One of my favorite movies of all time is Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan. A minimal masterpiece about bored young preppies (the “urban haute bourgeoisie,” or “UHB’s” in Stillman’s parlance), the film is neither fast-paced nor particularly cinematic. Its plot is minor, turning on subtle shifts in the relationship between the red-headed Tom Townsend and the doe-eyed Audrey Rouget, and almost the entire action is set within claustrophobic apartments during a bleak Manhattan midwinter.
The virtues of the film are of the literary variety instead. It’s nothing less than Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park transplanted to the dying embers of the Reagan era. (And for my money, its the most successful transplantation of Jane Austen in any medium, edging the also-wonderful Clueless.) Tom and Audrey court each other through intellectual gamesmanship, but their literary name-dropping and witty turns of phrase barely cover a profoundly tender emotionality.
At one point (and here is where I get to my point), Audrey and Tom actually discuss Austen and Mansfield Park. After Tom synopsizes its plot with the loquacious omniscience of the armchair intellectual, pointing out in detail why he finds it absurd and why he agrees with Lionel Trilling’s critique of it, the wounded Audrey asks him what other Austen novels he’s read. Tom’s response: “None. I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists’ ideas as well as the critics’ thinking.”
Ay, there’s the rub. We suddenly realize, perhaps wincing with a grimace of self-recognition, that Tom Townsend has acted as our own Austenian unreliable narrator. He knows nothing of Jane Austen, or her work. All he has read are critics. It’s no accident that this scene comes almost precisely halfway through the action, and that it frames Tom’s journey, leaving behind the certainties of reading and criticism and parlor conversation for the unknowns of lived experience and actual love.
Like I said, it’s a great movie, and in this conversation it hones in on something crucial about the manner in which our experience of art (and of life) has changed. The 21st-century has evolved into an era of context triumphant, content be damned. Every day brings a new, seemingly endless deluge of meta-information and analysis. I know of friends who quit using social media around the opening of Star Wars, lest the movie be “spoiled” for them by instant reactions. For my own part, I couldn’t be less interested in seeing Star Wars, or in sharing my opinions on it, yet I feel as if I have both vicariously experienced it and formulated opinions on it just by observing the critical roadkill inhabiting my Twitter feed. It’s like being included in a noisy argument at a dinner party, when all you want to do is dine on some charcuterie.
It all raises an important question. In a futuristic world of infinite possibilities, what do we make of the role of the critic, which is simultaneously so important in filtering out all the white noise and detritus, and so fatal to our unmediated experience of the artwork itself?
As it so happens, we have a double-bill of one-acts that’s just opened at the theatre which addresses precisely this conundrum: Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Critic and Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound. Both shows are set in the theatre, and both have critical protagonists who interfere in some manner with the onstage action.
As one critic has noted (full disclosure: I know this person), there’s something oddly comforting about realizing that “these same debates have been around for the last several hundred years.” There’s also a tonal reward to the show: “It’s a distinct pleasure of this particular pairing to actually have the opportunity to see two different masters of the theatre approach the same topic and craft their own particular spin on the same joke.”
So much for the show’s effect on critics. But what effect do critics have on actors? On audiences?
As it so happens, we recently did a postshow talkback with the actors and talk turned, with some gentle goosing by yours truly, to critics. What do actors think of them? Do they read them? Naomi Jacobsen, who plays a brilliant deadpan double of Mrs. Dangle and Mrs. Drudge in the show, pointed out something from her own experience. It had never occurred to me, but it has the ring of truth: after a bad review comes out, especially for a comedy, the audience will refuse to laugh or react naturally to any beat of the show for the next three days. Usually the audiences will “come back up,” but sometimes not.
In the theatre, most of the actors pointed out, a bad review can be absolutely fatal: to an actor’s confidence, to ticket sales, and more subtly, on the audience’s expectations. It is impossible to read a review and go to the theatre without having it ring like a voice in the back of your mind. The opposite can also happen. More than one of the audience responders (the ones who admitted to reading reviews) reported that they had read the positive notice in the Washington Post earlier that day and come “prepared to laugh” at the play.
And this is the conundrum of the critic. Like it or not, they do have an effect not just on the commercial prospects of the production, but on our experience of the art itself. It’s a tension that has existed at least for the last three hundred years. And it shows no signs of going away.