Getting to Know Brooks Atkinson, the Dean of 20th-Century American Theatre Critics

By Henry Bial, University of Kansas
February 6, 2023
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
A man with a mustache, glasses, a pipe and pen in either hand, and a bowtie, writes at his desk

Brooks Atkinson portrait, undated.*T-Pho A (Atkinson, Brooks). Billy Rose Theatre Division. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 72263

Henry Bial is Professor and Chair of Theatre and Dance at the University of Kansas. As a scholar of Broadway history, he has long relied on the Billy Rose Theatre Division to support his research on projects such as Playing God: the Bible on the Broadway Stage (2015). He recently completed a Short-Term fellowship to continue research for a book-in-progess about the influence of New York theatre critics on the development of American theatre.

 

Over four weeks, I spent my Short-Term Fellowship examining the Brooks Atkinson Papers, a special collection held by the Billy Rose Theatre Division at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Atkinson (1894-1984) was the chief theatre critic for the New York Times from 1925 to 1960, and had an enormous influence on the development of the modern American theatre, particularly on Broadway. Indeed, through his prolific journalistic output (sometimes publishing as many as 3,000 words every week), his reputation for integrity and judgment, and his sheer longevity, Atkinson is essentially the reason that the Times review became the gold standard by which theatre productions were judged. 

A black and white image of a woman wearing glasses sitting behind a table

Clara Rotter at Atkinson’s retirement party, 1960. From the Brooks Atkinson papers, Billy Rose Theatre Division.

As part of a larger project on the influence and significance of New York theatre critics, I felt I needed to make a thorough consideration of Atkinson’s life and work, including the ways in which he conceptualized his own role in the theatrical ecosystem over time. Fortunately, Atkinson was a great auto-archivist, preserving not only the many cards and letters he received in the course of his professional career, but also carbon copies of his outgoing correspondence. In this, he was ably assisted by his longtime administrative and research assistant at the Times, Clara Rotter, whose personal papers are also held by the Theatre Division.

A handwritten note in crayon that says Season's Greetings from Bette and Clifford Odets

Note to Atkinson from Betty and Clifford Odets, undated. From the Brooks Atkinson papers, Billy Rose Theatre Division.

Among Atkinson’s many correspondents were noteworthy performers such as Alec Guiness and Helen Hayes, playwrights such as Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, producers such as Jed Harris and Lucille Lortel, and public figures such as former president Herbert Hoover. For an historian and (let’s face it) a fan of mid-20th-century U.S theatre such as I, it was especially delightful to stumble across the kind of celebrity ephemera that rarely makes it into the scholarly annals: a hand-crayoned holiday card from Clifford Odets, a personal invitation from Molly Picon to attend Raizele at the Second Avenue Theater, a thank-you note from Leonard Bernstein for a positive review of West Side Story.

A paper that says Second Ave Theatre and has a typed note on it

Note to Atkinson from Molly Picon, undated. From the Brooks Atkinson papers, Billy Rose Theatre Division.

But the greatest luxury afforded by my four weeks in residence at the Library was the chance to fully immerse myself in the worldview of the critic who helped define the mid-century American theatre. Reading an entire season of Atkinson’s output in chronological sequence gives a perspective that simply can’t be gleaned from the first-night reviews of two or three particularly famous plays. The genre of the newspaper review often makes it appear that the critic is applying neutral, pre-existing aesthetic standards to each given production, judging it worthy or unworthy of the audience’s ticket-buying dollar. Yet viewed over a season, or a career, we can see that the newspaper review is as performative as it is evaluative. That is to say, the critic—in this case, Atkinson, who was, to his contemporaries, The Critic—helps create and reinscribe these apparently inevitable standards through the review itself. 

A typed note that says New York Philharmonic and a paragraph of text below

Letter to Atkinson from Leonard Bernstein, May 18, 1960. From the Brooks Atkinson papers, Billy Rose Theatre Division.

From the time Atkinson first took over the Times’s drama desk in 1925, he set an unabashedly high standard for the theatre, believing it to be an art form uniquely suited to the expression and exploration of the American spirit. Impressed by European companies such as the Moscow Art Theatre, as well as the tightly-engineered comedies and musicals directed by George Abbott, Atkinson revealed a clear preference for works that show a strong directorial vision, coordinating acting, scenography, and text into a unified artwork, in contrast to the star-centric approach popular on the New York stage at the time. Later, his praise (and critique) of playwrights such as O’Neill, Miller, and Williams set an expectation that dramas of the working and middle classes can and should aspire to the status of great literature. In his later years, Atkinson’s willingness to review shows from the burgeoning off-Broadway and regional theatres helped legitimize those venues in the eyes of the theatre-going public.

A lined note that says Mrs. Roosevelt and the date Thursday, December 7, 1961

Brooks Atkinson appointment book entry, 1961. From the Brooks Atkinson papers, Billy Rose Theatre Division.

Of course, Atkinson occupied a very particular and privileged position in 20th-century U.S. culture: white, male, and Harvard-educated. While he was not a person of great wealth (as evidenced by his correspondence with various landlords and contractors), his celebrity and the status of the Times granted him access to many powerful people (one datebook entry lists an appointment with “Mrs. Roosevelt”). Yet what also comes through from Atkinson’s writings, both published and unpublished, is a clear sense that he appreciated the opportunity he’d been given to participate in the national conversation, and that we was aware of his own biases: “Every critic,” he wrote in a 1956 letter to Jerry McNeeley, “naturally takes into the theatre his own experience, education and point of view, as well as his prejudices. That more than anything else accounts for the variety of opinions in the paper the next day.” Because Atkinson’s reviews play such a large role in telling the story of Broadway from 1925 to 1960, understanding his “experience, education and point of view” is extremely valuable.