Stephen Sondheim über Kritiker

After a rotten review, you don’t remember the good ones. The only pleasure you have is to reiterate, both to yourself and to anyone who’ll listen, the bad ones, which you can quote in exquisite detail. Moreover, you have to come to terms with the truth that no matter how doggedly you try to deceive yourself to the contrary, if you’re going to believe your good reviews, you’re going to have to believe the less good ones as well, unless you’re deeply self-delusional.

When you’re a young writer, critics have you both ways. The praise makes you overestimate yourself, whereas anything less can often leave you disappointed, or angry and impotent. Writing a letter to the newspaper or magazine that has wounded you will only - and always - sound like the whine of a sore loser, again in public. Worse, it encourages critics to think you take them seriously. In either case, you subsequently find yourself brooding, briefly but often, over the unjustified indignities you’ve suffered, dwelling on everything negative published about you in the past - especially when you hit a snag while working. That’s the most pernicious thing about critics: they cause you to waste your time. And did I mention they can steer people away from your show, just as they can hurt sales of your novel, put a crimp in further showings of your paintings, or concerts of your music? They can discourage both you and your audience, which is their ultimate unfortunate effect. Of course, if it’s praise … but let’s not think about that, let’s dwell on the negative.

There are theatre people who claim to be immune to public criticism, and perhaps some really are, but I haven’t met any who have convinced me. When I first entered the arena, and for a long while was not treated kindly by most critics, the reviews had a perversely salubrious effect on me, although I was far from immune. Every time I felt unfairly trashed, I retreated to my copy of Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective, a startling and hilarious, if discomfiting, compendium of published criticism about everyone from Beethoven to Copland. To read the sneering and uncomprehending reviews the likes of Brahms and Ravel received made me feel akin to them, and by association as innovative, brilliant and misunderstood.

Reading reviews of other people’s work is another matter. For many readers a good critic, in whatever field, is someone they agree with or who agrees with them. For me, a good critic is a good writer. A good critic is someone who recognises and acknowledges the artist’s intentions and the work’s aspirations, and judges the work by them, not by what his own objectives would have been. A good critic is so impassioned about his subject that he can persuade you to attend something you’d never have imagined going to. A good critic is an entertaining read. A good critic is hard to find.

Then again, to a certain degree, good critics are no longer necessary to find. The phrase “Everybody’s a critic” has taken on a universal cast. The internet encourages people to share their opinions with the world. In the theatre, the buzz created by chatroom chatters has become increasingly important to a show’s reputation before it opens. There are thousands of critics tapping away their opinions to whoever will listen - so who needs a paid pontificator to tell you what your opinion should be?

Showbusiness chatrooms reveal that the need to criticise is insatiable. They also reveal that there are still people who are enthusiastic about the theatre, who want not only to go, but to talk about what they’ve gone to. The diffidence and short attention spans that pervade so much of our culture were nowhere evident in the lively chatrooms I looked at, although I soon learned not to keep logging on for the same reason I learned not to read my reviews: every group of compliments about my work that started me preening was soon peppered with potshots that unpreened me. And for every piece of thoughtful observation about other people’s work, there was a piece of mean-spirited snottiness - some of which, I regret to say, made me laugh and wish I were young enough again to participate in those kinds of exchanges.

[Aus: »Look, I Made a Hat« von Stephen Sondheim, Virgin Books 2011]


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