By George Jean Nathan

George Jean Nathan © College of Arts and Sciences, Cornell University
George Jean Nathan © College of Arts and Sciences, Cornell University

The leading American drama critic of his time, George Jean Nathan (1882-1958) zealously wrote criticism from 1905 to 1958, published more than 40 books on the theatre, co-edited The Smart Set and The American Mercury with H. L. Mencken, and set critical standards to which all responsible critics today still adhere. In his will he established the annual George Jean Nathan Award for drama criticism.

Although known for a self-avowedly “destructive” critical approach that earned him the hatred of those whose work he loathed, Nathan passionately demanded a new and more serious American theatre than Broadway would allow. Nathan played a critical role in the development of the modern American theatre and its drama by championing the works of two playwrights, Eugene O’Neill and Sean O’Casey. In his books, Nathan stated that the theatre was a place for “the intelligent exercise of the emotions.” However, as a critical arbiter, he did not practice a particular theory or methodology. He was the model of the impressionistic critic who argued that the critic owes allegiance to his or her own principles, not to the theatre as an institution. George Bernard Shaw praised Nathan as “intelligent playgoer number one.”

George Jean Nathan © College of Arts and Sciences, Cornell University
George Jean Nathan © College of Arts and Sciences, Cornell University

Among Nathan’s most important collections of criticism areThe Critic and the Drama(1922), in which he comes close to laying out some principles behind his criticism;The Autobiography of an Attitude(1925) and The Intimate Notebooks of George Jean Nathan (1932), which reveal some essential elements that made his critical hauteur so riveting; and The Theatre, The Drama, The Girls (1921), which some of Nathan’s acolytes consider is perhaps his best book.

To learn more about George Jean Nathan, pick up the anthologies Thomas Quinn Curtiss’s The Magic Mirror (1960); and Charles S. Angoff’s The World of George Jean Nathan (1998), with an introduction by Angoff and an epilogue by Patricia Angelin. Collections of Nathan’s correspondences are gathered in 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). Thomas F. Connolly’s indispensable George Jean Nathan and the Making of Modern American Drama Criticism (2000) is the only study of Nathan’s entire life and times.

“Aesthetic Jurisprudence” is an excerpt from The Critic and the Drama. Permission is granted by Patricia Angelin, Literary Executrix of the George Jean Nathan Estate.—Randy Gener

Art is a reaching out into the ugliness of the world for vagrant beauty and the imprisoning of it in a tangible dream. Criticism is the dream book. All art is a kind of subconscious madness expressed in terms of sanity; criticism is essential to the interpretation of its mysteries, for about everything truly beautiful there is ever something mysterious and disconcerting. Beauty is not always immediately recognizable as beauty; what often passes for beauty is mere infatuation; living beauty is like a love that has outlasted the middle-years of life, and has met triumphantly the rest of time, and faith, and cynic meditation. For beauty is a sleepwalker in the endless corridors of the wakeful world, uncertain, groping, and not a little strange. And criticism is its tender guide.

Art is a partnership between the artist and the artist-critic. The former creates; the latter re-creates. Without criticism, art would of course still be art, and so with its windows walled in and with its lights extinguished would Louvre still be the Louvre. Criticism is the windows and chandeliers of art; it illuminates the enveloping darkness in which art might otherwise rest only vaguely discernible, and perhaps altogether unseen.

Criticism, at its best, is a great, tall candle on the altar of art; at its worst, which is to say in its general run, a campaign torch flaring red in behalf of aesthetic wardheelers. This campaign torch motif in criticism, with its drunken enthusiasm and raucous hollering born of ignorance, together with what might be called the Prince Albert motif, with its sober, statue-like reserve born of ignorance that, being well-mannered, is not so bumptious as the other, has contributed largely to the common estimate of criticism as a profession but slightly more exalted than Second Avenue auctioneering if someone less than Fifth. Yet criticism is itself an art. It might, indeed, be well defined as an art within an art, since every work of art is the result of a struggle between the heart that is the artist, the artist’s mind, tired from the bitterness of the struggle, takes the form of a second artist, puts on this second artist’s strange hat, coat and checkered trousers, and goes forth with refreshed vigor to gossip abroad how much of the first artist’s work was the result of its original splendid vitality and sad weariness. The wrangling that occurs at times between art and criticism is, at bottom, merely a fraternal discord, one in which Cain and Abel belabor each other with stuffed clubs. Criticism is often most sympathetic when it is apparently most cruel: the propounder of the sternest, hardest philosophy that the civilized world has known never failed sentimentally to kiss and embrace his sister, Therese Elisabeth Alexandra Nietzsche[1], every night at bedtime. “It is not possible,” Cabell[2] has written, “to draw inspiration from a woman’s beauty unless you comprehend how easy it is would be to murder her.” And — “Only those who have firmness may be really tenderhearted,” said Rochefoucauld[3]. One may sometimes even throw mud to tonic purpose. Consider Karlsbad[4].

George Jean Nathan as Hamlet © College of Arts and Sciences, Cornell University
George Jean Nathan as Hamlet © College of Arts and Sciences, Cornell University

George Jean Nathan with Eugene O'Neill © College of Arts and Sciences, Cornell University
George Jean Nathan with Eugene O’Neill © College of Arts and Sciences, Cornell University

Art is the haven wherein the disillusion may find illusion. Truth is no part of art. Nor is the mission of art simple beauty as the textbooks tell us. The mission of art is the magnification of simple beauty to proportions so heoric as to be almost overpowering. Art is a gross exaggeration of natural beauty: there was never a woman so beautiful as the Venus di Milo, or a sky so beautiful as the Apollo Belvedere of the Vatican, or a sky so beautiful as Mont’s, or human speech so beautiful as Shakespeare’s, or the song of a nightingale so beautiful as Ludwig van Beethoven’s. But as art is a process of magnification, so criticism is a process of reduction. Its purpose is the aesthetic principles, and the subsequent announcement thereof in terms proportioned to the artist’s interplay of fundamental skill and overtopping imagination.

The most general fault of criticism lies in a confusion of its own internal processes with those of art: it is in the habit of regarding the business of art as a reduction of life to its essence of beauty, and the business of criticism as an expansion of that essence to its fullest flow. The opposite is more reasonable. Art is a beautiful, swollen lie; criticism, a cold compress. The concern of art is with beauty; the concern of criticism is with truth. And truth and beauty, despite the Sunday school, are often strangers. This confusion of the business of art and that of criticism has given birth to the so-called “contagious,” or inspirational, criticism, than which nothing is more mongrel and absurd. Criticism is designed to state facts — charmingly, gracefully, if possible — but still facts. It is not designed to exhort, enlist, convert. This is the business not of the critic, but of those readers of the critic whom the facts succeed in convincing and galvanizing. Contagious criticism is merely a vainglorious critic’s essay at popularity: facts heated up to a degree where they melt into caressing nothingness.

But if this “criticism with a glow” is not to be given countenance, even less is to be suffered the criticism that, in its effort at a fastidious and elegant reserve, leans so far backward that it freezes on its ears. This species of criticism failed not only to enkindle the reader, but fails also — this is more important — to enkindle the critic himself. The ideal critic is perhaps much like a Thermos bottle: full of warm, he suggests the presence of the heat within him without radiating it. This inner warmth is essential to a critic. But this inner warmth, where it exists, is automatically chilled and banished from a critic by a protracted indulgence in excessive critical reserve. Just as the professional frown assumed by a much-photographed public magnifico often becomes stubbornly fixed upon his hitherto gentle brow, so does the prolonged spurious constraint of a critic in due time psychologically hoist him on his own petard. A writer’s work does not grow more and more like him; a writer grows more and more like his work. The best writing that a man produces is always just a little superior to himself. There never was a literary artist who did not appreciate the difficult of keeping up to the pace of his writings. A writer is dominated by the standard of his own writings; he is a slave in transitu, lashed, tormented, and miserable. The weak and inferior literary artist, such a critic as the one alluded to, soon becomes the helpless victim of his own writings: like a vampire of his own creation they turn upon him and suck from him the warm blood that was erstwhile his. A pose in time become natural: a man with a good left eye cannot affect a monocle for years without eventually coming to need it. A critic cannot write ice without becoming in time himself at least partially frosted.

Paraphrasing Pasca, to little minds all things are great. Great art is in constant conflict with the awe of little minds. Art is something like a wonderful trapeze performer swinging high above the heads of the bewildered multitude and nervous lest it be made to lose its balance and to slip by the periodic sudden loud marveling of the folks below. The little mind and its little criticism are the flattering foes of sound art. Such art demands for its training and triumph the countless preliminary body blows of muscular criticism guided by a muscular mind. Art and the artist cannot develop by mere backslapping. If art, according to Beulé[5], is the intervention of the human mind in the elements furnished by experience, criticism is the intervention of the human mind in the elements furnished by aesthetic passion. Art and the artist are ever youthful lovers; criticism is their chaperon.


[1] Therese Elisabeth Alexandra Nietzsche refers to Therese Elisabeth Alexandra Forster-Nietzsche (1846-1935), the sister of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and the creator in 1894 of the Nietzsche Archive.
[2] Cabell refers to James Branch Cabell (1879-1958). The quote comes from Cabell’s one-act comedyThe Jewel Merchant.
[3] Rochefoucauld refers to François VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680), a French author of maxims and memoirs.
[4] Karlsbad, also known as Karlovy Vary, is the best known spa town in the Czech Republic visited by celebrities and affluent people who preferred a regimen of mud baths by day and dinner jackets by night. The mineral-rich mud from a nearby source is used in therapies.
[5] Beulé refers to Charles Ernest Beulé (1826-1874), a French archeologist and politician.

Copyright © 2011 George Jean Nathan
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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The Critic and the Drama: “Aesthetic Jurisprudence”