged. But if Karenin had not got his brother- in-law this berth, then through a hundred other personages— brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles, and aunts—Stiva Oblonsky would have received this post, or some other similar one, together with the salary of six thousand absolutely needful for him, as his affairs, in spite of his wife’s considerable property, were in an embarrassed condition.

Half Moscow and Petersburg were friends and relations of Stepan Arkadyevitch. He was born in the midst of those who had been and are the powerful ones of this world. One-third of the men in the government, the older men, had been friends of his father’s, and had known him in petticoats; another third were his intimate chums, and the remainder were friendly acquaintances. Consequently the distributors of earthly blessings in the shape of places, rents, shares, and such, were all his friends, and could not overlook one of their own set; and Oblonsky had no need to make any special exertion to get a lucrative post. He had only not to refuse things, not to show jealousy, not to be quarrelsome or take offense, all of which from his characteristic good nature he never did. It would have struck him as absurd if he had been told that he would not get a position with the salary he required, especially as he expected nothing out of the way; he only wanted what the men of his own age and standing did get, and he was no worse qualified for performing duties of the kind than any other man.

– Anna Karenina, by Lev Tolstoy, via Project Gutenberg.


But how can you write?

My week in Chefchaouen is full of these snapshots, vivid in colour and deeply etched in my mind. But none is as close to the surface as that moment when I opened my eyes to a group of children, staring at me with total discombobulation. I smiled slowly and the eldest came forward.

“What are you doing?” He asked in French

“I’m writing.”


“Because I want to remember.”


“Because I think your town is beautiful, and I want to capture that beauty so I don’t lose any of it later.”

“But how are you writing?” he asked, more forcefully this time.

“Pardon me?”

“How…” he said gesturing to my notebook impatiently, “HOW?”

Impasse. I wasn’t sure what he was asking me. Was it a permission problem or a question about what I planned to do with those words? I closed the notebook carefully, not wanting to lose the memories I had already jotted down. The children all stared at me, foreheads knotted, until a smaller girl came to the front and plopped down in front of me on the stoop, staring up at my face with wide eyes. She took my pen and mimicked what I was doing, then stopped and stared up at me for approval. I gave her a hug, still concerned that I had somehow offended my impromptu hosts.

“How?” He asked again, more softly.

A man walked by, slowing down when he saw the kids surrounding me and pausing entirely when he caught a glimpse of my baffled state. He spoke with the eldest in Arabic, and then he said what stuck with me ever since:

“Often, the women here cannot write. They think you are in your teens, and they want to know why you, as a woman, can write but many of the women here cannot.”

from Vivid Memories in Chefchaouen, Morocco, by Jodi of Legal Nomads.


With all the money we need to buy guns…

This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it – that we are really just a nation of 220 million used car selesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.

– Hunter S. Thompson

I was cleaning up my Google Docs, when I found this quote, sitting solitary on an empty page. I no longer know why it was so important to preserve it, however many years ago, and whether it related to some specific US event, or some relationship I felt it had to the aggressive entitlement of Australians to keep comfortable, no matter what harm it did to others. The younger self is another person. Still, it is like getting a message from someone who used to be important to us, even if they no longer are.

Occupy relationally

But there was one ramshackle piece of relational art that I thought really did have enormous potential: Occupy Melbourne. Artists were involved in this movement both here and internationally; overseas, the symbolic gesture attracted charismatic speakers. In Australia, the reaction was incurious, philistine and brutal; but in New York, the theorist Slavoj Zizek spoke eloquently about the point of Occupy Wall Street: ”We are allowed to think about alternatives,” he said. If art could make space for that to happen, it’s performing a valuable function and a good year’s work.

Robert Nelson in The Age: Reflecting on art’s paradoxes.

On Pina Bausch

Pina Bausch photographed by © Gert Weigelt.

What was it that attracted people to the Tanztheater of Pina Bausch (and her colleagues like Johann Kresnik in Bremen, Gerhard Bohner in Darmstadt, Reinhild Hoffmann und Susanne Linke in Bochum and a little later Sasha Waltz in Berlin – not to mention smaller cities like Freiburg, Heidelberg, Bielefeld and Muenster)? I think, first of all, that Tanztheater dealt with the problems of the young generation that had grown up in Germany after the war. It was a protest against the establishment generation, its parents who had been responsible for Germany’s decline under the Nazis. That meant clearing away all convention, all assumptions on which society rested. Theatrewise it meant tearing down the frontiers between the separate departments of drama, opera and ballet, with the dancers beginning to speak and to sing and to tell stories of their growing up and their problems with puberty, about their most private and actual conflicts and the difficulty of accepting themselves. These were the top topics of what they called their pieces instead of – as formerly – plays, operas and ballets. There was constantly the crossing of borders and a stylistic melange from all sorts of sources. Pina often arranged her dancers in revue formations or let them tell or bawl out in songs reminiscing about the past or telling of their hopes for the future. And while classic enchainements were generally (though not completely) banned like devil’s work, imports and adaptations from other areas like sport, acrobatics, cabaret, musicals and the movies, also from other ethnic cultures, became commonplace.

The best article on Pina Bausch in English I have found so far, and well worth a read. *

* The article originally appeared in DanceView. A Quarterly Review of Dance, Vol. 26, No. 4 Autumn 2009.


The Stage / Features / Elfriede Jelinek: Game on

An interesting (albeit short) little interview wth Elfriede Jelinek in The Stage, with Simon Stephens, sparked by the premiere of Ein Sportstück (something like, A Piece on Sport, here translated as Sports Play).

What do you learn from watching your plays?

Unfortunately I can no longer watch my plays because I suffer from an anxiety illness and can no longer visit the theatre. So I lack this experience. In earlier times, when I could still go, I did watch the plays but I didn’t learn anything, except that I had to find a different form than that of dialogue, but that was something I already knew beforehand.

We’re shamed by your absence from our major stages. How Austrian do you consider your writing to be? How Germanic?

I’m sorry, too, that British stages don’t seem to have an interest in my texts. I think that’s also due to the different tradition. I simply don’t write any ‘well made plays’. I wouldn’t be able to either, even if I tried.Owing to my illness, I live a very reclusive life, so I wouldn’t even know anymore how people talk to each other nowadays. Therefore I have to let ideas and ideologies compete against each other – another sports metaphor. In any case, I come from the Austrian literary tradition, which is really quite different from the German tradition.In Austria, there has always been a receptive audience for texts that critique language – texts that let language itself speak, as it were – from the language philosophy of early Wittgenstein and the language critic Karl Kraus through to the Vienna Group of the postwar era. In Germany I don’t see this. I drive language on, all the way to the worst pun – something I am always accused of – so that language has to say the truth, even against its will.


On the difficulty young Americans have with using the language of moral evaluation, rather than entrepreneurialism.

The student discussion was smart, civil and illuminating. But I was struck by the unspoken assumptions. Many of these students seem to have a blinkered view of their options. There’s crass but affluent investment banking. There’s the poor but noble nonprofit world. And then there is the world of high-tech start-ups, which magically provides money and coolness simultaneously. But there was little interest in or awareness of the ministry, the military, the academy, government service or the zillion other sectors.

Furthermore, few students showed any interest in working for a company that actually makes products. It sometimes seems that good students at schools in blue states go into service capitalism consulting and finance while good students in red states go into production capitalism Procter & Gamble, John Deere, AutoZone.

The discussion also reinforced a thought I’ve had in many other contexts: that community service has become a patch for morality. Many people today have not been given vocabularies to talk about what virtue is, what character consists of, and in which way excellence lies, so they just talk about community service, figuring that if you are doing the sort of work that Bono celebrates then you must be a good person.

Let’s put it differently. Many people today find it easy to use the vocabulary of entrepreneurialism, whether they are in business or social entrepreneurs. This is a utilitarian vocabulary. How can I serve the greatest number? How can I most productively apply my talents to the problems of the world? It’s about resource allocation.

People are less good at using the vocabulary of moral evaluation, which is less about what sort of career path you choose than what sort of person you are.

In whatever field you go into, you will face greed, frustration and failure. You may find your life challenged by depression, alcoholism, infidelity, your own stupidity and self-indulgence. So how should you structure your soul to prepare for this? Simply working at Amnesty International instead of McKinsey is not necessarily going to help you with these primal character tests.

Furthermore, how do you achieve excellence? Around what ultimate purpose should your life revolve? Are you capable of heroic self-sacrifice or is life just a series of achievement hoops? These, too, are not analytic questions about what to do. They require literary distinctions and moral evaluations.

When I read the Stanford discussion thread, I saw young people with deep moral yearnings. But they tended to convert moral questions into resource allocation questions; questions about how to be into questions about what to do.

It’s worth noting that you can devote your life to community service and be a total schmuck. You can spend your life on Wall Street and be a hero. Understanding heroism and schmuckdom requires fewer Excel spreadsheets, more Dostoyevsky and the Book of Job.

via The Service Patch –


New York can do that to you," he says, smiling. "You come here to change the world but you end up changing yourself."

via Michael Stipe: I often find myself at a loss for words – interview | Music | The Observer.