Wednesday, June 04, 2008

George Jean Nathan

Bill Marx has a remembrance of the drama critic George Jean Nathan. Here is just a little bit:

Nathan admitted that he saw words, 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.

1 comment:

Thomas Garvey said...

I'm not that familiar with George Jean Nathan's writing, although I guess from Marx's memorial that Marx imagines Nathan is his model. That's rather an unconvincing recommendation, and the news that Nathan couldn't appreciate Chaplin, and ridiculed Beckett, likewise undermines one's confidence in his greatness. But then as usual, Marx seems entirely too drunk on the idea of criticism as performance - as a kind of delightfully elevated symphony of insult, with the actual position and identity of the critical authority always kept behind a rhetorical veil. Also, Marx avoids a central problem of the Nathan/Mencken matrix - Nathan concealed his Jewishness, and Mencken was widely perceived as an anti-Semite. Coincidence? In an article on Mencken, biographer Charles Angoff reported the following conversation with Nathan:

I decided to come right out with my question: "Was Mencken anti-Semitic? I think that in a very real sense he was, and I say so in my book. Anyway, I strongly hint at it." Nathan was silent for a few seconds, then said, "If you say what you have just told me, you won't be wrong. Perhaps I can put it this way. Menck was a Prussian." Nathan hesitated again. Then he added, "I guess it would he right to say that he never wholly liked Jews. He respected them, he was amused by them, he was even afraid of them, but he didn't like them. Maybe he even disliked them. I suppose that's anti-Semitism."

Yeah, I suppose it is anti-Semitism. One wonders what a writer with Nathan's "jubilantly barbed style" might have made of the critic's own life and compromises. Of course, on the other hand, those Nazis may have had their bad side, but they sure could write reviews - and funny, they wrote just like Bill Marx!