Quotable Critics

By Louis Botto
29 May 2008

Dorothy Parker
Dorothy Parker
Playbill's resident historian Louis Botto reminds us of some of the more memorable brickbats thrown by drama critics.

*

Drama critics have made some very memorable remarks in their time.

George Jean Nathan (1882–1958) was famous for his acidulous dismissal of shows he disliked. His favorite playwrights were Eugene O'Neill and William Saroyan. Oddly, he disliked Tennessee Williams and panned most of his plays. In the 1920s Nathan reviewed a musical and this is what he wrote: "I've knocked everything in this show except the chorus girls' knees, and there God anticipated me." In 1942 he panned Rodgers and Hart's hit musical By Jupiter, and he wrote this about the chorus girls: "A less attractive congress had not been assembled on one stage since the occasion of Broadway Nights on July 15, 1929."

One of the most famous and oft-repeated critical barbs was delivered by Dorothy Parker during the intermission of The Lake, starring Katharine Hepburn at the Martin Beck Theatre: "She runs the gamut of emotions — from A to B." Ms. Hepburn once told me she made the sign of the cross every time she passed the theatre.



Brooks Atkinson, the eminent drama critic of The New York Times, wrote this about Farley Granger in First Impressions, a 1959 musical version of "Pride and Prejudice": "Farley Granger played Mr. Darcy with all the flexibility of a telegraph pole."

Walter Kerr, usually a kind critic, amused the theatre world with this comment about an actor named Jay Robinson in a play called Buy Me Blue Ribbons: "Mr. Robinson has delusions of adequacy." When John Van Druten's wonderful play I Am A Camera opened, Kerr's review headline was "Me no Leica."

When an actor named Creston Clarke played King Lear in Denver, critic Eugene Field had this to say: "Mr. Clarke played the King all evening as though under constant fear that someone else was about to play the Ace." On another occasion, Field reviewed Hamlet with this remark: "So-and-so played Hamlet last night at the Tabor Grand. He played it till one o'clock."

John Mason Brown gained much attention when he reviewed Tallulah Bankhead in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra in 1937 and commented: "Tallulah Bankhead barged down the Nile last night as Cleopatra and sank."

Maureen Stapleton's opening in a 1953 play called The Emperor's Clothes brought this barb from George Jean Nathan: "Miss Stapleton played the part as though she had not yet signed the contract with the producer."

That wonderful comedienne Nancy Walker was only 20 when she made her Broadway debut in the hit musical Best Foot Forward. Catty critic Hedda Hopper wrote this about her: "Miss Walker reminds me of nothing so much as the Bundle for Britain with ears."

In 1931 Dorothy Parker went to the Empire Theatre and wrote: "The only thing I didn't like about The Barretts of Wimpole Street was the play." In 1931, as the critic for The New Yorker magazine, she reviewed The House Beautiful and proclaimed: "The House Beautiful is the play lousy."

George S. Kaufman, one of Broadway's most acerbic critics, saw Gertrude Lawrence in the 1939 play Skylark and wrote: "A bad play saved by a bad performance."

Though Kaufman's reviews were amusing, on one occasion, they had a deleterious effect. He once reviewed an actor named Guido Nazzo with this withering comment: "Guido Nazzo was nazzo guido." It stalled the young actor's career, until he changed his name.