Richard Gilman, Influential Drama Critic and Teacher, Is Dead

Obituaries   Richard Gilman, Influential Drama Critic and Teacher, Is Dead
 
Richard Gilman, widely regarded as one the greatest American theatre critics of the last half of the 20th century, died early on Oct. 29, colleagues confirmed. He was 83.

Mr. Gilman analyzed theatre in the pages of Commonweal, Newsweek and The New Republic, and—despite having practiced regular criticism for only a short period during the 1960s—he has for decades been regularly mentioned alongside Eric Bentley, Robert Brustein and Stanley Kauffmann as one of the most perceptive and influential critics of the American stage. He won the George Jean Nathan Award for Drama Criticism in 1971, the same year Random House published his “Common and Uncommon Masks,” a collection of reviews and essays which has a place on the shelf of most theatre critics and students.

Richard Gilman had the good fortune of being a theatre critic during an exciting time. Audiences were only just discovering the works of Beckett, Pinter, Ionesco and Albee. The ambitious Lincoln Center was in its troubled infancy, and Off-Broadway, the Open Theatre and Living Theatre were thriving and challenging traditional aesthetic borders.

His reviews met these forces head-on. They were cerebral, yet personal, full of insight, irritable commentary and sharp humor. They were also readable, making Mr. Gilman a rare example of the critic who neither talked down to his readers nor compromised his literary standards. Discussing Ibsen, he said, “I must confess to feeling about Ibsen like a lover whose beloved draws mostly unappreciative stares. I can’t imagine why everybody doesn’t see what I do, and I conclude that they are simply not looking at the same person.”

Writing about a 1963 revival of Strange Interlude, he commented, “Like an enormous fake elephant, an inflated contrivance to elicit oohs and ahs from the children, Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude has come into view again on Broadway, after having been in storage for nearly thirty-five years. And the children have responded beautifully, walking around the astonishing object with awed faces.”

Reviewing a revival of The Birthday Party by Pinter, a frequent subject of his analysis, he observed, “How strange it is that Pinter should have written a parody of himself before he had written the major works which might be parodied.” And he said Edward Albee made “Lillian Hellman look like the recording secretary of a garden club.” He knew the antecedents of his craft, and frequently cited Stark Young, Max Beerbohm, George Bernard Shaw and George Jean Nathan, as well as Bentley (an obvious influence) in his articles.

It was a measure of the esteem in which the theatre held Mr. Gilman’s opinion that, in 1964, he was asked his opinion as to who should take over management of the then-floundering Lincoln Center Theater department. As he wrote in a 1966 essay called “The Sorrows of Lincoln Center,” he discovered, after giving theatre scholar Herbert Blau’s book “The Impossible Theatre” a good review, the Lincoln Center Repertory Theatre board ordered six copies. A few days later, a Lincoln Center executive invited him to lunch. The man asked Gilman who he thought capable of steering the theatre in the right direction. Not thinking much on the request, Mr. Gilman mentioned Blau and Jules Irving, who were co-directors of the San Francisco Actors’ Workshop.

“A month or so after that,” wrote Mr. Gilman, “I read with astonishment verging on disbelief that Blau and Irving had been named to replace Robert Whitehead and Elia Kazan as directors of the Repertory Theatre.”

His stinging appraisal of Bruce Jay Friedman's Off-Broadway Scuba Duba led to a brief war of words with the play’s director, Jacques Levy. Gilman called the play "a new perfect product of the new pseudo-sophistication," and said Levy's "work is constantly threatened by a streak of tastelessness announcing itself as verve." Mr. Levy retaliated by mocking the critic in a subsequent New York Times interview. Gilman then published an essay in which he relegated Mr. Levy to the ranks of a new theatre movement called "The New Barbarism," in which theatre artists simply did their "thing" and rejected all formal criticism.

As a young man, Richard Gilman soaked up the bohemian world of post-war Greenwich Village, taking part in late-night literary debates in the San Remo and other Village hangouts. Anatole Broyard, who became a book critic and editor at the New York Times, described him as “a brilliant talker, an attractive man,” and a voracious reader who would periodically fall in love with a writer to such an extent that he would read everything the author ever put down on paper. He did not lack for confidence. In his memoir “Kafka Was the Rage,” Broyard described an amusing incident when Mr. Gilman visited Broyard’s apartment and argued, in the manner of a lecture, how he was a better-suited partner for Broyard’s current girlfriend, artist and writer Sheri Martinelli.

The young Richard Gilman had little interest in theatre. That changed, he wrote in his introduction to “Common and Uncommon Masks,” after he encountered three phenomena: the first New York production of Waiting for Godot; Bentley’s study of theatre, “The Playwright at Thinker”; and The Living Theatre. “Together they brought about a change in my attitude toward the theatre,” he said.

By the late ‘50s he was writing literary reviews for Commonweal. One night, James Finn, the magazine’s literary editor, asked him if he would like to be Commonweal’s theatre critic. He began his weekly column in 1961. Later, he began to write for other publications and, in 1964, moved to Newsweek. His reasons were twofold: an increase in remuneration, and a potentially greater audience. He left in 1967, in part because of the pressure to regularly review “important” (read: “Broadway”) productions. “I found myself . . . growing desperate to think of new ways of saying new things about unchanging evils and ineptitudes.”

At that time, Robert Brustein, then dean of the Yale School of Drama, offered Mr. Gilman a post. After teaching a summer at Stanford, he went to Yale and remained there for many years, also directing productions at the Yale Repertory Theatre.

Among the future playwrights he taught at Yale were Albert Innaurato, Christopher Durang, Lonnie Carter, Wendy Wasserstein, William Hauptman, and Harry Kondoleon.

"Writers would arrive at Yale as conventional realists, reliving their family conflicts in imitation of Miller, Williams, and Inge," wroter Robert Brustein, "and leave as fabulists, absurdists, and surrealists, which is to say, as converts to Gilman's aesthetic. " He added, "Gilman demanded that the playwright be not just a thinker, but even a philosopher and a metaphysician."

"As a teacher, Dick could be neglectful, even cruel at times," said Jonathan Kalb, a student who went on to be a drama critic at The Village Voice and New York Press, and a professor at Hunter College, "but he could also be shockingly perceptive, unaccountably generous, and lavish in his enthusiasms. He had a characteristic expulsion of delight that always began the same way: head turned sideways, hand on the back of his neck squeezing a slender cigarillo, then (after due cogitation) a gust of eloquent praise."

His criticisms were again collected in 2005 and published by Yale University Press in a volume called “The Drama Is Coming Now.” He is also the author of the study “The Making of Modern Drama,” published in 1974; “The Confusion of Realms”; and “Chekhov’s Plays: An Opening Into Eternity.”

A marriage to painter Esther Gilman produced a son, Nicholas, and ended in divorce in 1964. The couple frequently traveled to Mexico, where, Broyard wrote, Mr. Gilman once tried to look for D.H. Lawrence’s footprints in the dust.

He is also survived by his children Claire Swan Gilman and Priscilla Nesbit Gilman, his daughters from his marriage to the literary agent Lynn Nesbit.

Until his death, Gilman also enjoyed a long marriage to Yasuko Shiojiri, a professor of theatre, who survives him.

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