The Stage Who Needs Theater Critics?

The question echoes in my heart: "Who and what gave you the right," they ask, "to express an opinion regarding our work?"

It happened sometime during the late 1970s, while I was working as a theater critic for Haaretz and Israel Army Radio. That job meant broadcasting a minute-long report live following the midnight news. That was before one was allowed to be on the air via a cellular telephone, or indeed any other phone. Thus, I had to present myself, in the flesh, in the Jaffa studio. A play opened, one night, at the Cameri Theater, then located on the corner of Dizengoff and Frishman Streets, at the current site of the Beit Lessin Theater. In those days, I had a very small car - something akin to the modern-day Smart car - which made it easy to park near the theater, and besides, I could still run. I don't remember what play it was - perhaps something by Anton Chekhov - but it ended 15 minutes before midnight.

As the final curtain went down, and even before the applause, I burst out of the theater, flew down the stairs, and ran to my car. I turned on the engine and sped down Frishman, breaking the speed limit, as I drove toward the sea. I arrived at the Herbert Samuel Promenade and got stuck in one long traffic jam. It was a summer night and the entire people of Israel had left their homes, on foot and in every manner of vehicle, to breathe a bit of fresh air.

The clock hands were moving mercilessly, but the stoplights remained unmoved. I looked right and left, inhaled deeply, and drove on the curb, scraping the car's low underbelly. I drove at full speed along the entire length of the promenades' sidewalk, honking the horn and flashing lights as I endangered pedestrians and myself. About three minutes before midnight, I arrived at the army radio station building, skipped up a flight of steps, burst into the studio, took another deep breath, turned on the microphone, and said what I had to say about the play.

Afterward, I turned off the mike and asked myself, "what am I doing, and why?"

That question echoes in my heart, as it has echoed in the hearts of many generations of theater people. But their wording of the question differs from my own: "Who and what gave you the right," they ask, "to express an opinion regarding our work?" Or, to quote the character Hops, who asked a similar question in Hanoch Levin's play "Hops and Hopla": "People like you - what for?"

I will not respond with the ubiquitous answer to this age-old question: "The editor who appointed me to review theater gave me the right to express my opinion in the paper." I will not even rely on the words of the character Chernenko, to whom Hops directed the question. "One is born. What will you do - kill?"

No one is born a theater critic. Neither is anyone born an actor or an actress. At most, one has a certain inclination or talent and only learning and continuously honing one's skills makes one an actor or a theater critic. I readily admit that it is much harder to act (or direct or write a play) than it is to review. I acted and directed when I studied theater, but that was so long ago that it is almost untrue.

Moreover, actors and actresses exercise will and choice when they opt to play certain roles. (In an ideal world, anyway; They certainly do not do so under duress.) Theater critics see everything that is on, whether they want to or not. Ask actors, who served on festival or prize juries, how hard it is to see everything that runs.

But that is besides the point and the question remains open: Why do I review theater? It is a question that I have been asking myself for 38 years of theater critiquing, 32 of which for Haaretz. If I had not a reasonable answer, I do not believe that I would continue to write reviews.

First, I tried to eliminate the answers that I consider to be wrong. A theater critic is not (at least I'm not), nor should he be, a judge. No one putting on a show is guilty and no one is being sentenced. Nor is he, or should be, a referee, as no one is being disqualified. Theater is a game, but not a match; there are no winners or losers, and no final score (certainly not one to settle). Despite that, one does not know how it went before it is over. That explains why I never leave a performance in the middle.

The answer that is acceptable for me, for now (until the next bout of self-doubt descends), is that, in practice, a theater critic is a "chronicler." To a certain extent and on a very profound level, his role is to bear witness. This role is existential, significant, and, perhaps, one of the reasons that members of the human race choose to live as couples: Even those who have the most unshakable self-confidence occasionally need witnesses to attest to their existence. This is certainly true in theater, which is inherently artificial and fleeting. Yes, there is an audience and they applaud, and that feels great. But when the curtain comes down, newspaper reviews provide one, written proof that the show indeed took place (and the audience applauded, and tickets were sold).

But as a chronicler, a diarist, the one who writes it down, the theater critic plays an even more important role: He writes the theater's ongoing chronicles, the story of all its opening nights. Like all those who live by their pen since the days of royal scribes and ancient historians, he feigns - to all and sometimes to himself - objectivity and impartiality which belies his preferences and agenda. He faithfully, if not always credibly, documents, night after night, what he saw and felt, from his vantage point and perspective. And he (that is to say, I) does that on the very same evening, while the experience is fresh, as if he is reporting from the battlefield. It is important to him because of the very fact that there was a performance, and actors and actresses took the stage, and an audience was there to see it.

Sometimes - and I consider it to be bad and am ashamed of myself when I do it - he "grades" the performers according to a scale of his own taste and preferences. However, everything that we ultimately know about the past life of theater is based on what was written by theater critics, even if we know today that they were wrong.

I assume that theater could do without those chronicles. Most theater academics, who conduct significant research in contemporary theater, unjustifiably ignore those who document the life of theater on a daily basis. Truth be told, I assume that the world could do without theater at all. Possibly the theater practitioners would be happy without those daily print testimonies. At least, so they claim. But that is why I continue to attend theater, night in and night out: To document what I see, to communicate my experience to the readers in a concise format, the day after, or, perhaps, many years later. No more than that, but also no less.