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Brooks Atkinson: Attention Must Be Paid

News coverage of the recently announced renaming of his Broadway theatre for Lena Horne contained virtually nothing of his achievements nor a picture of him.

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Brooks Atkinson in the Morosco Theatre circa 1950. (Photo credit: Arnold Newman)

Darryl Reilly

Darryl Reilly, Critic

There cannot have been another critic as trusted as Brooks Atkinson was by so large a proportion of the theatergoing public. He is the only one who can be said to have presided over Broadway. For most people, it was probably less his analytical insights that mattered than his common sense and the air of total candor that his reviews carried with them. He followed no bandwagon, viewed each production pragmatically for what it tried to accomplish rather than what he would have preferred it to attempt, and was not at all afraid to be moved. Above all, he made the reader see what he had seen and thus left some room for dissent. His presence lent the theater a dignity and importance it did not usually merit, but his influence served to raise the sights of everyone it touched. Arthur Miller

Massachusetts-born, Harvard-graduate Brooks Atkinson (1894-1984) was the New York Times’ chief drama critic from 1925 to 1960. There, he was an early admirer of Eugene O’Neill, praised Orson Welles’ 1930’s stage productions and supported New Deal arts programs. During W.W. II, Atkinson was a New York Times war correspondent in China, he was later stationed in Moscow, and was awarded the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for Correspondence for his Soviet Union reporting. He then returned to New York City, and resumed his theater criticism.

“Atkinson was the conscience of the theater. He rediscovered Off-Broadway in the 50’s when other critics did not want to bother going off the beaten path. His standards were tough, but his criticism was tempered by compassion,” stated the late Eugene O’Neill biographer and New York Times colleague Arthur Gelb. Indeed, Atkinson’s championing of Off-Broadway is a major aspect of his legacy, as evidenced by the opening paragraphs of his monumental reviews of two 1952 and 1956 revivals:

Nothing has happened for quite a long time as admirable as the new production at the Circle in the Square in Sheridan Square to be precise. Tennessee Williams’ “Summer and Smoke” opened there last evening in a sensitive, highly personal performance. When “Summer and Smoke” was put on at the Music Box in 1948 it looked a little detached and perhaps because the production was too intricate or because the theatre was too large.

Since José Quintero’s productions at Circle in the Square are always admirable, no one should be surprised by his latest achievement. But it is impossible not to be excited by his production of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” which opened in Mr. Quintero’s theatre yesterday. It is a major production of a major a theatre work. Taking a long script with a massive theme, Mr. Quintero has succeeded in bringing every part of it alive in the theatre. Although he tells the story simply and spontaneously, he leaves no doubt about the value he places on O’Neill’s place in the literature of the stage. Mr. Quintero seems to take him on the level of Ibsen, Strindberg, Gorki and other modern masters of tragic writing.

These reviews’ impact enabled the careers of José Quintero, Geraldine Page and Jason Robards . Most crucially, O’Neill’s widow, Carlotta Monterey was then persuaded to lift O’Neill’s 25 years after his 1953 death’s production ban on Long Day’s Journey into Night. Quintero directed it later that year on Broadway to great acclaim, O’Neill’s faded reptutation was restored, and he was posthumously awarded his fourth Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Atkinson appreciated the new during his time:

Don’t expect this column to explain Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” which was acted at the John Golden last evening. It is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. But you can expect witness to the strange power this drama has to convey the impression of some melancholy truths about the hopeless existence of the human race. Mr. Beckett is an Irish writer who has lived in Paris for years, and once served as secretary to James Joyce.

Richard Mansfield (1857-1907) was born in Germany, raised in England and became a popular United States classical actor. Named in his honor, Broadway’s Mansfield Theatre opened in 1926. In 1949, it became a CBS television theatre for the next decade. It’s new owner and manager Michael Myerberg renovated and renamed it, the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on September 12, 1960, reportedly the first time in the world that a theatre was named after a critic.

Atkinson had stepped down as the New York Times’ chief drama critic the previous spring. He would continue to contribute regular opinion columns there until 1965, when he fully retired at the age of 70. Broadway (1970) and The Lively Years 1920-1973. A Half-Century of the Most Significant Plays on Broadway (1973) were two notable works of critical reminiscences he published before his death at the age of 89, in 1984.

For close to 62 years, the Brooks Atkinson Theatre has stood on West 47th Street, so it did 34 years previously as the Mansfield. On June 9, 2022, its current owner, the Nederlander Organization announced that this fall it will be renamed in honor of the distinguished performer Lena Horne (1917-2010), the first such designation for a Black woman. News coverage of this milestone uniformly, dutifully and curtly cited Atkinson as a long-time New York Times critic and did not include a picture of him. Hence, this tribute.

After the Second Stage Theater company bought Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre in 2015, they set about selling naming rights to it. Named for the “First Lady of American Theatre,” it has since been known as “The Hayes,” and her cement shoe prints which were placed in the sidewalk in front of it in 1982, have been removed. The grandeur of Broadway’s Golden Age is still evoked by theatres named for Ethel Barrymore, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Al Hirschfeld, Stephen Sondheim and Walter Kerr, for now.

Note: Quotations of Arthur Miller and Arthur Gelb are from Brooks Atkinson’s New York Times obituary. Atkinson’s review quotations are from the New York Times.

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Darryl Reilly
About Darryl Reilly (803 Articles)
A native New Yorker, Darryl Reilly graduated from NYU with a BFA in Cinema Studies. For the Broadway League, (formerly The League of American Theatres and Producers) he developed, and for five years conducted their Broadway Open House Tours, which took visitors through The Theatre District and into several Broadway theaters. He contributed to Broadway Musicals Show by Show: Sixth Edition (Applause Books). Since 2013, he has reviewed theater, cabaret, and concerts for

9 Comments on Brooks Atkinson: Attention Must Be Paid

  1. Avatar Jerry Eisenhour // June 18, 2022 at 11:06 am // Reply

    Thank you for this info/tribute. While working on my Ph.D. in theatre history, I read many of BA’s marvelously crafted reviews. They were, as you say, among the best and most thoughtful critiques of his day. Reviewers today could learn much from reading him—and leaving their egos at home. As for renaming the theatre—well, we go with the flow, I guess. But BA’s accomplishments should not be shunted aside or lost in the rush to be popular.

  2. Avatar Allen Neuner // June 18, 2022 at 11:59 am // Reply

    As much as I admire Lena Horne for her accomplishments — movie star, song stylist, civil rights activist — she did not have a major career on Broadway. Before heading to Hollywood, she was in two short-lived revues; in the 50’s she starred in a minor musical, “Jamaica”, with Ricardo Montalban; she had a month-long Broadway concert performance with Tony Bennett; and finally her long-running Broadway concert “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music” at the Nederlander Theatre. I do not think this qualifies having a Broadway theater renamed in her honor, when more notable Black Broadway talents — Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Ethel Waters, Lorraine Hansbury, Alice Childress, Paul Robeson, to name only a few — do not.

    Erasing the name of Brooks Atkinson does not do honor to his long service to Broadway. Yes, I know many who think critics are parasites on the body of the theater, and some critics have lived down to that opinion. But Atkinson even today is held up as a shining example of the positive effects of thoughtful criticism on the theater. To erase his name like this, to not even include a mention of his work or a picture of him in articles about the renaming of the theater, is a mark of shame against the Nederlanders.

    The Nederlanders control two theaters — the Minskoff and the Marquis — which could have easily been renamed in honor of Miss Horne. (They also control the Palace, but I for one would never dare suggest such an iconic theater name be replaced.) By choosing to rename the Atkinson — well, I don’t know what was on their minds. I can only surmise either their woeful ignorance of the place of Brooks Atkinson in Broadway history, or a deliberate attempt to take a swipe at all theater critics by dishonoring Atkinson’s name.

  3. Avatar Tom Carter // June 18, 2022 at 12:31 pm // Reply

    This is very interesting. But now I want to know where Miss Hayes’ sidewalk impression has gone.

  4. I agree. They probably should have chosen to rename the Marquis if anyhting. There are so many other theatres with generic names like the Broadway and the Lyceum, although Nederlander doesn’t own them. Removing Atkinson’s name from the theatre is a disgrace, as was the Helen Hayes debacle.

  5. The previous comments here express everything I thought as soon as I read this. Lena Horne was legendary, but more so in film and concerts. She only did four Broadway shows, two of which are known, only one of which is iconic. Atkinson was a theater foundation, and his name should not be removed just because he hasnt been around in a long time. These names arent rented and dont have an expiration date. If you cant find a 46th st or a Virginia, leave it alone. I never knew they removed Helen Hayes’ footprints. Offensive. Geez, they named that house after the other one was demolished. How insensitive. James Earl Jones and August Wilson left indelible marks on rhe stage. Theres no issue with naming a theater after a black female. But do it at the appropriate time.

  6. Yes. It is the fashion right now to especially celebrate people of color. That Brooks Atkinson’s name was stricken is unfortunate. But it seems America is intent on this now. So be it. The pendulum swings.
    I look forward to a day when we must not be so intent on examining people and events based on race. Odd choice too, since Ms Horne didn’t realy do so much theatre. Ethel Waters or Ruby Dee would have been more appropriate if they were looking for this particular color and sex.
    By the way, there’s a traveling statue (in front of the Scholbyrg Center just recently) in honor of Lorraine Hansberry currently making the rounds. There was a play!!!
    For the future…There’re also Julie Harris and Carol Channing and Ethel Merman in the queue of theatre stars. Ah well. We all disappear.

  7. Avatar Alan Gomberg // June 21, 2022 at 4:08 pm // Reply

    Thank you, Darryl. You have expressed how I feel about renaming the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. When I expressed similar thoughts on Facebook, a number of people jumped in to agree. No one disagreed.

    And I also agree with the commenters who have questioned whether renaming a theatre for Lena Horne is the best choice or a particularly appropriate choice. I intend no disrespect to Lena Horne, but, as has been noted, she was not primarily (or even secondarily) a theatre person. I would nominate Ethel Waters and Lorraine Hansberry as being far more deserving of the honor. The contributions made to the American theatre by Ethel Waters and Lorraine Hansberry were far greater and more important.

    If the Nederlander Organization so wants to name a theatre for Lena Horne, they should rename the Nederlander Theatre, where she triumphed in Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music. And then rename the Marquis or the Minskoff for Waters or Hansberry. Or if the Nederlander Organization has a legal obligation to retain those names, how about renaming the Palace? The Palace is such a famous name that I am sure they would not want to get rid of it entirely, so what about the Ethel Waters Palace as a new name? Who could object to that?

  8. The name of the theatre should remain Atkinson period.

  9. Avatar Albert Poland // June 22, 2022 at 7:07 am // Reply

    You can add the removal of the entrance to the Palace from Broadway to West 47th Street to make room for “retail space” as another marker of Broadway’s lack of concern with its grandeur of yore.

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