Clive Barnes, Longtime New York Drama and Dance Critic, Dies at 81

Obituaries   Clive Barnes, Longtime New York Drama and Dance Critic, Dies at 81
 
Clive Barnes, who covered the New York theatre and dance worlds for four decades, first as a critic for The New York Times and then for the New York Post, died Nov. 19. He was 81 and had been filing reviews with the Post until only recently.
Clive Barnes
Clive Barnes

The British-born, Oxford-educated Mr. Barnes seemed incapable of not covering the arts. Even in his 70s, he was a familiar presence on the aisle of most previewing Broadway shows and dance performances. Short, with a long face and a puckishly crooked smile, and usually clad in black, he was known as a chatty raconteur with a wealth of opinions and stories about most any subject. During his early years as chief drama critic of the New York Times, he often made the rounds of the talk shows and gave lectures, and won the reputation of being something of a gadfly. He was arguably one of the last New York theatre critics to cut a figure as a personality in his own right.

Col Allan, editor-in-chief of the New York Post, said in a statement, "Clive Barnes was a genuine legend. For 30 years as a critic for the New York Post he wrote with honesty and a delightful whimsy. Clive's colleagues and the readers he served for so long are impoverished by his passing."

As a writer, he was known for an erudite, breezy and at times playfully sassy style. It was also a personal style—he was the first critic at the Times to employ the term "I" in his reviews, a circumstance that provoked much soul-searching among the paper's editorial leadership at the time.

Following a decade practicing his craft in England, he was named the dance critic at the New York Times in 1965. Two years later, he succeeded Walter Kerr as the paper's daily theatre critic, a post he held until 1977. He surprised many by insisting that, despite the change in title, he would not cease writing about dance. In 1978—after the Times demanded he give up the theatre reviewer post, arguing that it was too much for one man to hold down two chief critic positions—he accepted an offer from the New York Post to become its chief drama and dance critic, and he spent the remainder of his career there. He also wrote a monthly column called "Attitudes" for Dance Magazine.

From the start of his appointment as drama critic at the Times, Mr. Barnes seemed a lightning rod for controversy. In June 1968, his positive review of Hair was read aloud into the Congressional Record by South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, who criticized Mr. Barnes for "praising depravity." In "The Season," a 1969 book-length appraisal of the 1967-68 season, author William Goldman indulged in a pages-long excoriation of the critic, contending he was primarily a dance reviewer and that he preferred English theatre to American. Mr. Barnes also sparred with his fellow critics, commenting to an interviewer about John Simon that "If he hates theatre so much, why doesn't he get off the pot." Mr. Barnes held the title of drama critic at the Times — then as now, the most powerful theatre critic in the city — during the waning days of theatre giants, and had to occasionally tussle with titan producers. He appeared to take such contretemps in stride, and even enjoy them somewhat. Of producer David Merrick's unique relationship with reviewers, he said: "He terrorized them, which isn't usually the case." Barnes recalled how, ten days after starting as drama critic of the New York Times, he received a telegraph from Merrick. "The honeymoon's over," it read. Barnes promptly replied, "Didn't know we were married. Didn't know you were that kind of boy," and sent both telegrams to Variety for publication.

Perhaps the most famous incident of his career was instigated by New York Shakespeare Festival impresario Joe Papp. In 1973, when Papp learned that Mr. Barnes had given a poor review to David Rabe's In the Boom Boom Room — Papp's choice to open his reign as the new director of the Lincoln Center Theater program — Papp called the critic at home at 11:30 PM and cursed him, yelling into the phone, "You think you're going to get me? Well, I am going to get you. I am going to get you." That might have been the end of the incident, except that Papp made the call in the presence of a New York Times reporter who was writing a story about the producer.

The next day, a letter from Barnes was hand-delivered to Papp's office. "Our telephone conversation (or rather your monologue) last night disturbed me," Mr. Barnes wrote. "Not merely because I am unaccustomed to receiving obscene telephone calls, and certainly not because of your violently phrased defense of Rabe's play — I would expect no less — but because in your anger at our difference of opinion, you questioned my integrity. You told me that 'You are out to get me.' This is transparent nonsense. I admire you as one of the major forces in our theatre — and I imagine you have kept the press clippings to prove it."

Clive Barnes was born May 13, 1928, son of Arthur Lionel and Freda Marguerite (Garratt) Barnes. His father, an ambulance driver, left the family when Clive was seven. Mr. Barnes married his second wife, dancer Patricia Amy Evelyn Winckley, in 1958. He made his mark as a modern-thinking appraiser of the dance early on, writing and passionately and exhaustively about the art form. One of his contemporaries and idols at the time was theatre critic Kenneth Tynan. From 1956 to 1965 he was a music, dance, drama and film critic for the Daily Express, and from 1959 to 1965 he was dance critic for The Spectator. His books during this period included "Ballet in Britain since the War" (1953); "Frederick Ashton and His Ballets" (1961); "Ballet Here and Now" (1961); and "Dance Scene USA" (1967). He burned so to write, that, while at the Express, he wrote dance criticism for several other newspapers under pseudonyms.

During his visits to New York, he would often visit the offices of then-leading theatre press agents Merle Debuskey and Seymour Krawitz, whose wife was likewise an English dancer and a friend of Ms. Winckley. Mr. Barnes mentioned the he wanted to start doing work in the States. "I first wrote to the Times when my son was born and needed to get an increase of income," recalled Barnes. "I got a very chilly letter back. Then, both Seymour and Merle contacted [Times Culture Editor] Sy Peck on my behalf. Sy worked with the press agents he liked. And he took Merle very seriously." Soon after, Peck arranged for Barnes to write pieces about London for the newspaper.

He was married four times. He is survived by his wife, Valerie Taylor Barnes; a son, Christopher, of London; a daughter, Maya Johansen, of Woodstock, N.Y., and two grandchildren.

He was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in 1975, and appointed a knight of the Order of the Dannebrog in 1972 by Queen Margrethe II of Denmark.

Speaking in the late '60s about television, Barnes, who was rarely at a loss for words, said, "It is the first truly democratic culture, the first culture available to everyone and entirely governed by what the people want. The most terrifying thing is what people do want."

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