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Approaches to Criticism

I recently encountered Dominic Taylor’s “Two Considerations for Criticism.” This article, published on howlround, suggests that there are two central ideas that he does not hear critics discussing:

1)      The primary function of the work

2)      The primary audience

The idea that critics do not consider this frightens me, and yet, I witness it from established critics as well as my own colleagues. I take particular interest in Dominic’s use of the word “primary.” He explains this terminology very well with the following example:

When Beyoncé Knowles makes “Single Ladies,” on the other hand, she is speaking to a multicultural group in a pop groove. This does not make this music less valid or authentic, because when I hear “Single Ladies,” I too put my hand up. I am not a single lady, but the pop groove is just that on time. Ms. Knowles speaking to her specific audience still allows me a point of entry, but I would be dumb to think she is speaking to me. I might buy the track and jam to it, but it is not made with me as its primary audience.

What I have often fallen prey to is assuming that I am the primary audience of the work. And if I’m not I allow myself to feel “alienated” by the play. Now, I’m a young white woman, so plays aren’t always written for me. (Wah wah wah.) Part of the journey into the play is to figure out how to unlock it.

How is it that everything I read about criticism always (always, always) leads me back to E.F.’s Visit to a Small Planet? This is the text that begins each semester in the Dramatic Literature sequence at Boston University, the first text we encounter and, appropriately, re-encounter as we continue in our studies. Elinor Fuchs urges her audience to consider the rules of the world of the play when encountering something new, to trust that the play has its own gravity, weather, sense of time; the rules that we live by do not necessarily apply to this particular work. As she puts it, “you can’t just decide the planet is wintry or dark because you think it would look more interesting in snow or smog.” She adds, “at least not yet.”

I find that between 50 and 90 percent of the time I have a problem with a play it is because I have decided the rules it plays by instead of actually investigating what the play is telling me. And it’s not just the exact words of the scenes that contain information, but rather the rich world of the playwright’s experience coupled with the world of the play.

Plays are so much richer when considered in all their depth and breadth. Why do we rob ourselves of the full experience of those plays? Obviously, there is laziness. But also, I think it is an underlying sense of ego; we decide that we somehow know more than the playwright for one reason or another.

I am not an artist to make assumptions, and I don’t want to make an ass of you or me by imposing my assumptions on someone else’s baby. Because you will look like an ass when your laziness is revealed. Anybody in any of Ilana’s classes has been there.

All of Elinor Fuchs’ considerations take a lot of time. Dominic Taylor’s two considerations get right down to the essence. Surely none of us are so lazy as to eschew his suggestion.

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