Power may be "all blue smoke and mirrors," as Jimmy Breslin once observed, but the critics are said to have a certain amount of it loaded in their acid pens. And perhaps they do. But it was Jean Sibelius, the composer, who stated: "Pay no attention to what the critics say; no statue has ever been put up to honor a critic."
Now we have at hand a new volume entitled "No Turn Unstoned" (Doubleday, $16.95), which comes from a line once delivered by George Bernard Shaw, to wit: "A critic is a man who leaves no turn unstoned."
The author-editor of `No Turn Unstoned" is Diana Rigg, a splendid British actress, who, after being lambasted one time by a critic, conceived the notion of asking other players for their worst notices. The roasting that Miss Rigg received came from John Simon, a New York critic, who witnessed her on the Broadway stage in a nude scene in "Abelard and Heloise" and wrote:
"Diana Rigg is built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses."
To the people who have paid attention to television, Diana Rigg is known best for her role of Mrs. Emma Peel in the sleek British comedy-spy series "The Avengers," wherein she starred with Patrick Macnee as the intrepid John Steed. Oh, they were a dashing couple - - very hip, very mod, very much a part of the swinging London of the time, and very conversant, moreover, with various forms of martial arts to use against the villains.
Once, I did an interview with Macnee at Musso and Frank's, the oldest restaurant in Hollywood -- established in 1919, a measure of antiquity that amused Macnee, fresh from England, where the newest spot will date back to the Wars of the Roses.
He spoke then of Miss Rigg as "perhaps the first lovely comedienne since Kay Kendall. A marvelous actress. Interesting characterization there, too, you see. A woman who's good at judo, a sharp mind, black pants and a pretty face -- such a woman could only relate to a sophisticated man such as John Steed."
True. And I recall talking with Miss Rigg and thinking that her voice was an English rose turned into words that stroked the ears with the grace and delicacy of a Mozart sonata -- words spoken in tones that would bestir any writer to mix his metaphors.
Classically trained, a star on Broadway as well as London's West End, Miss Rigg also made a spectacular imprint on TV viewers in the CBS film based on Rumer Godden's best seller, "In This House of Brede," starring as a chic London widow who becomes a cloistered nun.
Now about the book in which the following appears in her introduction: "When Thespis, the Greek poet who founded our profession, made history by stepping out of the chorus to impersonate one of the characters in the story that was being told, not everyone greeted this brilliant departure with the enthusiasm it deserved."
The first critical response, in other words.
Miss Rigg's introduction is beautifully written, by the way, and I would bet including Buckingham Palace, and two draft choices to be named later, that she penned every word herself with no assistance from ghost or publicist. Which is one of the perceptible differences separating British performers and our own. We assume that in contrast to the British, from David Niven to Peter Ustinov, with their powers of verbal expression, American performers couldn't write home for money and that is usually true.
I have been thumbing through the book and finding great examples of critical sniping. Here's one, for example, by Dorothy Parker -- only five words which concerned an actor named Guido Natzo. The review went like this: "Guido Natzo is natzo guido."
Robert Garland, reviewing Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" in a 1946 Broadway production, made this observation: "If you were to ask me what `Uncle Vanya' is about, I would say about as much as I can take."
And from Heywood Broun on a Broadway comedy: "The play opened at 8:40 sharp and closed at 10:40 dull."
Kenneth Tynan had this to say about Sir Ralph Richardson's performance at Stratford-on-Avon in 1952:
" ... His feathery, yeasty voice, with its single spring-held inflection, starved the part of its richness; he moved dully, as if by numbers, and such charm as he possessed was merely a sort of unfocused bluffness, like a teddy bear snapped in a bad light by a child holding its first camera. Sir Ralph, who seems to me to have become the glass eye in the forehead of English acting, has now bumped into something quite immoveable. His Macbeth is slovenly; and to go further into it would be as frustrating as trying to write with a pencil whose point has long since worn down to the wood."
Here's one more, less critical than an illustration of observable truth. Walter Kerr's essay on Christopher Fry's "The Dark Is Light Enough" began as follows:
"I wasn't really bent on research. I just happened to overhear a couple of trusting five-year-olds watching television one quiet night.
"`Which guy is the bad guy?'
"`Wait. See who has a mustache."