Richard Gilman, 83; influential theater critic and longtime Yale drama professor

Times Staff Writer

Richard Gilman, an eloquent and exacting theater critic who helped sharpen America’s definition of modern drama, died at his home in Kusatsu, Japan, Oct. 28. He was 83.

He had been battling illness since being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in 1997.

A professor for 31 years at the Yale School of Drama, Gilman influenced more than a generation of theater practitioners and academics throughout his teaching career.

Though he also taught at Columbia, Stanford, Barnard and the City University of New York, among other institutions, Yale was his academic home. He was invited to teach there by Robert Brustein, then dean of the Yale School of Drama, after stepping down as drama critic for Newsweek, a position he held from 1964 to 1967. For three decades, after joining the faculty in 1967, he commuted regularly to New Haven from his home in New York City, offering seminars, workshops and tutorials for aspiring playwrights, critics and directors, as well as students from other parts of the campus looking to extend their knowledge of the contemporary stage.


The best-known of his seven books, “The Making of Modern Drama: A Study of Buchner, Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Pirandello, Brecht, Beckett, Handke,” published in 1974, was derived from his popular lectures on the subject at Yale. In the introduction, Gilman sets down the almost religious conviction that would underlie his intellectual career:

“My assumptions in this book are that drama ought to matter to us as a source of consciousness, that great plays can be as revelatory of human existence as novels or poems, that such plays aren’t discrete objects to which we ‘go’ but analogues of our lives which we encounter, and that an account of how some of them came into being in the modern period, against heavy obstacles and on unpromising ground, can be an instructive -- I hope fascinating -- chapter of imaginative history.”

Brustein, a critic often grouped with Gilman and their predecessor Eric Bentley for welcoming in a 20th century drama more formally and philosophically adventurous than mainstream realism, described the effect of Gilman’s writing as “an important corrective to a theater that did not have much in the way of a brain, only a feverish set of nerves and spasms masking a deep sentimentality.”

Gilman was born April 30, 1923, in Brooklyn, N.Y. He received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1947 after serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, and later attended the New School for Social Research in New York.

After freelancing in his 20s as a self-described “intellectual hobo,” he began gaining wider attention for his writing in Commonweal, a Catholic, left-leaning journal of opinion. This might seem an unusual forum given Gilman’s Jewish heritage, but he had converted for a period to Catholicism.

He recounted this chapter of his life in his 1986 memoir, “Faith, Sex, Mystery,” which he wrote from the perspective of a “lapsed Jewish-atheist-Catholic,” yet one who was still searching for an uncliched understanding of the notion of a spiritual existence. “I only know that I don’t want to die as an act purely of nature, of this world,” he wrote; “I want my poor value to exist past me, somewhere else.”


His writing bears witness to that human longing for metaphysical meaning, a philosophical ache he responded to in the plays of Ibsen, Chekhov and Beckett, all of whom were more concerned with ultimate facts than circumstantial digressions, as he brilliantly elucidated.

While teaching, Gilman was also the literary editor of the New Republic from 1968 to 1970, a contributing editor at Partisan Review from 1972 to 1980 and drama critic of the Nation from 1981 to 1983. He also served as president of the PEN American Center from 1981 to 1983.

His awards include the 1971 George Jean Nathan Award for drama criticism and the 1979 Morton Dauwen Zabel Award for progressive criticism from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

He was married three times: to the late Esther Morgenstern, a painter, in 1949; to Lynn Nesbit, the literary agent, in 1966; and to Yasuko Shiojiri, a scholar who translated his books into Japanese, in 1992.

Shiojiri survives him along with three children from his first two marriages, Nicholas of Mexico City and Priscilla and Claire of New York; and four grandchildren.

His theater criticism is collected in two anthologies, “Common and Uncommon Masks: Writings on Theatre, 1961-1970” and “The Drama Is Coming Now: The Theater Criticism of Richard Gilman, 1961-1991.” He also published an early collection of free-ranging literary criticism, “The Confusion of Realms,” in 1969, as well as a 1979 monograph on an elusive word, “Decadence: The Strange Life of an Epithet,” which was nominated for the National Book Award.


Gilman’s most ardent study, the 1995 work “Chekhov’s Plays: An Opening Into Eternity,” allowed him to analyze in depth his lifelong passion for a writer who grew only more estimable to him over time. Ross Wetzsteon, writing in the Village Voice, noted, “If, as Gilman writes, it was Chekhov’s singular achievement to give bodies to idea, to endow themes with physiognomies, to find names for the ineffable, to feel an amorousness toward the invisible, it is Gilman’s singular achievement to embody the very virtues he acclaims.”

Always an uncompromising critical voice, Gilman laid out an intellectual defense for his profession in “The Necessity for Destructive Criticism,” an essay that contends that the highest expression of love for the theater is an honesty that places the values of the art form above all other considerations.

“From the true critic the theater generally gets what can only be interpreted as gross infidelity,” Gilman wrote, “the reason being, as Shaw and every other major observer of drama makes abundantly clear, and as our own sense of what is civilized should tell us, that the critic cannot give his loyalty to men and institutions since he owes it to something a great deal more permanent. He owes it, of course, to truth and to dramatic art.”