Criticism for Theatre’s Sake


The following is an excerpt from Chapter 20 (pp. 261 – 264) of Mark Fisher’s book How To Write About Theatre, published by Bloomsbury and released in paperback in August, 2015. 

In any discussion about theatre and criticism, there’s usually one wag who stands up and says: ‘Those who can – do. Those who can’t – criticize.’ Everyone laughs because it seems the critics have been cut down to size. How humiliated they must be to be exposed as failed actors (or failed directors or failed playwrights, according to the accusation). Even the critics laugh for fear of appearing aloof. And to be fair, it is a viewpoint with a fine pedigree. Samuel Taylor Coleridge said critics are ‘usually people who would have been poets, historians, biographers, if they could; they have tried their talents at one or the other and have failed; therefore they turn critics’.[1] Percy Bysshe Shelley said much the same thing: ‘As a bankrupt thief turns thief-taker in despair, so an unsuccessful author turns critic.’[2] But the argument crumbles under scrutiny for these three reasons:

First, it’s just an assertion. The remark has an aphoristic quality that makes it sound like an immutable truth. But it is no such thing. Switch the words around and it makes just as much sense: ‘Those who can – criticize. Those who can’t – act.’ To take Coleridge’s example, you can quite imagine someone failing as a critic and becoming a biographer instead. Of course some theatremakers have become critics, just as some critics have become theatremakers, but that doesn’t make it a universal truth.

Second, it presupposes that criticism is in some way lesser, that it requires a diminished set of skills and that it is a last resort. But critics take up the job not out of desperation nor to wreak revenge on an industry that has let them down, but because they want to. That may be a difficult concept for a theatremaker to grasp, but all the unpaid bloggers who write reviews for the love of it demonstrate it to be the case.

Third, for the sake of argument, let’s imagine it were true and all critics were failed artists. If that were a bad thing, wouldn’t most theatre workers be in the same boat? ‘Those who can – act. Those who can’t – work in the box office.’ Yes, theatre critics are reactive, but that is true of nearly everyone involved: accountants, publicists, technical crew, agents, administrators, producers . . . none of them can function without the theatremakers creating something first. Theatres are full of people in non-artistic jobs with drama degrees, many of whom once held dreams of acting, writing, designing or directing. Are all of them to be regarded as failures? Or isn’t it quite normal for different people to find their métier doing different things? What’s wrong with wanting to be a critic and aiming to be a good one?

Related to this is the contention that only those who have worked as a theatremaker should be allowed to criticize. The people who make this argument are invariably the artists themselves. In her autobiography Nothing Like a Dame, actor Elaine C. Smith admitted to having had ‘glowing, hellish and not very good reviews’[3] and added that ‘many have been pretty accurate and helpful too’. Nonetheless, she took issue with the critics because ‘they don’t respect the individual, as they are generally failed writers, failed actors or people who couldn’t walk on stage and perform if you paid them a million quid’. We’ve just dealt with her first assertion, but what about the idea that critics would be no good as performers? In this, Smith is right. There’s no reason to suppose they’d be up to much as directors, designers or stage managers either. That, however, is irrelevant. The critic’s job is to assess the results, not to do better themselves. As Samuel Johnson said: ‘You may abuse a tragedy, though you cannot write one. You may scold a carpenter who has made you a bad table, though you cannot make a table. It is not your trade to make tables.’[4] A master carpenter may know best about how to fix the bad table, but the critic can still observe it is wobbly.

Expert knowledge is valuable, but artists do not necessarily make the best critics nor does their expertise always help. Writing about her twin roles as musician and critic, Roseanna East argued that less of her insider knowledge as a violinist was as convertible to her role as a music critic than you might think:

I’m not saying that the critics can never really know – rather that audience and performers know different things. Performing and reviewing happen simultaneously, but in parallel worlds. It is this separation and difference between the two practices which, far from disqualifying one, can make criticism valuable. What matters most to the participants isn’t always the most important thing to the wider world.[5]

Many of the liveliest conversations you can have about theatre are with actors, playwrights and directors as they comment indiscreetly on the work of their peers. They will be heated, opinionated, funny and full of insight, but they are nearly always too driven by their own artistic vision to be impartial. Their intense reaction to other people’s art is one of the things that inspires them to make art of their own. That’s as it should be, but their impulse to create can cloud their judgement. They could find it hard, as critics, to judge a work on its own terms or, at the opposite extreme, they could be too conscious of the labour involved to write honestly about a show’s shortcomings. In both respects, the critic’s distance from the profession is an asset. That’s not to deny the benefits of a theatrical training nor to argue that many of the best critics, such as Harold Clurman and George Bernard Shaw, have not also been practitioners. It’s simply to say that insider experience, on its own, does not guarantee anything. As Kenneth Tynan said, ‘A critic is someone who knows the way, but can’t drive the car.’[6]




Mark Fisher is one of Scotland’s foremost commentators on the arts. With over 25 years’ experience, he is the Scottish theatre critic for The Guardian, a former editor of The List and a freelance contributor to Variety, The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday. He is the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide (“A wonderfully practical but also inspirational book full of good advice” – Lyn Gardner, The Guardian) and the co-editor of Made in Scotland, an anthology of plays published by Methuen Drama.


[1] Coleridge, Samuel Taylor (1823), Specimens of the Table Talk, Harper and Brothers.

[2] Shelley, Percy Bysshe (1821), preface to Adonais (later removed).

[3] Smith, Elaine C. (2009), Nothing Like a Dame, Mainstream Publishing.

[4] Boswell, James (1791), The Life of Samuel Johnson, Penguin Classics.

[5] East, Rosanna (20 July 2013), ‘When the music critic is the performer too’, in The Herald.

[6] Tynan, Kenneth (2001), The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan, Bloomsbury.

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