You’ll laugh, you’ll cry

Why is it so hard to get rid of all those lionised critical clichés?


If you only read one story about clichés in theatre criticism this year, make it this one!

Shortly after seeing Disney’s mega-musical The Lion King the other week, while still merrily humming the budget, I was sent a sample of rave notices that had been filleted into useable poster quotes. The show, I read, was “a rip-roaring tour de force”. A rip- roaring tour de force? I almost dropped my monocle.

A retelling of Hamlet with jungle-themed ballads and impressive animal puppets, The Lion King was “one of the greatest theatrical experiences” another approver had ever had. Others were moved to report how stunning and spectacular and memorable and truly breathtaking this triumph of musical theatre at its best had been.

Well, I laughed, I cried.

As soon as critics begin to gush, they turn instinctively to a stagnant pool of superlatives and stock phrases. “Bravo!” for instance. (Who the hell still says that?) And would they advise us to beg, borrow or steal to get a ticket?

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” said George Orwell, warning journalists away from exhausted phrases. But a more simple adversary is time. When you’re up against a deadline, it’s much easier to reach for the boilerplate than come up with a brand new poetry of praise. The sophistication of marketing departments is also persuasive, which is why so many writers seem to have acquired their critical vocabulary from the sides of buses. It’s the circle of hype.

At the end of the day, most clichés in journalism fade into an easy shorthand of “unputdownable”s, “only time will tell”s and “at the end of the day”s. The same is true of clichés in art. But shine an unforgiving light on them, as Roger Ebert did when he called time on all those innocent fruit carts getting smashed to pulp in Hollywood chase scenes, or George J Nathan did when he told us to give up on a play the moment anyone puts anything into a drawer with a furtive look. Then you see just how stale and ridiculous such tropes are, ripe only for parody.

The theatre has a particularly strange relationship with clichés; witheringly aware of every zombie trope from the stage Irishman to Chekhov’s gun, blizzards of artificial snow and inconclusive experiments with onstage microphones, yet somehow perpetuating them.

It’s worth remembering that some of our hoarier sayings – “it’s Greek to me”, things “vanishing into thin air” – were once fresh, startling phrases by that rip-roaring wordsmith William Shakespeare. With enough numb repetition, any advance in human expression will become an embarrassing buzzword. (Facepalm.)

Both art and criticism avoid stale ideas and spent slogans by constantly revising and renewing their terms. Bernard Shaw once reviewed a performance by writing about how he danced his way home and got a policeman to join in. Lester Bangs told readers that he wasn’t going to review the new Rolling Stones album, “but I am going to swim in it”.

If you’re really invigorated by a piece of work, reinvigorate your vocabulary. It’s the least a rip-roaring tour de force deserves.

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