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Stanley Kauffmann: A vicar of theater criticism

Stanley Kauffmann: A vicar of theater criticism
Stanley Kauffmann. (Leon Wieseltier / The New Republic)

Stanley Kauffmann, who died Wednesday at 97, will be remembered for his intellectually rigorous, neatly manicured film reviews -- the meditative yin to Pauline Kael's ecstatic yang.

But as a drama critic, I'm especially grateful for his equally acute body of drama criticism, which is a tonic to read in this age of trumped-up enthusiasms and attention-grabbing pans.

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"Persons of the Drama," one of Kauffmann's collections of theater criticism, can usually be found in a pile on my desk with anthologies of theater reviews by his friends and colleagues Robert Brustein, Gordon Rogoff and the late Richard Gilman, all of whom taught at the Yale School of Drama and helped (directly and indirectly) educate generations of critics, myself among them.

Kauffmann’s calm, consistent, carefully measured voice found an ideal home at the New Republic, where he was the film critic for more than five decades. He also contributed theater reviews to the magazine, a more hospitable environment for his sober style of criticism than the New York Times, where he was the theater critic for less than a year in 1966.

Kauffmann, who also reviewed plays for Channel 13, New York's Public Broadcasting System television station, was part of a cultural movement in the 1960s that treated the theater as an art form worthy of rigorous critical engagement.

Like his predecessor at the New Republic, Eric Bentley, Kauffmann combined a sharp prose style with an exacting aesthetic sensibility, a deep awareness of theater history and an openness to new forms that was perfectly balanced by a healthy resistance to bandwagons.

Trends weren't his job to acclaim. His assignment was to assess individual works of art, and he performed this task with magisterial balance, his forensic intelligence leavened with a lancing wit and an indestructible love for what the stage at its best could be.

He was nothing if not self-possessed. Breathlessness wasn't his custom. When he loved a production, he loved it with his whole mind, even those parts of it that couldn't help casting doubts on the ardor.

He was in this respect a true disciple of George Bernard Shaw, the brilliant comic playwright whose dialectical brilliance was equally on display in his dramatic criticism. Shaw was one of Kauffmann’s passions, along with opera, the two satisfying a sensibility that wasn’t afraid of titanic emotions but enjoyed the cool contemplation of them every bit as much as the feverish confrontation.

Here's Kauffmann on Athol Fugard's "Boesman and Lena," a play he later described as "one of the best new pays I have seen in my life":

"[Fugard] has embraced these people so fiercely and lovingly that in their rags and drunkenness and cunning and persistence they move through a small epic of contemporary man. I can think of no naturalistic play since 'The Lower Depths' that -- far from using its subject for clinical study -- so completely converts almost protozoan characters into vicars for us all."

Stanley Kauffmann: a vicar of film and theater criticism.

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Twitter: @charlesmcnulty

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