Critics take the brunt of the lampoon in two shows opening Friday on the Guthrie’s proscenium stage.
Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher adapted Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 18th-century play “The Critic,” turning it into a taut one-act. Then after intermission, “The Real Inspector Hound” takes the stage. Tom Stoppard’s 1968 one-act depends largely on the repartee of two critics watching a whodunit.
The Guthrie produced the show in collaboration with Shakespeare Theatre Company from Washington, D.C., where it played last month.
Hatcher took time to bat a few tongue-in-cheek e-mails back and forth about critics and playwrights and Sheridan’s play.
Q: You must learn a great deal from the insights of critics, yes?
A: Very much so, although what I learn is hard to apply to a show that’s already opened or, in some cases, has to close early due to a bad review.
Q: So then we are certain to see a better play next time out?
A: The next one is always better than the current one. If I didn’t believe that, I’d have to start lying to myself.
Q: Are you a writer who has been wounded by the critic’s razor-sharp observations of your work?
A: The razor-sharp ones heal nicely and leave barely a scar. It’s the blunt instruments that do the interior damage.
Q: Are you suggesting the critic’s pen is not always as sharp as we might imagine?
A: As Waldo Lydecker says in “Laura,” “I don’t use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom.”
Q: Yes, that reminds me of a line in your adaptation, wherein Mr. Puff declares that anyone with pen and ink and a well of resentment could be a critic. You know we use computers now.
A: That line gets a nice laugh. Even from civilians. It tells you something.
Q: You seem to suggest that the great theatergoing public might share the idea that critics offer nothing but resentment.
A: Heaven forfend. Rather, that the great, good, welcoming and wise theatergoing public is sensitive to the fact that the relationship between playwright and critic is fraught.
Q: Yes. Say, that Richard Brinsley Sheridan is sure a witty writer, isn’t he?
A: Sheridan was very witty. Better: He was funny. Sometimes “witty” just sits there, waiting for you to notice how pointed, how perfect. In the original, [the critic] Sneer says, “I am quite of your opinion, Mrs. Dangle; the theater in proper hands might certainly be made the school of morality, but now I am sorry to say it, people seem to go there principally for entertainment!” That’s a witty line. It tells a truth, but there’s ambiguity at work because we’re never quite sure which side Sneer is taking.
Q: Who is your favorite character in “The Critic”?
A: Puff. Sneer runs a close second because he gets to say all the really nasty things. But Puff is such a wonderful, buoyant, oblivious blancmange. He’s a rare bird: an innocent with an eye to the main chance. An amateur, an entrepreneurial tyro in a world of wised-up professionals. He may occasionally say something that wounds, but it’s never intentional.
A lot of what he says are like Gielgudies: the unintentionally scathing and funny comments John Gielgud would make to other actors. Gielgud was rehearsing a Peter Brook-directed “Oedipus” involving theater games and psychodrama. When Brook told the cast to each come downstage and say something terrifying, Gielgud announced primly: “We open in 10 days.”
Q: Has writing this adaptation given you a new appreciation for the critic or more appreciation for the chance to lampoon the critic?
A: I know I’m supposed to say something cuttingly witty or self-serving and servile, but it’s fascinating to realize that criticism as we know it has evolved from a place much more like the Wild West. The 18th century was a world of unsigned reviews and anonymous hatchet jobs, closer to social media today. The objective critic is a fairly recent construct. As recently as the 1920s, the chief drama critic for the New York Times was George S. Kaufman — this while he was a practicing and successful Broadway playwright. Ethical? Not very. But I bet he got a kick out of it.