June 11, 1998
George Jean Nathan:
Theater: Alarums and Excursions
No matter how impressive Nathan the Critic ever becomes, he is constantly subverted by Nathan the Dandy, the man who is more concerned with witty badinage and flip cynicism than he is hard, critical reasoning.
George Jean Nathan: A True Critic
Between about 1910 and 1939, no one in the theater made a move without consulting George Jean Nathan. In the midst of scriveners, hacks and stringers, Nathan was the real thing: an erudite theater critic with more than 20 books to his credit, a fabled association with H.L. Mencken behind him (they co-edited "the Smart Set") and a range of European-bred tastes that gave him a sophistication that few of his colleagues could rival. He not only promoted the early Eugene O'Neill, but was a close friend of the playwright's and his staunchest champion. He elucidated G.B. Shaw for the masses and created the appetite that eventually established Sean O'Casey.
Nathan has recently resurfaced as a result of two new publications from Applause Books -- "The Smart Set," Thomas Quinn Curtiss's lively history of the magazine that, between 1914 and 1923, mockingly declared war on American philistinism, and "The World of George Jean Nathan," a reissue of Charles Agnoff's 1952 chrestomathy of material drawn from the author's collected works.
The fate that befell H.L. Mencken, from the 1940s onward, somewhat hobbled Nathan as well. After three decades of pervasive influence as a critic, seer and pundit, Mencken was relegated to the role of superficial wiseacre and dispenser of once-fashionable-but-now-passé cynicism. Nathan, whose literary style was almost the mirror-image of Mencken's, was likewise downgraded. Although he championed O'Neill and European playwrights such as Hauptmann, Schnitzler, Maeterlinck and the Capeks, by mid-century, many of these same playwrights had lost their allure. Even O'Neill got taken down several pegs, and, today, a fierce controversy still rages as to whether he is really America's most prodigious playwright or a brooding Strindbergian clone who never quite managed to master either language or dramaturgy.
The Mencken-Nathan partnership was one of those curious unions based on ostensible incompatibility. Mencken was a proud Teuton, admirer of the Kaiser, bigoted against blacks, casually anti-Semitic and a devotee of beer and burlesque; Nathan, a dandified Jew who emulated Oscar Wilde and "art for art's sake" and a shameless hedonist who didn't care a fig about politics. They both shared a fanged sense of humor and allied themselves against what Mencken liked to call "the booboisie": bible-thumping philistines, Comstocks and Babbits.
In one of his early credos, Nathan wrote:
"What interests me in life is the surface of life: life's music and color, its charm and ease, its humor and its loveliness.
"The great problems of the world -- social, political, economic and theological -- do not concern me in the slightest. I care not who writes the laws of the country so long as I may listen to its songs. I can live every bit as happily under a king, or even a Kaiser, as under a president.... If all the Armenians were to be killed tomorrow and if half of Russia were to starve to death the day after, it would not matter to me in the least. What concerns me alone is myself, and the interests of a few close friends. For all I care, the rest of the world can go to hell at today's sunset...."
Thomas Quinn Curtiss, in "The Smart Set," contends that this was Nathan merely projecting a somewhat histrionic image of himself, but everything in his oeuvre tends to bear out the sentiments expressed.
Harold Clurman disdained Nathan (ironically, he was the first recipient of the George Jean Nathan Award for Drama Criticism), but, then, Nathan disparaged Clifford Odets and most of the repertoire of the Clurman-Strasberg Group Theater. When, in the 1930s, the American stage was veering irreversibly toward social realism, Nathan was still championing continental elegance and artificiality. One of the curious contradictions in his character is that although he espoused "high art" -- O'Neill, Shaw, Ibsen and Shakespeare -- he had an insatiable weakness for frivolous musical comedies, vaudeville and striptease. He was perhaps the first to fully appreciate the genius of Florenz Ziegfeld, and his 1921 encomium on Ziegfeld is one of the most astute essays ever written on that exceptional showman.
Nathan's great strengths as a critic were his erudition, his wit, his clear-cut statement of esthetic principles and his ability to stick to them -- even when they might have been gainfully rethought.
Perhaps because of his iconoclastic years with Mencken, he was always anticipating encroachments from the vulgarian, the hypocrite and the yahoo. He was so prone to tilt against ready-made enemies, he was often blind to the real deficiencies in a writer, a play or a movement. Withering putdown became a reflex action and, as any critic will tell you, it's always disastrous to go to the theater, cutlass in hand.
What he lacked was the gift of incisive analysis, a sense of dramatic structure beyond obvious observations about "a weak second act" or "an unsatisfactory climax." His spirited defense of O'Neill, triggered by Eric Bentley's sharp, deflationary criticism of the playwright, is more like that of a booster than a cagey intellectual defender mustering unassailable arguments. No matter how impressive Nathan the Critic ever becomes, he is constantly subverted by Nathan the Dandy, the man who is more concerned with witty badinage and flip cynicism than he is hard, critical reasoning.
But, then, neither Kenneth Tynan nor Frank Rich were exactly intellectual heavyweights, and critics such as Alexander Woolcott and Brooks Atkinson were such lightweights that beside them, Nathan looms like a Tunney or a Dempsey. The overriding fact is that Nathan was utterly saturated in the arts and, throughout his life, fed off them like an insatiable gourmet, and so all his copy seems to come from a sensibility that is thoroughly habituated to a wide and fertile cultural terrain. Perhaps in the long run that is the only characteristic of the true critic that counts: that he be a man who cares passionately about standards and their maintenance, and that he conveys that passion in every word he writes.
Charles Marowitz, a regular contributor for In Theater magazine, writes from Malibu