Forty-nine shows into the Fringe and I’m fading fast. Though my show count is not much above last year‘s, the crucial difference is that 35 of them I have reviewed (for the first time). Just after my first one I remarked to Guardian critic Joyce Macmillan on how much this altered my perspective as a member of the audience. ‘Yes,‘ she agreed. ‘it certainly concentrates the mind.‘
My aim as an academic. has been to explain reviewing and its effects. and for a year now I have been collecting and analysing information on this subject. This Festival The Lm kindly offered me the opportunity to examine the process from the vieWpoint of the reviewer.
My first report (Issue 101 ) showed that positive reviews are one of the least important factors explaining the size of the audience for shows. On this evidence, readers appear to follow W.H. Auden. who had no objection to a critic saying what he liked or disliked, but no patience with those who tell you what you ought to approve or condemn. Yet in the ten days since the appearance of this brief article. comments from directors, actors, and reviewers have convinced me of at least one thing: the belief in the critic‘s inﬂuence is
Before flying off into a transatlantic sunset, our visiting critic. Wes Shrum, reviews his experience ofthe Fringe, the audience, and the black, black, newsprint.
Let me hasten to say that my results are preliminary. It may still prove that for some types of shows critical recommendations are quite important. But assume that for most shows critics have no impact on attendance at all and that this can be proven. It will not change one whit the idea held fast by most theatre people that good reviews are worth the world. At least four shows on this year‘s Fringe — Grand Scam. Sell Out. The Real Inspector Hound, and Perfect Party — work with the assumption that the opinion of the critic is the only one which really matters.
What are the reasons which underlie this belief? One seems to be that the performance arts are themselves inherently ephemeral and once the curtain falls on closing night no trace ofthe event remains save that left in print — be it Olivier‘s finest Hamlet or a medical troupe fighting for their second consecutive Snakebite award. What a tragedy, in fact. that this minor aspect oftheatre — the experience of one reviewer of one night’s show — should be its only enduring monument.
Reviewers themselves are not immune to the sense that their
opinion counts more, not simply because it is public and permanent, but because of the deference received from the box office and the group. Most groups check in advance to see whether any reviewers will be at the next performance and many tout old reviews at any opportunity.
But perhaps the most important aspect of belief in the critic’s power is that every member ofthe theatre community ‘knows‘ of a case where a good review was followed by a full house. For instance, it was reported that last week’s bogus review in the Scotsman — actually written by the company itself— filled the house that night. This was a cabaret act. It was Friday night. The group already had a solid reputation. Was the review really responsible?
Even if, in fact, reviews are largely irrelevant to audience size, it seems as ifcommon sense tells you they are important. The best analogy is the ‘rags to riches‘ ideology of success in the United States. Everyone can cite an example of a ‘self-made man’, which seems to show that hard work will lead to success - in spite of the fact that often it does not. Hard work and success are like good reviews and full houses: you tend to register
the cases which support the idea but forget those which don’t. So the mythology persists.
Perhaps this is not all bad. An
, audience is a diverse mixture of folk,
with some liking and some not liking what they‘ve seen. But as individuals with different opinions they have no voice. The company’s only recourse is the reviewer, who is taken to ‘represent’ the audience. And because these words are distant they seem more objective, less subject to interpersonal ﬂattery. The company can ‘believe’ them.
As for the general readership it is sheer foolishness to suggest that a reviewer’s opinion is more valuable than anyone else’s. For myself, I find an asymmetry in my experience of positive and negative reviews. No critic in the world can devalue through invective my enjoyment ofa show, yet sometimes one remark may improve my assessment of something I disliked. The most important function ofthe critic is to bring out what is best in drama, to ask us to look for things we may not otherwise see.
The author is Associate Professor of Sociology at Louisiana State University, Briton Rouge, Louisiana 70803.
The List 1— 14 September 198911