Broadway's Banner Years

by Louis Kronenberger
by George Jean Nathan
Here are the first three of forty-five volumes embracing “The Theatre World of George Jean Nathan,”which the Fairleigh Dickinson University Press plans to reissue—a project very likely without equal in terms of any English-speaking drama critic. Two things help account for such a procession of books—the half-century during which Nathan (1882-1958) served as a critic, and the half-dozen other theater roles that served Nathan as a writer. Widely read, widely acquainted, cosmopolite, boulevardier, and writer on nontheatrical subjects though he was, his career harbored the suggestion of an All the World’s a Stage, the exits from one aspect of it serving as entrances to another. The plays, for him, could equally become springboards to stage theories or symptoms of stage sickness; last Wednesday’s new comedy could be traced back to the Babylonians or a burlesque show; every plot had its ancestors, every actor bore a recognizable birthmark, every producer wore an anecdotal scar.
All this was, of course, in addition—and often in seeming contradiction—to the Nathan whose aisle seat could be a stern, unbending Judgment Seat, and whose finely manicured hand constantly signed death warrants, certificates of lunacy, and indictments for stage theft; for this was the Nathan who saw to it that the evil playwrights do should live after them, while they themselves dropped into limbo. There was, besides this, the Nathan who praised and promoted the plays he liked, all the more if he had discovered the playwrights; and who, despite many harsh verdicts, liked more plays than one might have supposed. Whether to a later generation he has survived as a critic, a legend, or a mere name, I do not know; but he clearly belonged to a generation quite different from today’s. His heyday was, among other things, a Broadway going strong with four or five openings a week, swarming with gorgeous, romantic stars, indestructible comedians, masters of show music, highstepping chorus lines, regional primitivism, and suburban slices-oflife. At the same time, it was a Broadway abounding in bad plays that Nathan could trounce; and the trouncings, if not really his forte, were certainly a chief source of his fame.
In itself, this was a far from ignoble source, for with a few exceptions Nathan’s fellow drama critics were shockingly lenient in the wrong places—overimpressed by mere cleverness or novelty, by the grandiose and even the spurious, too tolerant of what they called “theater” and of what they failed to call old hat; as they were very little impressed by the experimental, the disturbing, the “unpleasant,” and what, if faulty, was also genuinely fresh—this as much with a first-time-round Pal Joey as with a first-time-round Brecht.
Nathan became a kind of doubledealer in incompetence, slaughtering the plays he thought bad simultaneously with smacking down the reviewers who praised them. In many, perhaps most, cases he was altogether right, though in some cases he was intoxicated by the assignment and given to exaggerating the offense and to overworking his taste for derision and entombment. In other words, and like many other critics, the executioner strove to be an entertainer as well, and often could be. But, as with many other entertainers, his verbal tricks and stratagems tended to become hackneyed, and the entertainer, on occasion, could show a touch of the ham. In terms of his judgment Nathan proved of real value to the very end, but one found him less exhilarating in terms of his jokes. He dealt in triviality almost as much as he condemned it; he became as dependent on formula as the playwrights he took to task for it. This included formulas that were oldfashioned to begin with: satiric epithets and foreign words, puns and portmanteau words, and, worst of all, comically aimed polysyllabic ones. To be brief about them, consider such phrases as “the outhouses of Thespis” and “a fellow of considerable cerebral puissance.” Even Nathan’s straight style falls into such prose as “[a critic| infected with dubitations, some of them of such refractory magnetism that they at least momentarily pull him from his complacent anchor.”Most surprisingly bad is Nathan’s complimentary prose, as that concerning Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset: “There is in some of his lines authentic song; in some of his scenes the flame of beautiful drama,” while the play as a whole is a “mountain climb toward the peaks of dramatic-literary beauty.”
Winterset brings us into the presence of Nathan’s seriously treated drama criticism, which is to say his importance as a drama critic. To this, I think, there is no capsule answer, partly because so tremendously much of his criticism was concerned with plays that called for instant dismissal; partly because so relatively little of his criticism involved the highest levels for judgment; and partly because, as I have suggested, he was a very special figure in the range and diversity of his writings about the theater. He is really best classified as a man of the theater, as we speak of a man of letters, rather than as a drama critic. His variousness becomes plain even in the three volumes—first published in 1935, 1936, and 1940—under consideration.
The vast amount of time Nathan spent on trifling and worthless plays was, in a sense, part of his reviewing job (though no comparable literary, music, or art critic would devote a paragraph to nine tenths of such stuff). And in a sense Nathan perhaps strove to convert his job into a campaign, into a street-cleaning operation for Broadway. But any such attack was clearly bound to fall on deaf ears, since Broadway was lacking—and very anxious to remain lacking—in any aesthetic standards; if there is a good deal less junk today it is from Broadway’s lacking its earlier economic support. Yet Nathan went far beyond any call of duty in exposing triviality and trash; he wrote countless pieces on such piddling subjects as how many all-female casts preceded The Women and on such cutie-cute ideas as dogs as actors, his staggering total recall often yielding pitifully fractional rewards.
As a critic of what called for thoughtful and judicious criticism, Nathan had unusual knowledge and experience of plays and playwrights, a keen theater sense, a sophisticated taste, a sharp eye for detail, and great responsiveness as well as great resistance to what he saw. He could also quickly pick up the scent of the pretentious and the faux-bon, and harry them with skill as well as scorn. He could, when it was necessary, cry down the very playwrights he delightedly cried up, O’Neill and Shaw among them. With less success, he somewhat specialized in confounding critics and playwrights with facts they overlooked, precedents they were unaware of, plays they were unacquainted with, contentions they could be proved wrong about, many of these being obvious setups in the service of put-downs.
Nathan’s general theater writings are a virtual waterfall of ideas, but they manifest very little real thinking; some of his plunges into the other arts immediately drown his critical judgment; and sophisticated though he was, he could pedantically lard his text with such thoroughly dispensable allusions, citations, and testimonies that the result was far less criticism than catalogue. As a yearin, year-out reviewer of current plays he was as good a guide for the reasonably discriminating playgoer as could fairly be asked for; as a longterm, larger-scaled critic he was often discerning, but also fallible. He had from the first beat the drum for O’Neill and O’Casey and admired Shaw and Synge; and he was both perceptive and educative about the generation of European playwrights from Hauptmann to Pirandello. He overrated Maxwell Anderson, including Winterset; overtouted Saroyan even when he showed merit; took quite the wrong tone about T.S. Eliot; at his first stage encounter with Lorca, demolished him; and could go surprisingly awry, as in speaking of the “deplorably unnecessary and absurd epilogue” of Shaw’s Saint Joan.
But what seems to me most called for, particularly in so widely read a critic, is that at least one of his fortyfive books should have devoted itself, with a certain amplitude, to the work of some eight or ten of the world’s major playwrights. If this would have been a real, and I would think a relishable, test of his critical powers, in another sense it could have proved a greater surety for his critical survival. For, as things stand, even the mainstays of Nathan’s Broadway have, with not too many exceptions, begun to dim or disappear; and for fairly panoramic criticism of almost all the theater’s great playwrights, people will have to look elsewhere. This is rather a pity, for whatever his shortcomings, Nathan wrote as a cultivated man of the world and a real initiate of the theater, where today’s well-informed and serious-minded theater commentators are all too often pedagogues who pontificate in highbrow clichés and dreary jargon.
If, in terms of permanence, Nathan’s is, critically, a disappointing contribution, his huge general output, performing a different function, may well have a more lasting value. Certainly no other American has provided so much and such miscellaneous information about the world of the twentieth-century stage. Encyclopaedia of the Theatre is in some degree evidence of this, its contents ranging from Censors to Don'ts for Producers to Harlem to Program Notes to Vaudeville. In Passing Judgment and The Theatre of the Moment, there are enjoyable pieces on, among others, O’Neill and Hecht & MacArthur as personalities. Nathan could be very lively in treating of personalities, and outside the theater as well as in—this reminding us that for many years he was Mencken’s coeditor on the Smart Set and the American Mercury, and at the same time driving home the fact that no drama critic, from Aristotle on, has remained famous on the basis of his criticism alone. Very possibly, Nathan’s most assured source of survival is his vast amount of comment, his vast citation of fads, oddities, coincidences, scandals, of stage traditions and taboos, of jokes and plots, of tag lines and tunes; his reminiscences of innumerable people; his information concerning the outskirts, the backwaters, the cemeteries of theater life. All in all, this is a notable contribution to theatrical history; and all the better for so often existing in the form of pungent footnotes rather than sober text, of colorful anecdotes rather than cold statistics, of evocative atmosphere rather than moldy substance, and of firsthand knowledge along with untraceable gossip. Indeed, that, and that alone, could justify the forty-five repetitious volumes, with forty-five introductions by Nathan’s friend and associate, Dr. Charles Angoff. But, with his appreciation of irony and his enjoyment of the unforeseen twist, I’m not sure that Nathan would have minded surviving for the most part as an Information Center.