Obituary: Walter Kerr

Adam Benedick
Sunday 20 October 1996 23:02

Even Noel Coward, who by his own admission found dramatic criticism tedious on all occasions, conceded that Walter Kerr was its best American exponent. Not because he wrote favourably of Coward's works - Coward knew how to rise above such puerility - but because he wrote so well. And Kenneth Tynan said on the occasion of his republished notices (Pieces at Eight, 1958) that of the seven then accredited critics on Broadway in the 1950s: "Kerr was the cogent best." Why?

Well, to quote Tynan:

He combines a style that is vivid and popular (in the best sense of the word) with a background of scholarship that comes from having taught drama for many years at a university.

There was no one like him in London - though Kerr regularly visited the London theatre - because presumably the popular press would suppose such a writer to be over its readers' heads and the so-called quality press would never allow him room - or if it had the room would "sniff at the brisk informality of his style".

It was a style which even got up Coward's nose when "after a tortuous sentence fairly shimmering with emotion he suddenly introduces a vulgarism, a slang phrase, to prove that in spite of his impressive learning he is in fact just a regular guy like you or me". It was a trick which Tynan summed up as "the apologetic smile of an Honest Joe anxiously disclaiming egg-head pretensions".

Kerr also sometimes dropped into the other trick of trying to reach down to his readers by beginning a review: "Although it may not seem very likely, I have been having a wonderful time with a book called Sources of Theatrical History." As if it were not just the sort of book a respectable critic ought to be enjoying, as Tynan reminded him.

Nevertheless in the days when the New York Times had Brooks Atkinson as its critic and the New York Herald Tribune had Walter Kerr, it was to Kerr you first turned because of his clarity, liveliness, force, personality and sense of fun. He could rival Tynan any day in his pithy assessments.

Take him on Orson Welles:

As an emotional actor Welles is without insight, accuracy, power or grace. In short, without talent. The only parts he could ever play were parts that were cold, intellectual, emotionally dead.

Or on Nicol Williamson, whom Kerr had seen in Osborne's Inadmissible Evidence and as Hamlet and had thought intelligent but guilty of playing both parts the same way. Kerr missed physical tension:

Mr Williamson's arms hang idly from shoulders already idle. His is a pale, flattened face with kinky uncut hair billowing out so far behind him that it becomes his head, robbing his features of dimension. It is also a face that seems to have severed association with the listless members that might have been expected to carry it anywhere . . . his coming or going makes no emotional difference.

Of Williamson's "particular noise", Kerr continued:

The voice is a quick twang, the sort of sound a man might make if he spoke rapidly while carefully pinching the bridge of his nose . . . The performance as a whole seems one given by a museum guide who obviously knows what he is talking about but is severely crippled by a blocked sinus."

After this, Williamson threatened to cancel his one-man command performance in Washington before President Nixon if Kerr was to be at it. Luckily (for Williamson) he could not make it.

Certain critics interfere with the confidence of actors who read them (and which of them does not?), as did our own Harold Hobson, but their influence on Broadway seems more apt to haunt them, especially if they have been suspected by such a reviewer as Walter Kerr of suffering from "delusions of adequacy".

Christopher Reeve has recorded his inhibitions which were provoked by Kerr's way of picking on a single moment in a play and making so much of it in his notice that the actor dare not perform the same movement again.

Kerr made less than others of Tom Stoppard's talent after Dirty Linen had reached Broadway in 1977:

Intellectually restless as a humming-bird, and just as incapable of alighting anywhere, the playwright has a gift for making the randomness of his flights funny . . . Busy as Mr Stoppard's mind is, it is also lazy; he will settle for the first thing that pops into his head . . . Wide-ranging as his antic interests are, delightful as his impish mismatches can occasionally be, his management of them is essentially slovenly.

Like all critics Kerr had his blind spots. He was troubled by the lack of physical action in Chekhov ("nothing happens"). He could never feel fond of Samuel Beckett's or Harold Pinter's plays; and he had little faith in drama which attempted to teach us anything - Brecht or Arthur Miller for example - though he himself taught speech and drama at Washington's Catholic university for seven years.

What added unquestionably to his gifts as a critic was not only that teaching experience but his work as a director and playwright, often collaborating with his wife Jean, well remembered here for her play Mary, Mary (1962). They first worked together on the revue Touch and Go which I recall with great pleasure at the Prince of Wales in 1950 as a sophisticated lark with the comedian Desmond Walter Ellis; though by then Kerr had also collaborated on a university revue which moved to Broadway, and he co-authored other plays, among them King of Hearts (1954) and a costly musical failure, Goldilocks (1958), a vehicle for Elaine Stritch as a star who turns her back on Broadway for the sake of her marriage - which was hard to imagine Miss Stritch ever doing.

So Kerr, who moved to the New York Times as its Sunday critic when the Herald Tribune folded in 1966, knew about life on both sides of the curtain. He wrote 10 books. Among their titles were: How Not to Write a Play (1955), Criticism and Censorship (1957), The Decline of Pleasure (1962) and The Theatre In Spite of Itself (1963), which sounds like the cumulative disillusion of a critic facing the change in post-war drama and tastes.

Walter Kerr was one of the few of his calling to win a Pulitzer Prize (1978) for his writings on the theatre, but then dramatic criticism is, I suspect, still a craft more honoured by its editors in New York than by their London counterparts.

New York even named a theatre after him in 1990 on West 48th Street and when he died, Broadway dimmed its lights.

Walter Francis Kerr, theatre critic and playwright: born Evanston, Illinois 8 July 1913; married 1943 Jean Collins (five sons, one daughter); died 9 October 1996.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments