The Charlotte News



CriticWrites A Play:

Nathanal Anthem

-- Resume, By W. J. Cash

George Jean Nathan
(As originaly appearing with article)

Site ed.note: George Jean Nathan co-edited The American Mercury with H. L. Mencken in the 1920's.

THE News that George Jean Nathan has at length done what he has long threatened to do and written a play, leaves me wishing that he hadn't.

I do not infer that it will necessarily be a very bad play. On the contrary--I assume that is an essay in polite comedy, and I have a notion that Mr. Nathan will have done very well in polite comedy. At any rate, I have a notion that it will be very clever reading. And Mr. Nathan is very cannily offering it only to the reading public at present--reserving decision as to whether it shall actually get on the boards to the future.

All the same, I do not expect that it will turn out to be a superlatively fine play. And it will have to be that, if it is not going to do Nathan a great deal more harm than good. And not only Nathan for that matter. For if it is not a superlatively good play, it is going to bring down the most uproarious avalanche of sneers upon Nathan's head ever heard of since the world began. I am afraid, indeed, that if it is not a superlatively fine play it may very well serve as a plausible springboard for such a storm of sneers as will effectually fix in the public mind the idea that most of the young men who have come out of college since the late 1920's and the early 1930's have been tirelessly trying to fix in that mind for the last three or four years. I mean the idea that Nathan and his old partner in sin, Mencken, are simply a pair of over-rated balloons--a couple of cheapjack Smart Alecks whom time has shown up for what they are--who never had anything worthwhile to say, whose standards were false and bad, who misled the American people at every turn and had better be tossed out of the reckoning as soon as possible.

Calamity For A Critic

And the adoption of such a judgment as that, even temporarily (and I have no doubt it would inevitably be only temporarily), would be a calamity--almost as great a calamity in the case of Nathan as in that of Mencken.

I have no intention of indulging in any hero-worship of Mr. Nathan. He is not the unexampled marvel we took him when I was a collegian along back in the early 1920s, and the gals in boarding school palpitated in ecstasy over the worldly wickedness of "Repetition Generale." There is entirely too much of the Olympian pose in him. He has too much gloried in his reputation as a professional wit, and has often damaged his work by studied efforts to maintain it. I think it may be said that he has sometimes indulged in outright posturing and mountebankery.

But when all that is counted against him, the fact still remains that it has been the healthiest influence on the American theater we have ever had. When he came on the scene we simply did not have, and had never had, anything that by any stretch of the imagination could be called decent drama. --Thus the great hit of the year 1903--just about the time that Nathan began to appear in print--was the Rev. Tom Dixon's "The Leopard Spots."--And when I say it was a hit, I mean not merely that the foolish mob was crying its praises but that the critics were doing so, too. Aside from James Huneker, indeed, the art of criticism as it was then practiced in America consisted almost entirely of mere puffing of the advertiser's wares or of homilies on the moral aspects of the current offerings--meaning by the moral aspects the question of whether the playwright had transgressed what was then an iron convention of the American theater: that adultery did not exist, and that the marriage vows were always and everywhere carefully respected.

These Were Our Playwrights

Nor did this situation change easily. As late as my own college days, we were still using as a text in a course in Contemporary Drama a collection in which Augustus Thomas and William Vaughn Moody stood for the best that America had to offer, in the company of Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats, John Millington Synge, Paul Hervieu, Gerhardt Hauptmann, August Strindberg, and Anton Tchekhov.

But all that is over and done with now. We haven't reached any great heights, perhaps. But nobody takes Thomas seriously anymore. And on the positive side of the ledger we have Eugene O'Neill, Laurence Stallings, Paul Green, Zona Gale, George Kaufman, Hatcher Hughes, Lulu Volmer, and two or three others--none of them world-shaking, certainly, but all of them genuinely competent. Instead of "The Leopard's Spots" and "The Witching Hour," we have "What Price Glory" and "Miss Lulu-Bett" and "The Moon of the Carribees," and "Sun-Up" and "Hell-Bent for Heaven" and "The Field God"--all of them authentic and honest plays.

Am I suggesting that this is entirely due to Nathan? Not exactly. I think the very appearance of Nathan was in some sense a result of a slow improvement in American taste. But I do think that he had a great deal more to do with it than any other individual. In season and out, he fought steadily and against what seemed overwhelming odds--against the bitter hatred of the whole field of professional critics, against denunciations from platform and pulpit and editorial sanctum--insisting relentlessly on the application of the most searching tests and ruthlessly denouncing hokum and sentimental tosh wherever he found it. --And in the end he commanded, at the height of his career (in the days when he was performing on the "American Mercury"), a wider audience and wielded a more decisive influence in setting the fashion of taste than any other American critic of the theater ever has done.

Much To Remember

If today we have better playwrights and better plays, if today the young men who yearn to put him down can speak out their minds about a play without apology or fear, if today they are not hampered by the great American weakness for sentimentality and high and empty profession, then it is certainly in very great measure due to Nathan. And so much ought not to be forgotten.

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