David Bruce: Critics Anecdotes

After seeing actress Diana Rigg in a brief nude scene in the play Abelard and Heloise, caustic critic John Simon wrote, “Diana Rigg is built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses.” The next day, as Ms. Rigg went to the theater, she hoped that no one would recognize her. Fortunately, all of the cast members knew better than to mention the review. After a few weeks, however, she began to think the review funny and soon started quoting it. (By the way, Ms. Rigg knows an actress—not herself—who once saw Mr. Simon in a New York restaurant and took the opportunity to dump a plate of potato salad on his head.)

Sir Neville Cardus, a critic, once complained in print that Sir Thomas Beecham had conducted at a much too rapid tempo the final act of Siegfried, thus marring an otherwise fine performance. Sir Thomas, of course, had an explanation. He told Sir Neville that the orchestra had been in the pit since 5:30 p.m., the pubs closed at 11 p.m., the audience had homes to get to, and so, after looking at his watch just before the final act and discovering that it was already after 10 p.m., he had decided to conduct the final act quickly and let everyone go about their business.

Critics for The New York Times have a lot of power. After choreographer Agnes de Mille had scored notable successes in Aaron Copland’s Rodeo and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, Times critic Clive Barnes started to criticize her work. As a result, Ms. De Mille once told caricaturist Sam Norkin, “I can no longer work east of Winnipeg!” Eventually, Mr. Barnes left the Times, and Ms. De Mille once again was able to work in New York.

As a writer for the Denver Post H. Allen Smith tried his hand at reviewing books. In his first review, he said that the war book he was reviewing was the best war book ever written. In his second review, he said that the book of short stories he was reviewing was the best book of short stories ever written. In his third review, he said that the travel book he was reviewing was the best travel book ever written. After that, Mr. Smith was no longer allowed to write book reviews.

Tallulah Bankhead once had too wild a time at one of Dorothy Parker’s parties. As Ms. Bankhead left the party, Mrs. Parker called out from another room, “Has Whistler’s Mother left yet?” At lunch the next day, Ms. Bankhead took a small mirror out of her handbag, looked at herself carefully, then glanced at Mrs. Parker and said, “The less I behave like Whistler’s Mother the night before, the more I look like her the morning after.”

Betty White, the star of The Golden Girls, and Carol Channing, the star of Hello, Dolly, are friends. Once, Ms. White played the lead in Hello, Dolly in several Ohio cities, then teased her friend by saying that everyone felt the production was much better than the original starring Ms. Channing. However, Ms. Channing simply replied, “Your mother said what?”

The comedy team of Moran and Mack was popular early in this century, but in the 1930s, they made a movie, Hypnotized, of which critic Richard Watts, Jr., wrote, “There is a certain academic interest to be found in Hypnotized, for if you haven’t seen it you cannot realize how bad a motion picture can be.”

Some critics are terrors. Eduard Hanslick was a particularly virulent critic in late 19th century Vienna, when Anton Bruckner was active as a composer. After one premiere, Emperor Franz Josef asked if he could do anything for Mr. Bruckner, who replied, “Your Majesty, if you could only get Hanslick to stop saying those nasty things about me.”

Douglas Jerrold was a honest critic, dispraising even books written by his friends. One such friend waved his book under Mr. Jerrold’s nose, then complained, “I hear you said this was the worst book I ever wrote.” Mr. Jerrold replied, “No, I didn’t. I said it was the worst book anybody ever wrote.”

George Bernard Shaw was a music critic, and of course he disliked bad musicians. While dining in a restaurant, he was “entertained” by a very bad orchestra. During a break, the conductor asked Mr. Shaw if there was anything he wanted the musicians to play. Mr. Shaw replied, “Dominoes.”

When George Bernard Shaw began writing his forceful literary criticism, someone remarked to Oscar Wilde that Shaw was likely to make a lot of enemies. Mr. Wilde responded, “As yet he hasn’t become prominent enough to have any enemies. But none of his friends like him.”

Once some university members were discussing setting up a new chair of musical criticism. Sir Thomas Beecham, the noted conductor, said, “If there is to be a chair for critics, I think it should be an electric chair.”

Burns Mantle got his start as a drama critic when his newspaper’s regular critic got drunk. Mr. Mantle was a printer who had seen the play the critic was supposed to review—he sat down, composed a well-written review, and became a drama critic.

Critic James Agate once praised actress Lilian Braithwaite as being London’s second-best dramatic actress. She replied that she was thankful to receive such high praise from London’s second-best critic.

In 1933, Katherine Hepburn acted on Broadway in The Lake. Dorothy Parker reviewed the play, saying that Ms. Hepburn “ran the whole gamut of emotions from A to B.”

Sir Thomas Beecham, the noted conductor, once told a critic, “You know, my dear fellow, you belong to a fraternity that has almost a genius for stating what is exactly opposite to the true facts.”

Critic Michael Billington once wrote about a revival of a musical: “For those of you who missed it the first time, this is your golden opportunity: You can miss it again.”

“Critics are like eunuchs in a harem. They’re there every night, they see it done every night, they see how it should be done every night, but they can’t do it themselves.”—Brendan Behan.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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