New York Theatre Critics, Religion, and the American Stage: A Lecture

By: Ayla Cline, 
October 1, 2018

Since the era of George Jean Nathan, Cornell class of 1904, the first-string critics of New York’s major newspapers, who are overwhelmingly white, male, and educated at Ivy League or similar universities, have held outsized influence on which plays and musicals enjoy commercial success in New York, and thus the country. Henry Bial, a leading scholar in American and Jewish performance studies, will analyze how this has shaped the way that American theatre represents religion in a lecture entitled “The Gatekeepers: New York Theatre Critics and Policing of Religion on the American Stage” on October 17 at 4:30pm in Cornell’s Lewis Auditorium in Goldwin Smith Hall. The event is open to the public and tickets are not required.

“Bial’s proposed topic for the University Lecture is particularly relevant for Cornell, given its oversight of The George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism,” says J. Ellen Gainor, Professor in the Department of Performing and Media Arts.  “Nathan, a Cornell alumnus, created this prize ‘to encourage and assist in developing the art of drama criticism and the stimulation of intelligent playgoing,’ and Bial’s topic strikes me as highly relevant to our ongoing investment in promoting excellence in this field.”  Professor Caroline Levine, Department of English at Cornell’s College of Arts & Sciences, currently chairs the George Jean Nathan Award Committee, which consists of faculty from Cornell, Princeton and Yale Universities.

Bial, Professor of Theatre at the University of Kansas, using critical responses to a wide range of religion-themed plays, from Ben-Hur (1899) to Fiddler on the Roof (1964) and The Book of Mormon (2011), will demonstrate that New York’s critics have tended to be deeply cynical about representations of religion, often equating piety with naiveté. Consequently, the stage in the twentieth and twenty-first century has been far less accepting of religion than other forms of US popular culture such as film and literature.

"His talk discusses facets of our everyday culture from a critical but down-to-earth perspective, and helps make us a more sophisticated and engaged audience," Jonathan Boyarin, Director of Jewish Studies, says of Henry Bial. “He has been extremely active in theater production (as director, performer, dramaturg), as a scholar of American Jewish performance and identity and of religion on the Broadway stage, and as a university administrator.”

The University Lectures Committee makes this distinguished guest’s appearance possible, with co-sponsorship by the Cornell Jewish Studies Program.

Additional thanks to the following people for their support: J. Ellen Gainor, Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies, Department of Performing and Media Arts; Noliwe Rooks, Director, American Studies Program; Kim Haines-Eitzen, H. Stanley Krusen Professor of World Religions, Director, Religious Studies Program.

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Richard B. Harrison (left) as De Lawd and Alonzo Fenderson as Moses in The Green Pastures, 1930