Clive Barnes dies at 81; newspaper critic covered New York theater and dance for 40 years

Bloomberg News

Clive Barnes, the avuncular and quotable critic who covered New York’s theater and dance scene for more than 40 years, died early Wednesday at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan. He was 81 and recently had been diagnosed with liver cancer.

His death was confirmed by the New York Post, where Barnes had served as chief drama and dance critic since 1977.

“Clive Barnes was a genuine legend,” said Col Allan, editor-in-chief of the Post, in a news release. “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.”

Barnes was born in London in 1927, studied at Oxford University and worked as music, dance, drama and film critic at the Daily Express from 1956 through 1965. He also was dance critic for the Spectator. In 1965, he was hired as chief dance critic of the New York Times. Two years later, he was named chief drama critic.

Barnes also was a dance historian and biographer of choreographers Frederick Ashton and Rudolf Nureyev, among others, as well as a longtime columnist for Dance magazine.

As the Times’ critic during the Vietnam War era, when Broadway and off-Broadway were responding to tumultuous social changes, Barnes became a household name among culture watchers. From “Hair” in 1967 through “A Chorus Line” in 1975, he was arguably the country’s most influential drama critic. An unabashed enthusiast, he could be effusive when he liked a show, withering -- but rarely vicious or snide -- when he didn’t.

“The conservative word for ‘A Chorus Line’ might be tremendous, or perhaps terrific,” he wrote in his May 22, 1975, review of the show, which was first presented by Joseph Papp’s Public Theater before moving to Broadway. Michael Bennett’s “choreography and direction burn up superlatives as if they were inflammable. In no way could it have been better done.”

Papp had no hesitation about calling Barnes on the carpet when he was unhappy with a review. The producer once telephoned him in the middle of the night to unload an obscenity-filled diatribe. Another time, he threw peanut shells at Barnes in the lobby of the Public Theater, according to a biography by Helen Epstein, “Joe Papp: An American Life.”

Barnes made a point of writing in a conversational manner and of being accessible to readers, always keeping his home telephone number listed in the phone book. He was unafraid of admitting that a work of political or avant-garde dance or drama simply eluded his understanding, rather than simply attacking it for being bad art.

His last theater review for the Post, of a Broadway revival of David Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow,” was published Oct. 24 and typified his verve.

“The performances catch the play on the wind,” Barnes wrote. He was especially taken with actress Elisabeth Moss, whom he described as “slithering through the play’s undergrowth like a grass snake.”

“Twenty years ago, I thought no cast could match the original trio of Joe Mantegna, Ron Silver and [what a surprise she could stand still, let alone act] Madonna,” Barnes wrote. “I was wrong. For its acting alone, this new ‘Speed-the-Plow’ is a must-see.”

Barnes is survived by his fourth wife, Valerie Taylor, a son, Christopher, of London, a daughter, Maya, of Woodstock, N.Y., and two grandchildren.