NT’s Hytner Rounds on ‘Dead White Male’ CriticsDate: 14 May 2007
National Theatre artistic director Nicholas Hytner (pictured), ordinarily renowned for his friendly relationship with the press, has issued a damning indictment of the UK’s leading drama critics, labelling them misogynistic “dead white” men who are overdue for retirement.
The comments, published in an interview with The Times today, come in the wake of poor overnight reviews for last week’s opening of the stage adaptation of Powell and Pressburger’s 1946 film classic A Matter of Life and Death, co-produced by the National with acclaimed Cornish physical theatre company Kneehigh and co-adapted and directed by Kneehigh artistic director Emma Rice (See Today’s Review Round-up). Hytner predicted, correctly, that female critics on the Sunday newspapers would be much more receptive to it than their long-serving male counterparts on the dailies.
Hytner told The Times: “They would be horrified by the accusation, but I’m afraid I’m making it. I think it’s fair enough to say that too many of the theatre critics are dead white men. They don’t know it’s happened to them but it has.” He continued: “I think it’s a very good thing that at least on Sunday there’s a female voice or two amongst the theatre critics. The theatre establishment changes regularly and representatively because the audience changes. We have to change or the audience would stop coming.”
Why then, Hytner wondered, are so many of the first-string critics on the newspapers men who were already installed back when he was at university. “I won’t stay in my job for as long as they stay in theirs. When I become a dead white male, I will only be hired to do dead white male theatre.”
In recent years, the number and prominence of women within the top tier of theatre directors – such as Katie Mitchell, Marianne Elliott (both regulars at the NT), Thea Sharrock, Phyllida Lloyd, Deborah Warner, Anna Mackmin, Nancy Meckler and Polly Teale – has risen markedly. However, Hytner maintains that their work is sometimes unfairly judged by male critics – and that female critics agree.
According to Hytner: “In private the female critics are voluble about this. I know that Katie Mitchell gets misogynistic reviews, where everything they say is predicated on her sex. Gay males have never had a problem in the theatre … The ones who have it worst are the gay women. They really get it in the neck and there’s a lot of sniggering.”
Hytner’s accusations have riled many critics. Times critic Benedict Nightingale said he thought “the idea that male reviewers do gender checks … is preposterous”. He vowed “to give up when I lose my sight, hearing, enthusiasm or belief in gender equality. And I’m stunned to discover that Nick, so correct in other ways, is an ageist bigot.”
What’s On Stage columnist Michael Billington – who, employed at the Guardian since 1971, is the UK’s longest-serving critic – also found offence, calling Hytner’s argument ageist “balderdash”. “We are not dead, whatever else we are, and the idea that critics review productions on the basis of gender and sexual orientation is absolute nonsense.”
Meanwhile, Whatsonstage.com’s own chief critic Michael Coveney, formerly of the Daily Mail, believes that Hytner’s complaint is nothing new and somewhat misplaced: “Theatre professionals have always been complaining about critics being in the same job for too long. A more interesting point was once made by Ronald Bryden, a distinguished critic himself, who said that the critics were ‘down’ on new or challenging work because the intelligence they found in the theatre was so much greater than their own. It is an occupational hazard to presume you know more about what you're writing about than the artists who created the work in the first place; it's advisable to remember as a critic that you never do. But the misogyny/anti-lesbian line is a bit of a red herring; there's far more latent homophobia than there used to be emanating from two or three critics one could easily name but won't.”
- by Terri Paddock