“Reviewing a Play”

A few months ago, I found a college literature text in the goldmine that is the free book box outside the AIDS thrift at Fifth and Bainbridge. Since then, I’ve dipped into the rich bounty in the three main sections: FICTION (Katherine Anne Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall”, Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-literature-xj-kennedyLighted Place”, Alice Munro’s “Wild Swans”, Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party”), POETRY (Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est”, Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”, Christopher Smart’s “For I Will Consider my Cat Jeoffry”, Charles Baudelaire’s “Recueillement”), and DRAMA (Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Woody Allen’s “Death Knocks”, Moliere’s The Physician in Spite of Himself, Ibsen’s Doll House).

There are also some great critical sections (“What is Poetry?”). By request, I’m passing the book onto my friend, a creative writing teacher and excellent novelist. Before doing so, I’ve copied the section on “Reviewing a Play”, posted here for reference purposes.

It’s obviously a bit pedagogical and I don’t agree with all the conclusions (must acting style be “natural”?), but it made me think about my own reviews. Enjoy.


Writing a play review, a brief critical account of an actual performance, involves making an evaluation. To do so, you first have to decide what to evaluate: the work of the playwright; the work of the actors, director, and production staff; or the work of both. If the play is some classic of Shakespeare or Ibsen, evidently the more urgent task for a reviewer is not to evaluate the playwright’s work, but to evaluate the success of the actors, director, and production staff in interpreting it. To be sure, a reviewer’s personal feelings toward a play (even a towering classic) may deserve mention. Writing of an Ibsen masterpiece, the critic H. L. Mencken made a memorable comment remarking that, next to being struck down by a taxicab and having his hat smashed, he could think of no worse punishment than going to another production of Rosmersholm. But a newer, less well-known play is probably more in need of evaluation.

To judge a live performance is, in many ways, more of a challenge than to judge a play read in a book. Obviously there is much to consider besides the playwright’s script: acting, direction, costumes, sets, lighting, perhaps music, anything else that contributes to one’s total experience in the theater. Still, many students find that to write a play review is more stimulating — and even more fun — than most writing assignments. And although the student with experience in acting or in stagecraft may be a more knowing reviewer than the student without such experience, the latter may prove just as capable in responding to a play and in judging it fairly and perceptively.

In the chapter “Evaluating a Play,” we assumed that in order to judge a play one has to understand it, and be aware of its conventions. Some plays will evoke a strong positive or negative response in the reviewer, either at once or by the time the final curtain tumbles; others will need to be pondered. Incidentally, harsh evaluations sometimes tempt a reviewer to flashes of wit. One celebrated flash is Eugene Field’s observation of an actor in a production of Hamlet, that “he played the king as though he were in constant fear that somebody else was going to play the ace.” The comment isn’t merely nasty; it implies that Field watched the actor’s performance and had discerned what was wrong with it. Readers, of course, have a right to expect that reviewers do not just sneer (or gush praise), but clearly set forth reasons for their feelings.

Reviewing plays seems an art with few fixed rules, but in general, an adequate play review usually gives us a small summary of the play — for the reader unacquainted with it — and perhaps also indicates what the play is about: its theme. If the play is familiar and often performed, some comment on the director’s whole approach to it may be useful. Is the production exactly what you’d expect, or are there any fresh and apparently original innovations? And if the production is fresh, does it achieve its freshness by violating the play? (The director of one college production of Othello — a fresh, but not entirely successful, innovation — emphasized the play’s being partly set in Venice by staging it in the campus swimming pool, with actors floating about on barges and a homemade gondola.) Does the play seem firmly directed, so that the actors neither lag nor hurry, and so that they speak and gesture not in an awkward, stylized manner, but naturally. Are they well cast? Usually, also, a reviewer pays attention to sets, and lighting, if these are noteworthy. The theater itself may deserve mention. Is it distractingly uncomfortable? For the play, is it strikingly suitable or unsuitable? (Othello afloat might seem awkward and artificial. We may be so nervous about the gondola tipping over that we can’t pay attention to the lines.) And if, all along, the reviewer has not been making clear an opinion of the play and its production, an opinion will probably come in the concluding paragraph.

For further pointers, read a few professional play reviews in magazines such as The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, The New Criterion, Hudson Review, and others; or on the entertainment pages of a metropolitan newspaper.

from Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama (fourth edition). Edited by X. J. Kennedy. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1987. Pp 1412-1413


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.