Stanley Kauffmann, Cerebral Theatre and Film Critic, Dies at 97

By Robert Simonson
10 Oct 2013

Stanley Kauffmann, a thinking-man's drama and film critic who spent a half century mulling over the arts of stage and screen, their histories and practitioners, died of pneumonia at St. Luke's Hospital in Manhattan Oct. 9. He was 97.



Although chiefly known to the public for his remarkable 50-year tenure as the film critic of The New Republic, Mr. Kauffmann also devoted considerable energies and years to evaluating the stage. He was, along with Eric Bentley, Robert Brustein and Richard Gilman, a member of a generation of erudite, deep-thinking writers who came of age in the years following World War II, and treated the American theatre as a discipline as worthy of critical analysis as art or literature. Together they moved away from the consumer-oriented reportage that characterized most U.S. dramatic criticism in the first half of the 20th century.

Mr. Kauffmann's writing style was not flashy like, say, his English counterpart, Kenneth Tynan. Nor did he make a name through acerbity, like John Simon—another contemporary, who, like Kauffmann, split his focus between film and theatre. Rather, his tone was straightforward, austere and unapologetically intellectual, and his essays often played like scholarly lectures in written form. (In photos, he looked the very picture of an unforgiving university don.) Critic James Wolcott said he was "a man who never seemed to raise his voice in print." Not a proselytizing theorist, and gentlemanly to a fault, his steady, studied prose tended not to accrue acolytes the way, say, Pauline Kael did. Nonetheless, he was widely read and respected as a sound and reasoned voice of authority.

Apart from a turbulent nine-month tenure in 1966 as the chief drama critic of The New York Times, Mr. Kauffmann's theatre writings appeared chiefly in the pages of The New Republic, where he was drama critic from 1969 to 1979.

With his general disinterest in the concerns of commercial theatre, Mr. Kauffmann was perhaps a strange choice for the post at the Times. And, indeed, his brief stay in that powerful seat was a bumpy one. He provoked controversy almost immediately by insisting on attending the final preview of Broadway productions, rather than attending opening night, as had been the tradition up until then. The latter model, he argued, did not give him enough time to compose a meaningful critical response.

Producers balked. David Merrick went so far as to shut down a preview of Philadelphia, Here I Come! that Kauffmann intended to attend, rather than let the critic review the performance. He blamed the canceled performance on a "rat in the generator." Mr. Kauffmann, nevertheless, prevailed, and the now-common critical practice of reviewing late previews can be traced to his insistence.

Further hackles were raised a month later when Mr. Kauffmann penned an essay that seemed to argue that the homosexual orientation of three of America's leading dramatists—Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams and William Inge—resulted in distorted stage pictures of marriage. A quarter century later, Albee was still angry about what he called "that disgusting article by Stanley Kauffmann." (Albee was perhaps already displeased with the critic, who had called his play Tiny Alice "a piece of arrogant, pseudo-literary pretentiousness, flung in our faces with the usual blather of a desperate author that those who don't appreciate it are either stupid or malevolent.") By the fall of 1966, Mr. Kauffmann had left the Times.

Stanley Kauffmann began contributing to the pages of The New Republic in 1958, and influenced the generation of swaggering film reviewers that came of age in the 1960s. Roger Ebert once called him his favorite film critic. His books on cinema included "A World of Film: Criticism and Comment," "Figures of Light: Film Criticism and Comment," "Living Images," "Before My Eyes," "Field of View," "Distinguishing Features" and "Regarding Film." His books on the theatre included "Persons of the Drama," "Theatre Criticisms" and "About the Theatre."

He considered his two reviewing tasks widely different. "The standards for judging a film director's career differ substantially from those that apply in the theatre," he wrote in 1973. "Film directors start from scratch. (Remakes don't figure importantly; and adaptations of classics don't figure importantly with serious directors.) For a theater director, as with a theater actor, the question sooner or later is one that could not signify in film: how does he measure against the great works?"

Born April 24, 1916, in New York City, Stanley Kauffmann attended DeWitt Clinton High School in The Bronx and New York University. He initially worked as an editor, and distinguished himself as having a sharp eye for material. While an acquisitions editor at Ballantine Books in 1953, he acquired "Fahrenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury. Later, as an editor at Knopf, he uncovered "The Moviegoer" by Walker Percy. Mr. Kauffmann worked with Percy for more than a year getting the book ready for publication. The journalist A. J. Liebling happened to read the novel and gave it to his wife, the fiction writer Jean Stafford, who was a judge that year for the National Book Award. "The Moviegoer" won the award that year.

During this period, he also produced his own fiction. Among his novels were “The Hidden Hero” (1949), "A Change in Climate" (1954) and "Man of the World" (1954).

He later taught drama and film at City University of New York and Yale School of Drama.

Stanley Kauffmann was not coy about his profession—"No one becomes a critic out of modesty," he once said—but he tried to be fair. In a 1982 essay titled "Letter to an Actor," published in Theatre Communications, he allowed that the critic can only appraise what he sees upon the stage. A reviewer's lack of complete knowledge of the origins and development of the production may be an injustice to the artists, but, he argued, it is the only acceptable state of affairs. "There has been a 'backstage story' about every production since Thespis, and it has never been the critics' responsibility—or right—to know it. He has to deal with what is presented. Any other procedure would lead to chaos."

He married Laura Cohen in 1943. They had no children.