Mr. Agate's Sunday Service
ON the dust-jacket of this book, which is a selection from what Mr. Agate has written about the London theatre during the last four years, the author is described as "unquestionably the foremost figure today in the field of dramatic criticism," and "a worthy successor to Shaw, Archer and Walkley."
To the former phrase, which is the publishers' periphrastic way of suggesting that Mr. Agate is our leading dramatic critic, it may be objected that there are other writers with as
good a'claim as his to the title : Mi. Charles Morgan, Mr. Desmond MacCarthy, Mr. Ivor Brown. From the second there need be no dissent. Mr. Agate is "a worthy successor" to Shaw, Archer and Walkley, in the sense that he works with the same methods as they did, and employs similar standards of criticism with at _least equal- ability. But the publishers showed tact in not ascribing to him a longer critical pedigree. In speaking of Mr. Agate as continuing a tradition, one remembers that it is a tradition that has fairly recently been formed. It is not possible, except in a chronological sense, to speak of him as a successor to those who were the predecessors of Shaw, Archer and Walkley; as a successor to, say, John Taylor, Thomas_ Holeroft and Leigh Hunt. In his personal contribution Mr. Agate is not much less acute a dramatic critic than was any one of them. He is not a successor to them, because he does not work in the same tradition : and he is in essentials a less good critic because the tradition in which he works is inferior to theirs.
The difference between the traditions is the difference in the critic's attitude and relation to his public. When the former tradition was in force, in for example, the eighteenth century, plays were written for one social class and from one broad point of view, there was a standardized culture in contrast to _
the diversity of today, and the critic was consequently able to write as a member of the audience and to start with .certain assumptions about prevailing standards in literature and in life with which he knew the other members of the audience would agree. With the breaking up of standardized culture, completed before the middle of the last century, and with the changes in dramatic subjects and the social structure of audiences, the critic's position of security slipped away. By Archer's time not only was he unable to write as a member of the audience, but he could not assume that he was writing for a theatrical audience at all. In the eighteenth century the dramatist's public was larger than the critic's, but for practical purposes they could .be identified : .today a great many more people read about the -theatre than go to theatres, and dramatic criticism is consequently for many people not a complement to playgoing, but a substitute for it. The critic's difficulty is to fulfil his obligations to both publics at the same time.
The problem has not been solved by Mr. Agate, nor indeed kr any. other contemporary critic, if one excludes from
consideration the quasi-philosophical exercises in vogue in certain quarters which effect a rather pointless compromise between the two functions of the critic. For the most part Mr. Agate addresses -himself to the public which does not attend the theatre. Few of the reviews reprinted in this book attempt the kind of critical summing up of a play which is of assistance to those who have recently seen or are about to see it, but one can imagine that all of them were of value at the time to the reader with a detached general interest in the theatre. They bear the imprint of a mind with an almost fanatical devotion to everything relating to the theatre, with zest and energy, and with a reassuring disinclination to take anything on trust. Each review, read separately, is within its limits an extremely competent piece of theatrical journalism.
That the impression made by the collection as a whole is less satisfactory is due to the limitations of Mr. Agate's aims and critical methods. The articles reprinted cover .hearly four years of theatrical activity in London, but -nothing approaching a view of the English theatre during that period emerges. Indeed Mr. Agate's point of view remains elusive on almost any subject. He seems unwilling to commit himself to any sustained piece of critical writing, preferring instead to deliver a number of scattered and frequently unrelated judgements, and sometimes playing with ideas like a cat addressing itself to a mouse. which it suspects of being able to answer back. If Mr. Agate has formulated any considerable body of critical theory, he has not made it explicit anywhere in this book and critical- , principles are necessary to justify the republication of articles such as these. The possession of even a general point of view would serve to give cohesion to this collection and the book its raison are: what would be required in addition to make it readable, I have not the temerity to suggest. As it stands, a style encrusted with puns, alliterations, clichés, redundancies, allusions, and quotations from the French, and bound together by an unrivalled archness of manner, though possibly supportable in small quantities, taken in bulk produces an effect which is overwhelming. As a stylist Mr. Agate owes less to Archer than to Mrs. Amanda Ros.