Nobody likes criticism, authors and playwrights least of all. Even Shakespeare had his plays trimmed by second-rate dramatists like Colley Cibber or criticized for moral impropriety by George Bernard Shaw. So it’s hardly surprising when playwrights dole out some of their own toward the literary gadflies of their plays.
Two prime examples of this dramatic tit-for-tat occurred during the Guthrie Theater’s opening week (February 23-27, 2016) performances of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s “The Critic” and Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Inspector Hound.” As performed by members of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, both comedies indulged every author’s fantasy of getting the last laugh by hilariously skewering the foibles of critics and the vanity of writers who listen to them.
As the earlier of the two plays, Sheridan’s comedy caricatures contemporary critic, Richard Cumberland, and Restoration heroic dramas such as John Dryden’s “The Conquest of Granada” through the foppish scribbler, Mr. Puff. As its 20th century counterpart, Stoppard’s comedy pokes fun at the banalities and conformism of modern critical writing and the naturalistic absurdities that inhabit murder melodramas like Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap.” Both plays satirize the conventions of an earlier popular genre while giving the guardians of those conventions their just comedic deserts.
The performances of all the cast members in the multiple roles were exemplary. Of particular note were Hugh Nees’ exasperated and beleaguered servant/prompter and Robert Stanton as the foppish Mr. Puff in “The Critic” and John Ahlin’s fretting critic Mr. Birdboot and Robert Dorfman’s eccentric (to say the least) Inspector Hound in the Stoppard farce. Sandra Struthers and Charity Jones had fine comedic moments as supportive spouses and/or lovers while Naomi Jacobson shone as the dull-witted housekeeper, Mrs. Drudge. John Catron displayed fine comedic chops as the blindly self-indulgent Sir Fretful Plagiary.
Like the acting, the staging and direction embellishes all the linguistic wit and comedic insight contained in these two satires. Sheridan and Stoppard may not have caught the conscience of a king in these the play-within-a-play comedies, but they have captured the comedic spirit that prompts many authors to share Rabelais’ injunction towards critics to “go hang yourselves. . . you shall never want rope enough.”