Digital Humanities at the heart of Drama Critiques

At the intersection between data science and English literature, Drama Critiques seeks to examine ten years of the Londonian contemporary theatre (2010 – 2020) through the eyes of two communities: the journalistic one on the one hand, and the digital one on the other hand. Since 2010 in England, a wave of blogs written by authors coming from various horizons has arisen on the Internet. Students, theatre professionals but also mere amateurs began publishing their own theatre reviews. These new independent voices in the digital space progressively redefine the shape of classic journalistic criticism. Although discreet, they offer a new vision of the history of Londonian theatres. By doing so, it sets itself apart from the canon of mainstream journalism. By focusing on 40 000 theatre reviews regarding London plays (2010 – 2020), Drama Critiques aims to examine the differences and similarities between these two communities. This project is at the crossroad between data science and theatre studies. While the former is required in order to analyse these thousands of pieces of information, the latter is necessary to develop a more thorough analysis.


I. What does “To Criticize” Mean?

Whether it is in literature, in cinema or in video games studies, the critic is often represented as a parasite. Austere, smug and frustrated, he is that shadowy figure who judges and moralizes the others’ work at dusk. However the etymology of the word reminds us that this profession does not consist in destroying the work of others but in analyzing it. “To criticize” means “to discern, to separate, to sort“. Thus the purpose of the critic is to select some characteristics of a cultural event in order to dissect it, “to sieve” it, as its Greek etymology indicates, and to give an analysis of it. For the theatre critic in particular, his goal consists in translating the experience of the stage into words. Between immediate aesthetic pleasure and rational distance, he has to decode what he has understood, seen and felt during a performance into a limited number of words.

II. What is the Role of the Critic?

On a small scale, the role of the critic is to describe the story that comes to life on stage. On a bigger scale, he also participates in writing the history of theatre. The Greek root of the word “theatre” reminds us that theatre is primarily intended to be seen in order to exist. Theatron designates “the place from which one looks“, but also “the contemplation”. By dissecting these shows, by detailing their strengths and their weaknesses, by describing the performances of the actors or the details of the sets, the critic captures a multitude of precious elements that vanish once the curtain falls. Like the curators of a museum, they record and preserve the history of theatre.

III. When does English Theatre Criticism Begin?

The first attempts to review performances began in the 1690s with The Gentleman’s Journal. In 1734, Aaron Hill and William Popple created The Prompter, the first newspaper dedicated to English theatre. It was in 1770 that theatre criticism gradually became an official section of newspapers. In the beginning of the 19th century the activity of criticism was finally recognized as a profession of its own. The development and influence of the written press enabled criticism to be fully established in newspapers. The Guardian, The Independent, The Times, to name but a few, were created and left more room for theatrical criticism.

IV. Theatre Criticism in the Digital Age

At the end of the 20th century, the arrival of the Internet redefined the modalities of expression of theatre critics. In 1997, the first two theatre review websites were created (British Theatre and What’s On Ten years later, the democratization of the Internet enabled a wave of freelance bloggers to open their own website. A dozen of established critics in renowned newspapers began to write new forms of articles on their personal sites. It is in the 2010s that this phenomenom became more important. A myriad of blogs emerged thanks to the popularity of platforms like WordPress, LiveJournal or Blogger. A diversity of independent voices from multiple backgrounds began to flourish in the landscape of theatre criticism. Students, theatre professionals, but also mere amateurs began reviewing all the shows they were attending. The canon of theatrical criticism was progressively decentralized by its peripheries which claim their rights of visibility.

V. Two Opposite Communities: Journalists Versus Bloggers

The emergence of this new form of reception provoked sharp debates within the critics’ community. The provocative title of Ronan McDonald’s essay, The Death of the Critic (2009), embodies the core of this controversy. On the one hand, most of the professional critics who write for the most popular UK newspapers deny the legitimacy of the bloggers. On the other hand, these new voices in the digital space demand their speaking right. Above all, these tensions shed light on two communities that view and write the history of contemporary theatre differently. The staging of two plays in particular crystallises the polarity of these debates. In 2007, the technicality of the staging of Martin Crimp’s play Attemps on her Life (1997) was hailed with admiration by the blogosphere. Conversely, the journalistic critics received it with great hostility. For Georgina Brown, critic for the Mail on Sunday, ‘[that was] the worst play [she had] ever seen’. Mark Shenton, chief theatre critique of the Sunday Express, said that he was ‘seriously contemplating making an attempt on [his] own life’. Five years later, Simon Stephens’ play Seven Kingdoms provoked a similar wave of dissent.

VI. Drama Critiques comme observatoire de ces changements culturels

The aim of Drama Critiques is to analyse ultra contemporary English theatre through the eyes of these two antagonistic communities. We have decided to focus our investigations on London theatres from 2010 to 2020. As explained above, it is from 2010 onwards that a new critical reception has emerged and has challenged the legitimacy of the critical theatre canon. Two histories are juxtaposed: the one written by the professional critics who are paid for their activity, and the one written by the discreet voices of the digital space. Far from cancelling each other, they complete one another to give us two different versions of the history of English theatre.

It is an approach at the crossroads between digital technologies and English theatre history that will allow us to examine this cultural phenomenon. The emergence of digital humanities has led to new analytical methods to study literature. Close reading is complemented by distant reading, as Franco Moretti defined it, and makes it possible to study large corpora as a whole thanks to technical tools. Classical literary analysis does not disappear. On the contrary, it is enriched by the contribution of digital tools which enable one to explore large databases. This quantitative approach thus makes it possible to examine literary phenomena on a larger scale, and to ask different questions.

presentation of the corpus