SEARCH:  
Twitter Facebook RSS Feed
No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 16th December 2006

Exit, Stage Right


In the five years that I've been the Spectator's drama critic, one of the nicest afternoons I've spent was in the company of my fellow critics. No, not at a matinee, but at a lunch for John Gross who was retiring as the Sunday Telegraph's man in the stalls after 16 years. Charles Spencer made a speech in which he quoted Bernard Levin describing John as "the nicest man in London" and, afterwards, John got up and said the thing he'd enjoyed the most about the job was "getting to know you lot".

I'm now retiring myself, but I can't say that getting to know my colleagues has been the best part of the job. For instance, shortly after my appointment I found myself sitting next to Rhoda Koenig, one of the Independent's critics, at the Donmar Warehouse. I introduced myself and pointed out that we had a mutual friend in the form of James Wolcott, a Vanity Fair columnist.

"To quote Dickens," she said, "we don't have a mutual friend so much as a friend in common."

"Er, what's the difference?"

"Look it up in a dictionary. Don't you get it? I don't want to talk to you. I'm doing my best to ignore the fact that I'm sitting next to you. I find the fact that you're doing theatre criticism an ABSOLUTE DISGRACE."

With that, she got up and moved to another part of the theatre.

Koenig wasn't alone in her disapproval. Kate Bassett (Independent on Sunday) went on the record to dismiss my early reviews as "shockingly ill-informed" and Michael Coveney (whatsonstage.com) wrote a bad-tempered piece in Prospect in which he singled me out as representing a lamentable new trend whereby experts like himself were being replaced by amateurs who knew nothing about the theatre.

To a large extent, I brought this on myself. In my first ever review I made the mistake of confessing that I was such an infrequent visitor to the theatre that I got lost on my way to the National. My intention was to convey that, unlike my predecessor Sheridan Morley, I knew no more about the subject than the average Spectator reader. As an approach to drama criticism, it was the opposite of pedagogic. Most people only go to the theatre two or three times a year and I wanted to experience plays from their perspective rather than that of the expert. (Not that I had much choice.)

In my defence, this was very much the brief that Boris Johnson had outlined when he gave me the job. He said that most readers distrusted drama critics because they were notoriously stage struck and, as a result, too ready to recommend things that ordinary theatregoers wouldn't enjoy. He wanted me to bring a sceptical, outsider's viewpoint to the task. In that way, if I recommended a particular play, the magazine's readers could be fairly confident that you wouldn't need to be a luvvie to enjoy it.

It was this approach, I think, that upset my colleagues. If you didn't need any specialist knowledge of the theatre to qualify as a drama critic--if ignoramuses like me could do it--that meant they could be sacked at any moment. They were particularly incensed when I left in the interval. On one occasion, when I walked out of a play at the National, Nicholas de Jongh called up the Evening Standard Diary to report me.

But it wasn't simply a question of defending their livelihoods. It's one of the shibboleths of the profession that only those who have an enduring love of the theatre should practise drama criticism. In this way, however damning they are of a particular show, they can always claim that their review wasn't prompted by malice. On the contrary, they're on the same side as those they're criticising--they're united by their shared passion for the theatre. Even Frank Rich, the infamous "Butcher of Broadway", fell back on this defence in his farewell piece in the New York Times. Rich quoted Joseph Papp, a high priest of the American theatre, giving him absolution as he lay dying in his hospital bed. "I want you to know," said Papp, "that even when I was angry at you I always knew you loved the theatre."

Ironically, even though I started out believing that this was a flaw in a drama critic, I've gradually succumbed to the theatre's magic. This didn't dawn on me until I attended the press night of Sunday in the Park With George at the Menier Chocolate Factory last year. At this point, I'd seen half a dozen Stephen Sondheim musicals, but his cerebral approach had left me cold. Not Sunday in the Park With George. I sat there in the audience, transported by paroxysms of ecstasy. Because of this, I felt a connection with my colleagues--indeed, with the theatrical community as a whole--that I'd never experienced before. I was no longer an outsider, casting a jaundiced eye over the proceedings. I was one of them.

If I had the courage of my convictions, I would have handed in my notice the following day. After all, now that I'd gone native, I could no longer be relied upon to share the tastes and prejudices of my readers. But I'd fallen so deeply in love with the theatre that I was loathe to give up the job.

The situation was complicated by the fact that I'd started to write plays with Lloyd Evans. I mistakenly thought that my colleagues would be more charitable in their judgement of my work if I was one of them. In fact, it didn't make the slightest bit of difference. They were reasonably nice about our first play and absolutely horrible about our second. One of the qualities I've come to admire in my fellow critics is their refusal to be influenced by anything other than the work under review. In general, they are much less corrupt than literary critics. They're not practitioners of the art they're criticising and, therefore, don't have a vested interest in pulling their punches.

Precisely because of that, my own ambitions as a playwright turned out to be a good reason to give up the job rather than stick with it. How could I trust myself to give an honest appraisal of the latest offering from a West End producer if I hoped that he or she might produce my next play?

Needless to say, my motives for retiring aren't nearly so high-minded. I would have happily carried on, regardless of these qualms, were it not for the fact that my wife is pregnant again. In a few months time, we'll be in the unenviable position of having three children under four and if I continue traipsing into the West End every night, leaving her to hold the fort, my marriage will collapse. She's fed up with being a theatre widow.

God knows I'm going to miss it, though. Giles Gordon, who was the Spectator's drama critic from 1983-84, said it was the best job in journalism and it's hard to disagree. When I first sat down in the stalls, pen hovering above my notepad, I thought there was something a bit silly about the fact that so many highly-educated men and women devoted their lives to putting on plays. It seemed so childish. Five years later, I no longer think it's silly. I think it's rather wonderful.

[ FIXED LINK ] Bookmark and Share





Twitter RT @freespirited_p: Now I see why #momentum and @uklabour want to bring the Venezuelan system here..... link  (4 hours ago)

BEST OF THE WEB

Is classical liberalism conservative? by Yarom Hazony - jerusalemletters.com
The Implosion of Western Liberalism by Patrick Lee Miller - quillette.com
The Eton of the East End - Daily Mail
The reactionary temptation by Andrew Sullivan - nymag.com
The book that scandalised New York intellectuals by Louis Menand - newyorker.com
To understand Britain today, look to the 17th Century by Adrian Wooldridge - economist.com
The crisis in France by Christopher Caldwell - city-journal.org
A Visit to Michaela School by Patrick Alexander - prospectmagazine.co.uk
Why parenting may not matter by Brian Boutwell - quillette.com
Trump Establishment's Cultural Significance Explained by Michael Wolff - newsweek.com
Branching histories of the 2016 referendum by Dominic Cummings - dominiccummings.wordpress.com
Putin's Real Long Game by Molly K McKew - politico.com
The Flight 93 Election by Publius Decius Mus - claremont.org
How the education gap is tearing politics apart by David Runciman - theguardian.com
What's wrong with identity politics by Graeme Archer - conservativehome.com
Grammars and the grain of truth by Jonathan Porter
Anti-Brexit: Britain's new class war by John O'Sullivan - nationalreview.com
The English Revolt by Robert Tombs - newstatesman.com
Democracies end when they are too democratic by Andrew Sullivan - nymag.com
Human beings really are making progress by Steven Pinker - edge.org
What ISIS really wants by Graeme Wood - theatlantic.com
A society ripe for Submission by Douglas Murray - quadrant.org.au
Beware the soft Stalinists of the campus by David Aaronovitch - thetimes.co.uk
Why I'm a Conservative Teacher by Jonathan Porter - conservativeteachers.com
Corbyn's Inconvenient Truth – He wanted the IRA to win - youtu.be
Corbyn's first seven days - theguardian.com
Corbin's cabinet chaos by Darren McCaffrey - news.sky.com
Why I've become Tory scum by Tony Parsons - gq-magazine.co.uk
Inside Westminster's free school - telegraph.co.uk
Jeremy Corbyn's politics are a fantasy – just like Alice in Wonderland by Tony Blair - theguardian.com
Robert Conquest obit - telegraph.co.uk
Jeremy Corbyn is not an anti-Semite – it's so much worse than that - news.stv.tv
In defence of free schools by Toby Young - standpointmag.co.uk
 

BLOGROLL

Andrew Lilico
Andrew Neil
Andrew Sullivan
Arts and Letters Daily
Bagehot's Notebook
BBC News
BBC Sport
Benedict Brogan
Brendan O'Neill
Bruce Anderson
Coffee House
Conservative Home
Damian McBride
Damian Thompson
Dan Hodges
Daniel Hannon
Ed West
Frank Furedi
Guido Fawkes
Harry Phibbs
Iain Dale
Iain Martin
James Delingpole
James Wolcott
Joe Murphy
John Rentoul
Labour List
Mark Steyn
Matt Drudge
Mehdi Hasan
Melanie Phillips
Michael Wolff
Nick Cohen
Nick Robinson
Nikki Finke
Normblog
Paul Waugh
Peter Hitchens
Political Betting
Right Minds
Rob Long
Rod Liddle
Slate
Sophy Ridge
Stephen Pollard
The Arts Desk
The Corner
The Daily Beast
The First Post
The Omnivore
The Onion
Tim Shipman
Tim Stanley
Tom Shone
 

COLUMNISTS

AA Gill
Aidan Hartley
Allison Pearson
Allister Heath
AO Scott
Boris Johnson
Charles Moore
Cosmo Landesman
Daniel Finkelstein
David Brooks
Fraser Nelson
George Monbiot
Giles Coren
Henry Winter
James Delingpole
Jan Moir
Janan Ganesh
Jeremy Clarkson
Jeremy Warner
Jim White
Jonathan Freedland
Lloyd Evans
Manohla Dargis
Martin Samuel
Mary Ann Sieghart
Matthew d'Ancona
Matthew Norman
Maureen Dowd
Michiko Kakutani
Owen Jones
Patrick O'Flynn
Paul Krugman
Peter Bradshaw
Peter Oborne
Philip Collins
Polly Toynbee
Quentin Letts
Rachel Johnson
Rod Liddle
Roy Greenslade
Tim Montgomerie
Trevor Kavanagh
 
UK Book Cover

  • Buy the book on Amazon.co.uk

  • Buy the book on Amazon.com


  • UK Book Cover

  • Buy the book on Amazon.co.uk

  • Buy the book on Amazon.com


  • Audio Book Cover

  • Buy the audio book from
    Whole Story Audio
  • DVD Cover

  • Buy the DVD from Amazon.co.uk

  • Buy the DVD from Amazon.com


  • IMdb Page on the film