George Jean Nathan (1882-1958) was the leading American drama critic of his time. Active from 1905 to 1958, he zealously practiced what he called "destructive" theater criticism. Nathan wrote during the most important period of U.S. theater's history and set critical standards that are still being followed.
George Jean Nathan was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on February 14, 1882. He grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, where he graduated from that city's high school. On his mother's side, the German Nirdlingers, there were rugged pioneers who literally crossed the country in a covered wagon from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, to settle Fort Wayne. Nathan's maternal grandfather was one of the founders of this frontier trading post.
Two of Nathan's maternal uncles were to influence his career as a drama critic. Charles Frederic Nirdlinger was a playwright and drama critic who encouraged Nathan's entrance into journalism. Uncle Samuel Nixon-Nirdlinger was an important theater manager who secured free tickets for Nathan's family; loyalty to this uncle also may have engendered Nathan's rather benevolent attitude toward the Theatrical Syndicate. (The Syndicate was a nearly omnipotent group of theater managers who controlled the American theater in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.) Nathan's mother, Ella Nirdlinger Nathan, was a devout Catholic who attended the same convent school, St. Mary's in South Bend, Indiana, as playwright Eugene O'Neill's mother. The two became lifelong friends, as would their sons.
On his father's side Nathan was French; his father, Charles Naret Nathan, was the son of a Parisian attorney. He was one of the owners of the Eugene Peret vineyards in France and of a coffee plantation in Brazil. Nathan's father spoke eight languages fluently and took frequent business trips to Europe. All through Nathan's childhood the family spent alternate summers in Europe. Young George was thus brought up in an aristocratic and cosmopolitan atmosphere.
Nathan attended Cornell University where he was a champion fencer. He also edited the Sun, the college newspaper, and the Widow, Cornell's humor magazine. After being graduated in 1904, Nathan took a cub reporter's job at the New York Herald. Two years later Nathan managed to secure a third-string reviewer's post, and with his review of Bedford's Hope (January 29, 1906) the most important career in 20th-century American dramatic criticism was launched.
Nathan's personal life proceeded into a routine. He settled into a bachelor's apartment at New York's Royalton Hotel. He remained there for 45 years, the rooms gradually filling with books and manuscripts. Romantically linked with numerous actresses throughout his career (including a long relationship with Lillian Gish), Nathan finally married Julie Haydon, after a 14-year courtship, in 1956. More than the most feared first-nighter in New York, Nathan was a renowned man-about-town (and the model for the acerbic critic Addison De Witt in the film All About Eve).
Dissatisfied with the daily grind at the Herald, Nathan left the newspaper and began writing for magazines. It was here that he began to make his mark as critic. In 1908 he joined The Smart Set as its dramatic critic and met H.L. Mencken, its book reviewer. The two became friends and in 1914 assumed joint editorship of The Smart Set. Here was one of the great partnerships in American letters, for Mencken and Nathan were the arbiters, if not dictators, for what the "flaming youth" of 1920s America deemed worthwhile reading. Nathan and Mencken were much more than trend selectors though; in the pages of their magazine appeared the most influential and artistically promising writing of the era. A satirical poem of the day, "Mencken, Nathan and God," summed up their particular hold on the literate public of the 1920s.
Nathan was most important as a drama critic though, and his crusades against the buncombe of the Broadway show-shop and his avowedly "destructive" methods earned him the hatred of those whose work he scorned; and since he worked hard to live up to his own personal credo, "be indifferent," he made few friends. Among the chosen few, however, were Eugene O'Neill and another playwright, Sean O'Casey. Another writer of Irish background, George Bernard Shaw, considered him "intelligent playgoer number one."
Nathan liked very little, but when he decided to champion a playwright—or a performer—there was nothing he would not do. He never hesitated to use his influence with producers to get plays put on, nor did he hesitate to give suggestions to authors or directors about revisions or casting before plays went into rehearsal. Nathan knew of O'Neill's early experimental plays that were being performed in Greenwich Village, and he campaigned relentlessly to get the playwright produced on Broadway. In 1920 O'Neill's Beyond the Horizon was mounted on the Great White Way by John Williams, due in part to Nathan's influence. For the rest of his career Nathan was O'Neill's champion. He wrote in 1932: "O'Neill alone and single-handed waded through the dismal swamplands of American drama, bleak, squashy, and oozing sticky goo, and alone and single-handed bore out of them the water lily that no American had found there before him."
Nathan said he chose the theater as his sphere because it was a place for "the intelligent exercise of the emotions." In his books Nathan did not so much expound a particular theory or methodology as reveal his own criteria for theatrical excellence. He was an impressionistic critic who argued that personal taste is the ultimate critical arbiter. Nathan established the standards to which all responsible drama critics adhere: the critic owes allegiance to his or her own principles, not to the theater as an institution.
Nonetheless, Nathan's critical hauteur was often at odds with the cap-and-bells style in which he wrote. He was also part of a tradition in American theater criticism. He followed in the wake of Irving, Poe, and Whitman, all of whom fought against contemporary critical trends. Nathan demanded a new and more serious American theater, a theater that responded to artistic needs rather than box office appeal. He deplored the pretensions of David Belasco's productions and the all-American banality of Augustus Thomas. (He was no bluenose, though. He reveled in the Ziegfeld Follies.) Not the least of his contributions to the theater was his unflinching critical independence. Nathan's courage forced the puffsters and pseudo-academic hacks of criticism to flee the field.
Finally, Nathan was able to wield his influence by explaining the differences between the theater that he saw and the theater that he wanted to see. He did so with a singular, if sometimes antic, style that reached a tremendous audience. Nathan's erudition mingled with a zany and breathtaking wit that made him the most famous, highest paid, and most widely read and translated theater critic in the world. He created modern American drama criticism and was crucial to the development of the modern American theater and its drama. In his will he established the annual George Jean Nathan Award for drama criticism. He died in New York City on April 8, 1958.
Nathan wrote over 40 books, almost all of them collections of his criticism. The most important are: The Critic and the Drama (1922), in which he explained some principles behind his criticism; The Autobiography of an Attitude (1925) and The Intimate Notebooks of George Jean Nathan (1932), which reveal critical insights and show the reader something of Nathan's compelling theatrical persona; The Theatre, The Drama, The Girls (1921), probably his best book; and his brilliant Theatre Book of the Year series, which is much more than a theatrical annual—here he intersperses essays about the nature of drama, of comedy or tragedy, of the decline of burlesque, and so forth with reviews of each season's shows (1942-1943 to 1950-1951).
Thomas Quinn Curtiss' The Magic Mirror is the best of the Nathan anthologies. It contains an especially good introduction. There are also outstanding collections of correspondence: Nancy and Arthur Roberts' "As Ever, Gene": The Letters of Eugene O'Neill to George Jean Nathan (1987); and Robert Lowery and Patricia Angelin's "My Very Dear Sean": George Jean Nathan to Sean O'Casey. Letters and Articles (1985). As for books about Nathan, Isaac Goldberg's The Theatre of George Jean Nathan (1926) is a good account of his career up to that time. It also reprints his play "The Eternal Mystery" and a cynical essay on love that Nathan authored at age 16. Constance Frick's The Dramatic Criticism of George Jean Nathan (1943) is rather superficial, but contains additional material on Nathan's later years.