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Richard Jordan: Why don’t more theatres hire theatre critics?

Kenneth Tynan Kenneth Tynan
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Why do we not see more critics given roles as associates or in literary posts within our producing theatres?

This thought occurred to me while reading Andrzej Lukowski’s column on critical ‘clickbait’ (which was, coincidentally, a response to my own words on the subject).

Lukowski suggests that Kenneth Tynan “would probably be deemed a troll if he were alive today – alas, he was before his time and the only thing of his that went viral was his unwashed S&M apparatus”.

It’s an entertaining retort, but does Tynan a disservice, especially in respect of the vital role he played as literary manager for Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre.

A well-crafted review is instructive, whether it’s good or bad. I’ve always believed in the value of learning from reviews because of Tynan’s writings; I was an impressionable, theatre-obsessed teenager when I read Tynan on Theatre, an anthology of his reviews and writings.

Tynan lived by the motto: “Rouse tempers, goad and lacerate, raise whirlwinds” (which could be applied equally to theatremaking and criticism). Certainly, he could be scathing and challenging, but he backed it up with demonstrable knowledge and reason. As a result, he was afforded respect at the time, and left a snapshot of an era of theatre I was too young to experience. He also broke down the church-and-state barriers between theatre and critic.

It’s hard to imagine that now, notwithstanding that Tynan’s private life might have played out online, where he would be ostracised on social media and nervously barred from holding a senior position in a theatre – or a newspaper, for that matter. But the idea of a theatre hiring a critic in 2017 seems far-fetched, even though you could argue that Tynan, with his support for new writing and critical support, gave the National its contemporary backbone.

Was Olivier being visionary in his appointment, or simply tactical? Either way, his decision to employ someone who was likely to challenge and question his ideas was brave and brilliant.

It still happens from time to time. Chichester Festival Theatre has recently appointed critic Kate Bassett as its literary manager and she will undoubtedly bring enormous value and knowledge to that organisation. But I am surprised that only a few theatres and arts organisations have followed the lesson and vision that Olivier set. In contrast, colleges and universities have long embraced the knowledge and value of the critic, and many teach at those institutions.

Both industries – theatre and journalism – need to entertain and engage their audiences. They are, and have always been, intrinsically linked. They need each other.

Would Tynan have been a troll? I doubt it. He was too invested in theatre, and cared too deeply about its legacy. Journalists love to suggest that people in the arts are misunderstood by critics and writers, but maybe Olivier was right, and the opposite is true.

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