Theater Commentary: George Jean Nathan — The Divine Devil of American Theater Criticism
“The best of the regular theater critics … the brightest America ever had.”
– Eric Bentley
“Intelligent play-goer number one.” – George Bernard Shaw
“The truth is that Mr. Nathan is both a theatrical storehouse, full of the most voluminous and astonishing information, and a whole theatre in himself. He maintains an impetus and lustre that time can not stale.”
– Stark Young
By Bill Marx
I am over a month late, but attention must be paid. George Jean Nathan, the greatest American theater critic of the 20th century, died fifty years ago on April 8. He was 76. So far no homages have marked the occasion, Nathan’s thirty-four books on the theater are out of print, and Thomas Connolly’s fine “George Jean Nathan and the Making of Modern American Drama Criticism” remains the only substantial volume dedicated to seriously examining his legacy.
Yet Nathan radically rejiggered the DNA of stage reviewing; he is the pit bull of homegrown theater reviewers, an erudite firebrand whose take-no-prisoners approach to stagecraft and the craft of criticism demolished the genteel reviewing style of 19th century performance-fixated scribes like William Winter and J. Ranken Towse. Now that critical gentility — rejuvenated by economic boosterism — has reasserted itself it’s not surprising that Nathan isn’t receiving credit for his resolute deviltry.
In his volumes on the stage, mostly assembled from the weekly or monthly columns written from 1905 to 1956 (for “Vanity Fair” and “Esquire” among others), Nathan cut-and-slashes his way through thousands of glittery Broadway opening nights, perfecting a jubilantly barbed style reminiscent of the vibrant bear-baiting of his comrade H. L. Mencken, with whom he co-edited the magazines “The Smart Set” and “The American Mercury.” No critic wielded the scythe as ferociously or as accurately (the majority of his verdicts hold up) when he separated the wheat from the chaff. Nathan fits Kenneth Tynan’s definition of the ideal critic: “patron and judge, capable of dealing out rewards and blisses with one hand, and infernal aches and penuries with the other.”
Whether he is panning or praising, Nathan brings a spiky intelligence, a robust sense of the absurd, and a sinewy fearlessness of phrase to what he sees as the gloriously vulgar spectacle of American theater, “a painted toy with something of true gold inside it.” And he ferociously protected the rare instances of precious metal; among his favorites are George Bernard Shaw, August Strindberg, Eugene O’Neill, Sean O’Casey, and William Saroyan. His galvanic defense of O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh,” which was greeted with critical hostility at its 1947 premiere, takes on a carping pack mentality with memorably savage aplomb.
Still, Nathan spills most of his ink on memorably lambasting the sub-standard. His most entertaining pans manage to simultaneously scold, lampoon, bray, lecture, analyze, and guffaw. In the words of his iconoclastic forefather, James Gibbons Huneker, Nathan was “witty, wise, and cruel … the Bad Boy of New York drama criticism.” Nathan’s knack for severing the jugular with an ax contributed to the decapitation of his own career; he ruthlessly fashioned a hyperbolic sharp-toothed persona that served as the model for George Sanders’s suave piranha of a dramatic critic in the film “All About Eve.” The obsession to be clever led, after the decades of reviewing, into self-parodic overkill that provided fodder for his detractors.
Some critics see Nathan’s snobbery as a defensive reaction to his heartland childhood in Middle America (Fort Wayne, Indiana and Cleveland, Ohio), others trace it to shame for his Jewish background, which he never mentioned and demanded be left out of Issac Goldberg’s 1926 biographical study.
Rendering his judgments with stinging dash, Nathan practices, in his words, a form of “deconstructive criticism” that was anything but theoretical. In “Comedians All” (1919), he defines his technique: “The art of the careful, honest, and demolishing coup de grace is an art calling, firstly, for an exhaustive knowledge of the subject under the microscope, secondly, for an original and sharply inventive analytical turn of mind, and thirdly, for a wit and power over words that shall make them whiz through the printed page.” Nathan makes no claims for “objectivity,” which he argues is an impossibility, but sees his role as dishing out reasoned verdicts with either vituperative or celebratory gusto.
Nathan never sputters with anger – his persona left little scope for indignation, which is bred of disillusion. He takes for granted that the stage plays a vital role in society, demanding that the theater be about more than cranking out commercial successes, scoring safe political points, or cashing in on Hollywood tie-ins. The carnivalesque vigor of his judgments testify to his belief in drama’s central importance to the country’s cultural life. As Stark Young, another superb critic, suggests, Nathan’s reviews are performances. His critiques not only judge, contextualize, and explain but dramatize an informed opinion: “Criticism may be permitted as many forms as drama,” insisted Nathan, “it may be in turn appropriately comic, melodramatic, tragic, farcical, and burlesque.”
Like Mencken, Nathan approaches the wild antics of American “buncombophagi” with incredulous disbelief, an aristocratic bewilderment as delighted by the juicy gaucheries of vaudeville as moved by the tony inspiration of high art. One of the critic’s most entertaining books, “The Theatre, The Drama, The Girls” (1921) is a near Proustian reminiscence of turn-of-the-century variety shows, a tender remembrance of gams past. (Be warned – there is nothing Politically Correct about Nathan.) Another, “Since Ibsen” (1933), is an encyclopedic round-up – a raucous taxidermy really – of every dramatic formula paraded across American stages during the ‘20s. Nathan’s flamboyant marriage of satiric irritability and linguistic flair – his habitual stance of imperious incredulity — influenced the comic styles of writers such as Nathanael West and S. J. Perelman, who read “The Smart Set” avidly.
Bright and brash, Nathan spiced up his kiboshes with zingers, but he also encouraged playwrights as energetically when he admired their work. His friendship with O’Neill has been well documented (though the critic was not afraid of telling the playwright when he had a stinker in the offing); his gritty defense of O’Casey at the time the dramatist was ostracized because of his left-wing views (all the more admirable because of Nathan’s dislike for political theater), as well as his hands-on encouragement of Saroyan (to the point of suggesting revisions of “The Time of Your Life”) aren’t as well known.
As the years went by, Nathan’s yen to make things happen on both sides of the footlights led to increasingly destructive instances of conflict of interest, such as his machinations behind the scenes to influence the production of “The Glass Menagerie.” Nathan caved into a seductive fantasy that claims many stage critics, particularly those who sit on the aisle for decades: the unhealthy desire to play all the roles — critic, producer, director – at the same time. Giving in to the urge to become a power player undercuts the disinterested critical distance that is necessary for intellectual integrity and honest judgments.
In addition, Nathan’s “modern” aesthetic was based on the art’s for art’s sake school of the 1890’s. His Wildean pose of critic-as-artist classified the stage as a sensuous spectacle (“What interests me in life is the surface of life … life’s music and colour, its charm and ease, its humor and loveliness.” ), which might explain way his finest writing was done during the effervescence of the ‘20s. Still, his criticism remains sharp throughout his career and he generally has something provocative to say about every major playwright of the era, though he has his lapses, such as his claim that “Waiting for Godot” was “the little play that wasn’t there.”
Despite his sins, Nathan pursued his job with professional determination. Eric Bentley writes in “What is Theatre?” that Nathan is “the leading example of a whole lifetime principally and profitably dedicated to dramatic criticism.” According to Connolly, Nathan attended two hundred and eight shows in the 1928-1929 season, one hundred and sixty-one of which were cited in his writing. In a typical year Nathan went to the theater at least four times a week. His sneering ferocity towards the tidal waves of “flapdoodle” becomes more understandable if he is seen as a proto TV critic. He writes about mountains of pap, from ice shows to vaudeville.
Nathan was a firm advocate of the idea of leaving a play early (he thought an ace critic could smell a turkey within the first ten minutes), but his savvy passion for the stage surpassed the dedication of other critics of the period – such as Alexander Woollcott and Robert Benchley – who saw reviewing as a pastime or as a means to advance their careers in other areas.
Nathan not only critiques plays with authoritative panache but fellow reviewers as well. No theater critic during the last century wrote more, or as acutely, about the challenging responsibilities of the critic. Nathan insists that reviewers dedicate themselves to the craft of writing and uphold high artistic standards. He scoffs at the idea that reviewers should seek to reform the theater: he was particularly disdainful of critics who offer playwrights advice in their reviews (alas, he reserved his influence-peddling behind the scenes), often going so far as questioning the education, analytical powers, and writing skills of his fellow practitioners.
Nathan demanded that reviewers not be swayed by sentiment, circumstances, or convenience: according to him, a critic should write what he or she thinks even if it means closing every theater in the country. Anything less than passionate aesthetic engagement (what he calls “intellectual emotionalism”) means becoming, in some form or another, a flack for vested interests, commercial or artistic. It was on the strength of this conviction that Nathan’s will stipulated the establishment of an award for excellence in theater reviewing, and since 1959 the George Jean Nathan Award had been drama criticism’s highest accolade.
Yet if Nathan had admirers while his poison pen was active, his stock has dropped drastically since his death. Gordon Rogoff’s comments in the “Reader’s Encyclopedia of World Drama” typifies the hostility of those who dismiss Nathan’s writings as “clever journalism.” Praising Nathan as “the first critic of any influence, if not stature,” Rogoff goes on to label him a “playwright’s critic” who didn’t sufficiently appreciate the art of acting. As an example, he cites Nathan’s dislike of Charlie Chaplin.
Nathan admitted that he saw the words of the script, rather than spectacle, as the most crucial aspect of a performance, though he could write well about acting when he wanted. If this was a blind spot it wasn’t an oversight. (As for his disdain for Chaplin, Nathan, like Mencken, was resistant to the power of the movies.) Reacting against the actor-based criticism of the 19th century, Nathan felt that critics had to put performers in this place: “More bosh has been written of actors and acting than of any other subject in the world. The actor, at his best, is a proficient, likable, and often charming translator into popularly intelligible terms of an imaginative artist’s work.”
Rogoff’s perspective, which leans toward a modern variation on actor-based criticism, plays down Nathan in order to make room for the wave of academic reviewers that sprang up during the 1960s. To these critics, Nathan was an antique spitfire whose example had to be discarded to make way for more sophisticated academic-based criticism. Today, theater historians either patronize journalistic reviews or don’t know what to make of them. And the Nathan that is easily available in print turns out to be a tombstone, an ineptly organized tome, edited by Arnold Lesile Lazarus, that includes only two hundred pages of Nathan in its four hundred.
Also, truth is that in a number of ways Nathan has dated badly. Statements once meant to shock – “if all the Armenians were to be killed tomorrow and if half of Russia were to starve to death the way after, it would not matter to me the least. What concerns me alone is myself, and the interests of a few close friends” – come off as rancid bon mots of a wanna-be imperial sensibility. At his worse, Nathan believed too completely that sneering became him – he betrayed his own high standards.
Still, the robust vitality of Nathan’s wit and insights, his encyclopedic knowledge of the stage, and the wisdom of his critical strictures are well worth keeping in mind. Certainly his demands for the stage remain as pertinent as ever: “The business of the theatre and the drama is to quicken either the mind or the memory, the heart or the pulse.” As for the craft of theater criticism, inept writing, conflicts of interest, and lack of independent thought are as prevalent now as in Nathan’s day.
In his appreciation of the writer, Eric Bentley questions whether Nathan was a great critic, but goes on to say that “he has been a great fighter against all kinds of nonsense. He consistently puts his critical colleagues to shame with his superior taste and brains … He also believes in testing the bad by the standards of the good; and he usually knows what is good too.” Despite his warts, Nathan was an indispensable critic who maintained, for decades, an aggressive stand against mediocrity and bunkum in reviews that deserve to be remembered and read, if only to encounter an astringent critical vision and zesty philosophy worth arguing with.
I still find volumes of Nathan in used book stories and online at reasonable prices.
I would suggest looking at the books published in the late teens and 1920s: “The Popular Theatre,” “Materia Critica,” “Art of the Night” and “The House of Satan” (my favorite Nathan title). Those who want a short cut should turn to “The Encyclopedia of the Theatre,” published in 1940, which contains bits and pieces from all of the lively early volumes. The snippets are published under such headings as “Erin Go Blah,” “Ballyhooey,” “Gooseflesh Drama,” etc.
But if you really want to get a sense of Nathan as a working critic (the cut-and-paste jobs rarely contain complete reviews), then find one of the “Theatre Books of the Year” series Nathan published from 1942 through 1951. Each volume contains a season’s worth of reviews, a fairly complete lineup of what was on Broadway at the time. The eye-popping range of showbiz stuff, from classic to cornball, amuses and stimulates, to say the least.
The final volume in the series (1950-51), for example, includes Nathan’s trenchant reviews of the premieres of “Guys and Dolls,” “The Country Girl,” “The Rose Tattoo,” and Arthur Miller’s version of Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People,” the American premiere of “The Lady’s Not For Burning,” revivals of “The Royal Family,” “Mrs Warren’s Profession,” and “Captain Brassbound’s Conversion,” a play in verse by Robinson Jeffers, an opera by Benjamin Britten, a comedy by a fellow drama critic (the “New Yorker”’s Wolcott Gibbs, who, as Nathan points out, panned the 1949-50 “Theatre Book of the Year”), and “Michael Todd’s Peep Show.”
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.