Biography of George Jean Nathan

George Jean Nathan (1882-1958) was the leading American drama critic of his time. Active from 1905 to 1958, he published thirty-four books on the theatre, co-edited The Smart Set and The American Mercury with H. L. Mencken, and zealously practiced "destructive" theatre criticism. Nathan wrote during the most important period of our theatre's history and set critical standards that are still being followed. In his will he established the annual George Jean Nathan Award for drama criticism.

George Jean Nathan was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on February 14, 1882. Initially Nathan was educated by tutors at home and while abroad. After Nathan's father left the family, Nathan's mother took them to Cleveland, Ohio, where he was 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.

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, but his primary income came from his wholesale liquor business. 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. Nevertheless, Nathan harbored a lifelong dread that his family's Jewish origin would be exposed. He suppressed any mention of his Jewishness and even fabricated a story that his mother attended the same convent school, St. Mary's Academy, as Eugene O'Neill's mother. Mrs. Nathan had converted later in her life and several of his uncles had attended the Catholic boys' school affiliated with St. Mary's Academy, but there is no record of her attending St. Mary's.

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, he did not pursue a master's degree from the University of Bologna. This canard stems from the sham biographies Nathan and Mencken circulated during their Smart Set years. It is an example of his occasionally forced humor--who but Nathan would claim a degree from "Baloney U." In fact, Nathan took a cub reporter's job at the New York Herald that his uncle secured for him. Two years later Nathan managed to get himself a third-string reviewer's post, and with his notice of Bedford's Hope, the most important career in 20th century American dramatic criticism was launched.

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, for in the pages of their magazines 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 20s.

Nathan's personal life assumed a routine. He settled into a bachelor's apartment at New York's Royalton Hotel. He remained there for forty-five years, the rooms gradually filling with books and manuscripts. Nathan was romantically linked with numerous actresses throughout his career. His most famous amour was Lillian Gish, who may have broken off the relationship when she learned of his Jewishness. Nathan finally married Julie Haydon, after a fourteen-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). He had his own table at the 21 Club and was a regular at the Stork Club, where even the omnipotent columnist Walter Winchell deferred to him.

Nathan is most important as a drama critic, though. 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 two playwrights, Eugene O'Neill and 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 with him. 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 tells us that he chose the theatre as his sphere because it was a place for "the intelligent exercise of the emotions." In his books, Nathan does not so much expound a particular theory or methodology as reveal his own criteria for theatrical excellence. He is an impressionistic critic who argues that personal taste is the ultimate critical arbiter. Nathan established the standard to which all responsible drama critics adhere: the critic owes allegiance to his or her own principles, not to the theatre as an institution.
Nonetheless, Nathan's critical hauteur was often at odds with the cap-and-bells style in which he wrote. He is also part of a tradition in American theatre criticism. He follows in the wake of Irving, Poe and Whitman, all of whom fought against contemporary critical trends. Nathan demanded a new and more serious American theatre, a theatre 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. (Nathan was no bluenose, though. He reveled in the Ziegfeld Follies and coined the term "ecdysiast" for Gypsy Rose Lee's profession.) Not the least of his contributions to the theatre 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 theatre that he saw and the theatre that he wanted to see. He did so with a singular, if sometimes antic, style that reached a huge audience. Nathan's erudition, mingled with a zany and breathtaking wit, made him the most famous, highest paid, widely read and translated theatre critic in the world. He created modern American drama criticism and was crucial to the development of the modern American theatre and its drama.

Nathan wrote over forty books, almost all of them collections of his criticism. The most important are The Critic and the Drama (1922), in which he explains 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; and The Theatre, The Drama, The Girls (1921), which is probably his best book. His brilliant Theatre Book of the Year series 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 (1942-43 to 1950-51).

Thomas Quinn Curtiss's The Magic Mirror (1960), which contains an especially good introduction, and Charles S. Angoff's The World of George Jean Nathan (1998), with an introduction by Angoff and an epilogue by Patricia Angelin, are the best of the Nathan anthologies. There are also outstanding collections of correspondence: Nancy and Arthur Roberts's "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) contains additional material on Nathan's later years. My own book, George Jean Nathan and the Making of Modern American Drama Criticism (2000), which contains a bibliography, is the only study of Nathan's entire career.

Thomas F. Connolly
Suffolk University