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Why is bad theatre so bad? And why is it everywhere?

Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Critic (1779) and Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound (1968), two comedies written 189 years apart, are haunted by these questions. Both plays are set in the theatre itself, and both provide veritable taxonomies of artless artifice, of style lacking in sense or sensibility, of stage contraptions too cunningly contrived to be understood. In doing so, both contemplate the stories we tell ourselves, namely, their ridiculousness, their triteness, their lack of inspiration. Both plays stare into the abyss of theatre history. The abyss stares back and calls for line.

In many ways, The Critic and The Real Inspector Hound reflect each other. Both plays were written by authors who had spent years working in the theatre in roles other than playwright. Written by non-native Englishmen—Sheridan was Irish, and Stoppard has described himself as “a bounced Czech”—both exhibit the double-consciousness of the foreigner, alert to the oddness of local custom while exhibiting the immigrant’s fondness for their adopted homeland’s kitsch. Expert scavengers both, Sheridan and Stoppard also base their plays off preexisting works. Both are preoccupied by theatrical trends which proliferate in one generation only to linger on, far past their expiration date. And both prominently feature the archetypal bugaboo of modern theatre practice: the critic.

The Critic is Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s adaptation of The Rehearsal (1672), a vicious lampoon of England’s poet laureate John Dryden by his jealous rival George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham. Along with Molière’s Versailles Impromptu (1663), The Rehearsal is perhaps the first example of the “in-the-theatre” play, inaugurating a subgenre that stretches all the way to Michael Frayn’s Noises Off (1982). True, Hamlet staged “The Mousetrap” in Elsinore, and the Rude Mechanicals performed “Pyramus and Thisbe” in the Athenian court, but in Shakespeare’s dramaturgy, the play-within-the-play is typically confined to one act, and it recapitulates the larger, often political plot in microcosm. The “in-the-theatre play,” conversely, shifts its focus to the stage itself, with an attendant shift in social class. Whereas Shakespeare only allowed aristocrats to pass judgment, such as the wryly amused Theseus or Claudius, who storms out in a show of disapprobation, these plays show a world in which the primary consumers of the theatre are a paying public.

The first act of The Critic registers this profound change. The late 18th century was the golden age of print as a mass medium, and Sheridan was quick to understand its revolutionary effect on the flow of information. Newspapers today may seem like a foregone conclusion, but in 1778 they were akin to the internet: a terrifyingly disruptive technology. This was a world in which the publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776) led to revolutions in America and France.

One can sense this anxiety in the opening moments of Sheridan’s play, as the Dangles argue over newspaper reports of revolt in the colonies, financial markets in disarray, and something altogether more dangerous: dramatic criticism. As Sheridan recognized, broadsheet journalism enabled the creation of a new class of theatrical intelligentsia, capable of shaping public opinion much as one would play the stocks (another 18th-century phenomenon). As Mr. Puff, the high priest of this game, attests, “the clever Critic can create a sort of market. When a Critic writes a positive notice for an author not yet known, he’s buying the fellow low and sending his value up. The trick is knowing when the bubble’s about to burst, especially if the fellow wasn’t any good to begin with.”

Fast forward to the opening lines of Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound. In Stoppard’s inset theatrical, Sheridan’s lampoon of sub-Shakespearean bombast has been replaced by Stoppard’s loathing (with fondness) for mousetrap plots, the former’s heroic rhymed couplets for the latter’s second-string Sherlocks, yet somewhat surprisingly not much seems to have changed. The stage is still a meaningless diversion, the critics’ judgments still arbitrary. “Me and the lads have had a meeting in the bar,” local provincial critic Birdboot tells his second-string compatriot Moon, “and decided it’s first-class family entertainment, but if it goes on beyond half-past ten it’s self-indulgent.” Stoppard was a second-string theatre critic himself, for the Bristol Evening News in the late 1950s. “I never had the moral character to pan a friend,” he said of his critical years, “or, rather, I had the moral character never to pan a friend.” The original title of Stoppard’s early one-act, in a glance at Sheridan, was The Critics.

And yet, if these statements were taken at face value, the two plays would offer little more than the sour grapes of the panned playwright. Sheridan’s 18th-century satire of Puff’s puffery and Stoppard’s modern portrayal of Birdboot’s existential ennui are, instead, mere starting points, located early in the action. As both of these in-the-theatre plays about critics proceed, something strange happens. In Sheridan, the stage starts to resemble a snake shedding its skin, moving from one heightened set piece to another, until it reaches an ecstatic climax. In Stoppard, Birdboot and Moon are drawn progressively deeper into the illusion, until the absurd plot becomes a matter of life and death. In other words, Sheridan and Stoppard may possess ambivalent attitudes about critics, but even they refuse to deny them theatrical imaginations. The stories we tell ourselves throughout the centuries may all be silly, both playwrights seem to imply. But at the heart of the theatrical experience lies a mystery beyond reason.

And therein lies the fascination of the in-the-theatre play. The paring away of illusion, the rigorous focus on just the stage itself, leads inevitably to the naked stage, a mirror of the mind. Gaze not into the abyss, a theatre critic once wrote, lest the abyss gaze back at thee.