‘Rouse tempers, goad and lacerate, raise whirlwinds.’ Those were the words that Kenneth Tynan, the most celebrated drama critic of the 20th century, had pinned above his desk. During my five-year stint as The Spectator’s theater critic I did my best to follow that philosophy. But according to a new set of guidelines devised by Equity and embraced by Britain’s National Union of Journalists, reviews should be ‘balanced, fair and designed to be productive’. Any critic living by that credo would be more likely to raise a yawn than a whirlwind.
The guidelines, part of Equity’s anti-racism campaign, have been developed to help critics ‘challenge their own biases and to encourage responsible writing about race’. Ink-stained wretches in the stalls are told to ‘avoid referring to immutable characteristics such as age, race, gender and appearance’, but at the same time to ‘distinguish clearly between different racial and ethnic groups’.
This guidance suffers from the same flaw as many anti-racism initiatives, which is its adherence to a narrow ideological orthodoxy rooted in critical race theory. It urges critics to ‘approach unfamiliar themes, contexts and stories…as an opportunity to learn’. But it’s clear from the accompanying reading list that what ‘learn’ means here is ‘uncritically embrace fashionable neo-Marxist dogma’. The list will be so familiar to anyone who’s been urged to have an ‘open conversation’ about race in the past 12 months they’ll be able to recite it with their eyes closed: Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge and How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi.
If the ‘diverse collective’ of critics who’ve drawn up these rules are genuine about wanting to broaden their colleagues’ minds regarding racism, why not recommend a wider intellectual range of black authors? Such reading lists never include Shelby Steele’s The Content of Our Character, Thomas Sowell’s The Economics and Politics of Race or Self-Portrait in Black and White by Thomas Chatterton Williams. It’s impossible to avoid the suspicion that people like Ian Manborde, Equity’s equality and diversity organizer, are less interested in teaching critics how to think about race than what to think about race.
More fundamentally, the premise of this guidance is at odds with the moral lesson of nearly all great drama: that our most meaningful experiences are universal. A canonical work, whether Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar or Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, can speak to audiences of all ages, backgrounds and ethnicities. That’s what makes being in the audience when such plays are performed well so emotionally fulfilling — the knowledge that the story has touched a part of us that we share with those around us, no matter our differences. Great art enables us to transcend our ‘lived experience’ — to invoke one of the clichés included in the new rules — and connect with our human essence.
Indeed, that’s why I agree with the guidance on one point: objecting to color-blind casting betrays a lack of imagination. In an essay in The Stage promoting this initiative, the playwright Naomi Obeng admonishes critics for not suspending disbelief when white characters are played by black actors — ‘it is theater, a play, fiction,’ she says. Quite right. Having black actors play white characters no more detracts from the meaning of a great drama than having women play male ones (although good luck to the theater director who does the opposite). If a play’s themes are genuinely universal, the ethnicity or gender of the protagonists doesn’t much matter.
By the same token, it’s nonsense to say, as these rules do, that critics ‘should consider whether, based on ethnicity and/or privilege, they are best positioned to interpret a story’. The argument here is that as more people of color become involved in the theater, the critical profession will have to purge itself of middle-aged white men because they aren’t ‘best positioned’ to understand and write about what’s happening. There may be good arguments for diversifying the profession, but this isn’t one. If a black actor can inhabit the character of a privileged white man — as he surely can — why can’t a white male critic get to grips with a play about an underprivileged black man? Neither is defined by their ‘lived experience’. Good critics not only suspend disbelief, but, like good actors, leave their ‘immutable characteristics’ behind as they’re swept up in the drama.