Critics and reviewers give public opinions on artistic and literary works. In the 19th century they wrote in newspapers and magazines. In the 20th and 21st centuries they moved into the new media of radio, television and the internet. The subjects they reviewed expanded with technological change: from literature, art exhibitions and live performances of music and drama, to films, recorded music, radio and television shows and computer games.
Reviews can have a strong impact on public responses. A critic’s opinion can help make or break a show or film, and can affect sales of books or music. Critics can be ‘gatekeepers’, protecting what they see as cultural standards, or they may be advocates for change. Well-written review articles are entertaining and may even be works of literature in themselves.
Early critics and reviewers
New Zealand’s first reviews of live performances and literature appeared in newspapers in the 1840s. Later in the 19th century occasional reviews of local art exhibitions were published. By the 1880s some papers, such as the Otago Daily Times, ran Saturday supplements with regular literary and theatrical reviews.
In the 19th century reviewers were generally anonymous. Many regular reviewers used pseudonyms, for example ‘Puck’ and ‘Benvolio’. By the late 1890s an increasing number of reviewers were writing under their own names, especially academics acting as guest reviewers.
In the small world of colonial New Zealand, the identities of ‘anonymous’ reviewers were probably well known in their local communities
Clash over comic opera
In September 1880 the touring American Lingard Company put on a season of HMS Pinafore at Auckland’s Theatre Royal. The Auckland Star wrote reviews of each night’s performance. One review stated, ‘Mr Lingard acts better than he sings’, Mrs Lingard’s singing involved ‘laboured and ill-timed respiration’, while the choruses were ‘very indifferently rendered’.1 The Lingards responded by cancelling the Auckland Star critic’s season ticket and stating that the Star had insulted the company by sending an opera critic who knew nothing about music.
Early New Zealand newspapers published reviews of drama and live music, including opera and brass bands. Initially reviews were short, but by the 1860s some newspapers had very astute reviewers writing long, detailed articles, such as those by the Otago Daily Times opera critic in the early 1860s.
Reviewers were often outspoken in their criticism of local performances, but more positive when reviewing touring acts. Some newspapers ran regular features on music, but these were often music-scene gossip reprinted from Australian or British newspapers, rather than serious reviews.
The newspapers of the 1840s occasionally reproduced book reviews from British or Australian papers, a practice which continued for many years.
The first reviews written locally were of non-fiction books or pamphlets relating to New Zealand. These were usually travel accounts, works discussing immigration, or works on Māori or New Zealand’s natural history. As magazines and books began to be published in New Zealand, they were reviewed in local newspapers. By the 1860s many papers wrote their own reviews of all forms of literature, rather than reprinting overseas reviews.
Works in Māori
In September 1847, the New Zealander published a detailed review of missionary John Whiteley’s pamphlet, Rongo mau. The pamphlet, written to encourage Māori to abandon warfare and live in peace, was entirely in the Māori language, so the reviewer must have had a working knowledge of Māori. In 1851 and 1852 the Wellington Independent reviewed Māori translations of Robinson Crusoe and a pamphlet on money matters. In these cases the reviewer praised the intent of the translations, but admitted to not having the language skills to judge their quality.
There was little art criticism in 19th-century New Zealand newspapers and magazines, apart from reprints of British and Australian reviews. Critics did, however, review local paintings on the rare occasions when art exhibitions were held in New Zealand. The Dunedin New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition of 1889–1890 included an art section as well as industrial courts and fun-fair attractions. Newspapers reviewed the paintings in detail. Most were from Britain or Australia, so reviewers compared New Zealand works with those from overseas.
There were a number of attempts to establish literary magazines in 19th-century New Zealand. Zealandia featured many book reviews, but was short-lived, lasting from 1889 to 1890. The New Zealand Illustrated Magazine, published from 1899 to 1905, reviewed drama and literature.
The most successful literary magazine was the Triad, edited by Charles Baeyertz. Founded in 1893, it was published in New Zealand until 1914, then moved to Australia. Baeyertz wrote opinionated reviews of books and musical events. Frank Morton, a Triad reviewer from 1905, was unafraid to offend local or international authors and artists. In the 1910s Morton, Baeyertz and other Triad reviewers fiercely attacked poets and painters of the modernist movement.
Attacks on new developments were to become a common feature of arts and literary criticism in New Zealand.