The Once and Future Theater Critic: An Interview with Stanley Kauffmann

By Cardullo, Robert James | The Midwest Quarterly, Autumn 2004 | Go to article overview

The Once and Future Theater Critic: An Interview with Stanley Kauffmann


Cardullo, Robert James, The Midwest Quarterly


STANLEY KAUFFMANN (born 1916) spent ten years, from 1931 to 1941, as an actor and stage manager with the Washington Square Players and has published a large number of short as well as long plays. Since 1958 he has been active in criticism. At that time he became the film critic of The New Republic, with which journal he has been associated ever since, except for an eight-month period in 1966 when Kauffmann was exclusively the theater critic of The New York Times. He has taught dramatic literature and criticism as well as theater and film history at the Yale School of Drama, the City University of New York, and Hunter College.

Kauffmann has published six collections of film criticism, the most recent of which is Regarding Film (2001). And he has published two collections of theater criticism, Person of the Drama (1976) and Theater Criticisms (1983). The following interview was conducted in July 2001 at Stanley Kauffmann's home in Manhattan. He discusses below his tenure as theater critic of The New York Times as well as the state of the American theater and the relationship of that theater to its dramatic criticism.

BC: Could we begin by discussing your tenure as theater critic of The New York Times, from January 1, 1966, to August 31st of the same year?

SK: Fine. I had not sought the post; I had been invited by Times executives to meet with them. But let me give you some context first. The American cultural climate is changing--not necessarily improving but unmistakably changing--and in connection with this change I was something of a pioneer. The spread of middle-class status over the entire social spectrum, the surge of affluence, and the increase in number of college graduates who, whatever their intellects, are aware of being college graduates, all these have produced the current cultural explosion.

The managers of the Times were aware of these changes and had wanted their newspaper to respond to them. In the late fifties or early 1960s, they regrouped their various art departments into a Culture Department to facilitate greater "coverage" of culture. They began (as I subsequently learned) to become dissatisfied with several of their reviewers: dissatisfied with some of the old-line newspaper reviewing, couched in glib journalese and buoyed on hollow, dubiously knowledgeable generalities. The Times's dissatisfaction increased through 1965 and in fact when they first approached me, in late August of that year, it was not specifically about the job of drama critic but for general consultative conversations. They said they were considering major changes in their Culture Department and wanted "to pick my brains" (their phrase). They and I knew that this was just a gentleman's agreement to avoid any feeling of job-interview; I was even asked to suggest candidates for the drama job--and recommended two men. But in the course of several conversations with various executives, I was asked my opinion of Times criticism, in general, as it then was. I replied that in general it seemed to me a "cultural dump." I vigorously excepted Ada Louise Huxtable, their critic of architecture, and Clive Barnes, who had just joined them as dance critic, and later, when Hilton Kramer became one of their art critics, I most certainly excepted him. Otherwise I assured all the editors who consulted me--of the daily and Sunday editions--that I and, in my experience, the intellectual community held most Times criticism in very low esteem. They then engaged me.

I understood before I started that my employment was part of the paper's response to the cultural shifts in American life. But Mr. Barnes and Mr. Kramer worked in fields in which consideration of new works as art is accepted as the norm. However tawdry or opportunistic a dance recital or a gallery show, no dance impresario or gallery dealer would object to a review because too high standards had been applied; he might be enraged by what he thought was imperception, never by rigor. …

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