In his new role as the Leonard L. Milberg ’53 Visiting Lecturer in Irish Letters, drama critic Fintan O’Toole has switched from one side of the footlights to the other. O’Toole, who has reviewed theater productions for the Irish Times and the New York Daily News, finds himself center stage, so to speak, teaching for the first time by leading a Program in Theater criticism workshop.
What makes the role reversal challenging, he said, is that many of the students are performers themselves, including actors in recent University productions of Eugene Onegin and Elephant’s Graveyard. “I think of the theater critic as an outsider, and the students are starting off seeing theater from the inside,” he said.
The class covers topics such as the key questions a critic must ask in preparing a review and the ethics of criticism. The students attend theater and dance shows, write reviews, and critique those reviews in class.
In a recent class session, O’Toole lectured on the meaning of theater as expressed by playwrights Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud, as nine students sat in comfortable leather chairs in a 185 Nassau Street seminar room. “The job of the theater critic is to make connections, to evaluate the performance, but also to put it in a broader context,” he told the students. “It’s not just what you think about a performance, but why you think it.”
Christina Henricks ’13, stage manager for the Princeton University Players, said, “Each review is very difficult to begin, but once I start writing, it becomes fun. I feel that my critical ability is being refined with each piece I write.”
After a recent class trip to Broadway to see Venus in Fur, Henricks’ review deemed the play “a sharp, scintillating story.” She said she was drawn in by the tension between the two actors: “I realized I identified with them — they were provoking each other, and I (as an audience member) was being provoked.”
Considered one of Ireland’s leading public intellectuals, O’Toole writes weekly on theater, politics, and culture as an Irish Times columnist. The 16 books to his credit reflect these themes, as have his articles in Granta, The New Yorker, The Guardian, and other publications.
O’Toole’s writing “comments on every aspect of the human experience, but his roots are in theater,” said Michael Cadden, director of the Program in Theater. “He’s a great conversationalist; I envy the students.”
O’Toole’s post as the Milberg lecturer is shared between the theater program and the history department, where he teaches a course on the 1916 uprising in Dublin.