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From 'Album Of A Theater Critic'

The theater had always been part of my life. Now I was charged to see what was hidden behind the whiskey and cigarette signs.

From “Album of a Theater Critic”

One of the jobs I have had in my life was the post of theater critic of The New York Times, where I was for eight months in 1966. It seems now like merely one of the jobs. When I went there, it seemed final.

Remembrance begins with the vague figure of a man on a leathery sofa, offering me the position. When I accepted, he welcomed me to The Times for the rest of my life. It was only the second time, after my marriage twenty-three years before, that anyone had welcomed me to anything for life. As against the day of the marriage, I had a sense of emplacement, not of beginning.

After those words from the leathery sofa, I walked out into Times Square. It was early on a winter evening. I had always felt excited when I was hired for anything, even as a boy when I was hired as a farm hand. I felt it now, but hovering above my excitement was the immense neon face of Broadway, blinking and grinning like a sly idiot. I was here because of the theater. All through my life, the theater had been woven in, and now I was charged to see what of the theater was hidden behind the whiskey and cigarette signs. It was a wry prospect. The signs were winking smugly.

The first two requirements of my job, before I actually began, were to have my picture taken and my body examined. I went to The Times portrait studio, where the photographer had me sit just so and turn my head just so and lower my head just so, to make my picture come out looking as much as possible like every other picture he had taken. Then, for the company’s insurance plan, I had to be examined. There was an infirmary on an upper floor of the building. I took the vision test and the hearing test, after which the doctor led me to an examining table and said, “Will you please lay down?” I almost laughed. The Times doctor! It was the sort of grammatical mistake the Daily News doctor should have made.

When my appointment was announced, a week or so before I started, uproar broke out. I had been the film critic of The New Republic and the theater critic for the PBS television station in New York, and moving to The Times, I simply meant to continue in critical practice whatever I had been able to do in those places. I wasn’t na?ve about the new job’s increased visibility and influence, but I had no image of setting forth bravely to take lofty critical principles into the vulgar newspaper world. Yet this was the assumption, pro and con, of much of what was published about the matter. People telephoned to interview me and asked me to comment on my reputation as being anti-Broadway. When I answered that I wasn’t anti-anything, I was pro-theater, the sniffs and grunts I heard suggested that the other person thought I was being more nimble than forthright. Some, a few, put me in shining armor before I wrote a line for The Times. This, meant as a compliment, made me feel awkward.

I wished that my supporters, as well as others, could have seen where I was living when I reported for work. It was a small, dingy hotel room. On the day I began, early in January 1966, a subway strike also began. Taxis were as rare as rubies in the streets. Laura and I lived in Brooklyn Heights, and to make sure that I would be where I was needed on time, we moved, for the duration of the strike, to the drab hotel a few doors down from the newspaper’s offices. We brought some clothes and a few books, and we spent the first ten days of this much-mooted job in a depressing room heavy with the scent of cheap dates and salesmen’s desperation.

I thought this was funny. The comedy persisted, behind the fuss about my moral mission. The first opening night I went to, I forgot to bring my tickets. I had wanted to slip into the theater as quietly as possible. Now I had to go to the box office and identify myself. The box-office woman filled out two vouchers for me, her face a mask of incredulity and scorn. I knew the glib psychological explanation of why I had forgotten the tickets. So, I thought, did she.

Inside the theater, a number of people craned their necks to look at me, but only one person spoke to me, the critic of an evening newspaper. A tall, beefy man, he came over to my seat, extended his hand, and said, “Welcome to the legion of the damned,” I thanked him with the laugh he wanted, but I thought, “I’m fifty years old.” His remark was part of my private comedy. I had come all this way, trying to learn and to practice some things, only to be greeted by a barroom joke.

At The Times I had a cubicle against the wall of a huge room filled with desks, I had a secretary just outside, I had a key to the back door of the building on 44th Street so that on opening nights I wouldn’t have to take time to go around to the front door on 43rd Street if the back were more convenient, I had a credit card.

I disliked the office. Not the people but the idea of newspapers. Clatter and deadlines and hats on the backs of heads, all the movie mystique about newspapers, never held a jot of romance for me. I was there as a critic, I told myself, who happened to be on a newspaper, not as a newspaperman. I even hated the coarse gray copy paper that we typed on and that by nightfall covered the floor. I suppose that now, in word-processor days, there is no such paper drizzle, but it was everywhere then. It seemed to seep up through the floor, like dankness.

I was a technological pioneer. When I was hired, I had asked for an electric typewriter, the kind that I used at home, so that it would be familiar to me. The machine was purchased promptly, the first electric typewriter in the building, outside of the executive offices. My secretary, who had worked for some of the theater critics before me, was impressed by the machine. She wanted to help. Just before she left the office at five o’clock on the day I was to do my first review, she switched on the typewriter to save me time when I got there after the play. When I arrived about nine that evening, the typewriter was hot. But it seemed the warmth of concern, hers, so I enjoyed it.

I swam through the review. I took long, easy strokes, breathing carefully. I had objected to opening-night reviews. I had argued with my editor that it was silly to give only an hour’s consideration to a production that might have been years in the making. I wanted to attend the final previews of plays so that I would have a full day in which to write. The editor had agreed and tried to help my campaign, but most producers objected. Opening-night performances were supposed to be “high.” Seven times, in my months on the paper, I was invited to final preview by the producer on condition that I also attend the opening night so that I would benefit by the supposedly superior performance and would weigh it in. It was never superior. Once it was markedly worse. But this night, my first Times review, was a straight old-fashioned newspaper job. I saw the play, rushed to the office, wrote. I differed from other critics, I knew, because I did a first draft. Then I re-typed it, revising as I went. I kept this method a secret. But I never had any doubt about being able to write a review in sixty minutes or so. Quite the opposite. My worry was that it would be easy for me, and would get easier.

Lately the writing of reviews based on previews has become more common.

In those days of Linotype machines, I had to type one or at most two paragraphs on a sheet of that copy paper, complete, without a run-on sentence to the next page. This was to help the Linotype operator and to save time. Sheet after sheet. Outside my cubicle waited a copy boy. He took each sheet upstairs to the composing room while I kept typing. I tried to sound calm and experienced as I called “Copy!” and the boy jumped. It was part of the performance.

When the review was finished, I had a sip of Irish whiskey from a bottle in my desk. Laura, sitting in the cubicle with me, had a sip, too. Then I got into a tiny two-person elevator and went up to the composing room. The first paragraphs had already been set, and the proof stripes were hanging on hooks outside the composing room. I read the strips and corrected them. By the time I finished them, the last strips were ready.

Variations occurred during the eight months that followed. Sometimes we went for a meal nearby after I read the proofs. The restaurant would be fairly empty. No performances were yet finished except the opening night I had attended, which began early. We would sit in the quiet restaurant, feeling, for no reason, victorious. Afterward the first edition of the paper would be off press, and we would take a copy home to Brooklyn with us. If there were any errors in my piece, I would phone in corrections from home. It was one of the few attributes of power I enjoyed, being able to sit at home and make changes in The Times.

I never understood why there weren’t more errors in the paper. One evening about nine-thirty, after I had finished a review, the head of the so-called Culture Department stopped in the doorway of my cubicle to chat. He was standing on some sheets of the copy paper that coated the floor by that hour, and as we talked, his eye wandered down to a sheet under his shoe. He interrupted himself, picked up the sheet, and muttered, “What the hell is this? This was supposed to be in the first edition.”

Another power I liked was telephoning in my reviews from far places. I visited resident theaters in other cities, and in the summer I went to theater festivals, and in both cases I had to dictate my reviews over the phone. I had been given a special number to call at The Times office. It was always answered by the most bored voice I have ever heard. Slowly, distinctly, I would dictate what I had just written, at the moment the most important words in the world to me, and the voice would say, “Yeah? That all? More? Yeah?” I enjoyed the counterpoint between him and me.

A few years later I found out that I had been something of a pawn in an office war at The Times. My engagement had been advanced by one group and opposed by another, much like the pro and con fumings in the press. The opposition thought that my work in the job had proved their case, and when that other critic’s newspaper collapsed and he was free, the opposition moved. When I learned about these matters, long after I was back at The New Republic, I was glad I hadn’t known about it at the time. It would only have increased my sense of being conscripted in a war that was not the fight I wanted to make.

Before I left my cubicle, I had a bit of revenge. My secretary had put my personal belongings in a large clasp envelope. When she wasn’t looking, I slipped a pair of long editorial shears, Times property, into the envelope. So much for those who thought me a hero. And a finger-snap for The New York Times.

By Stanley Kauffmann