The Shakespeare Theatre perfectly paired Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s “The Critic” (1779) with Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Inspector Hound” (1968). Not only are they both focused on the rarefied world of theater critics, but it seems to me that Stoppard was not unfamiliar with Sheridan when he wrote “Inspector Hound”.
I watched the two one-acts at the Shakespeare Theatre today and, although my view was limited by the oversized giant seated in front of me, I enjoyed both. They are equally clever and are being performed equally well. Unfortunately, the show closes after tomorrow’s performances.
So what is the role of a theater critic? Two possible roles were depicted two hundred years ago by Sheridan. There are those critics who go to the theater not for entertainment but to find fault and build there own reputations. And there are critics who go to praise everything and everyone in order to be accepted by the broader theater community, whether or not they are being paid to make their points.
Presumably neither of these form the majority of the critic community, who look to educate the audience and, at the same time, to promote theater going and theater acceptance. And this balance is not always easy. You can find fault with a play, yet want people to see it, to become familiar with the playwright, the cast members, the theater. It’s not an easy task.
Putting this aside – what about “Critic” and “Inspector Hound”? Both are clever, and Sheridan’s humor works fine today. Two critics who like to find fault meet with a critic who praises everything and gets well paid for the task. They learn that the mercenary critic has written his own play, and it is being rehearsed at the Drury Lane Theater, owned of course by one Richard Brindsley Sheridan. It is not to be performed there, it is just being rehearsed there, and Sheridan has never seen the play. The author is convinced that Sheridan is going to be at his theater the next day and they invite themselves to see the rehearsal. They go to the theater, and keep advising the playwright as they look at the play to make change after change in a manner that they say will please Mr. Sheridan. It is very funny, especially when performed by a talented cast, and set in a theater with the resources to create just the right background and scenery.
The “Inspector Hound” is different. Two critics come to see a play. The play presumably is akin to the famous “The Mousetrap”. A murder in a secluded house. Who was killed and which of the guests did it? We watch the play (within a play) and listen to the banter of the critics in the audience. We learn that one of the critics has been seen with the play’s youngest female character. They begin to communicate directly, and the critic wanders out of his seat down to the stage. The play within the play does a rewind. Virtually, the same script is repeated, with the critics playing two of the main characters and the two actors winding up as critics in the audience. It is very clever.
So, we have two playwrights making fun of critics. That’s fair. The rest of the time, it’s the critics making fun of the playwrights. I enjoyed myself