Objectivity’ is a hard one. Defined as ‘free of bias or prejudice caused by personal feelings’, ‘based on facts rather than thoughts or opinions’ and as a ‘philosophy existing independently of the individual mind or perception’, one would need to be of a special bent to achieve the appropriate mindset in a given set of circumstances.

Some recent theatre reviews on kottu and the comments generated as a result brought this aspect sharply into focus, as reading the responses to the posts indicated clearly that much of the content had to do with defending the objects of criticism due to personal relationships that some of the respondents had with whoever or whatever it was that was being defended.

Then there were those that used the same cliched, hackneyed, ‘after all, these guys are not professional..’ bullshit. And that won’t wash anymore, as audiences (hopefully) are much more sophisticated than in the past, now having easy access to all sorts of good viewing from DVDs and satellite or cable TV – not to mention the many that have experienced excellent theatre in other countries and those who have experienced professional touring troupes playing here in Sri Lanka. So if a producer and director get a cast together to create a theatre experience open to the paying public, it is incumbent on them to produce something that will cut the mustard – in Colombo, or on Broadway, or anywhere else – Marsh Dodanwela doing Shel Silverstein’s ‘The Devil and Billy Markham’ being a case in point. And even in that production the sub-standard sound and lighting (at least on the night that we saw it) did take away from the total experience.

So back to being ‘objective’. The way I see it is that (keeping the analogy of the critic going) a critic, ideally, must be one that has a more than above-average understanding of the subject, an exposure to quality productions, a keen aesthetic sensibility and the ability to focus on all aspects of the production. This last quality will sometimes require the critic to view the production on more than one occasion – to be fair to the production and to ensure that technical and other less obvious details will not be forgotten or go un-noticed. For the critic that has to review an opening night, however, no such luxury is available – for such is the nature of the beast.

The style and approach of a recognized critic is usually distinctive and cultivates a readership because of it. Some have been perceived to have their favourites and some are perceived to take pleasure in ripping into productions on various levels in a vicarious bid for attention and appreciation. Some have even been alleged to have ties to ticket brokers, producers and other special interest groups or individuals. But ultimately the effectiveness of a critic will be gauged by what the individual viewer’s subjective impressions of the production are. If a critic is seen to be affected by what appears to be a subjective appreciation of an individual performance or production, credibility is called into question, so for a truly ‘objective’ analysis to be made, the critic must necessarily divorce the view from personal attachment. And how easy is that to accomplish?

The problem with being truly ‘objective’ is that the ‘subjective’ is part and parcel of the makeup of the critic. The value system employed in the analysis is based on the aesthetic and other conditioning, which makes the degree of ‘objectivity’ somehow to be based on the ‘subjective’. So is true ‘objectivity’ really possible, or could the discipline required to be ‘objective’ be learned?

The International Association of Theatre Critics has as its objective “..to bring together theatre critics in order to promote international cooperation. Its principal aims are to foster theatre criticism as a discipline and to contribute to the development of its methodological bases; to protect the ethical and professional interests of theatre critics and to promote the common rights of all its members; and to contribute to reciprocal awareness and understanding between cultures by encouraging international meetings and exchanges in the field of theatre in general’.

Here’s what the well-known playwright David Rabe had to say about critics: ‘When I first started, I read (every review). Now I skim or ask to be told. Reviewers don’t have time or space to do anything very meaningful so I’ve stopped looking for that. Frankly, it’s only about good or bad business. . . . If reviews are good, they’re never quite good enough, because they’re not complex enough. If they’re bad, they’re just discouraging.’

So there it is – a brief collection of thoughts on the objectivity (or lack thereof) of reviewers, their purpose, function and appreciation. But in the end, as Java  put it:

Maan, jus tellin it like yo see it, warts an all, providin yo know sheet bout what you be tellin folk, is all dere be to dis game.