The critic who wielded Broadway’s most pointed pen
Clive Barnes, who has died at 81 of liver cancer, was one of the theater world’s fiercest and funniest critics. He once called Kenneth Tynan’s all nude revue Oh! Calcutta! (1969) “the kind of show to give pornography a dirty name.” Panning Three Days of Rain (2006) with Julia Roberts, he wrote, “At least I liked the rain.” Yet Barnes never wanted to keep potential audiences at home. “My ideal criticism is to write a notice about a play I didn’t like,” he said, “and yet send people to the theater to see it.”
A London native, “Barnes grew up in a single-parent home,” said the London Guardian, “but saw plenty of theater because his mother, who worked for a press agent, had a steady supply of free tickets.” At Oxford, he became fascinated by dance, and soon he joined a new wave of critics who were starting to shake up the arts establishment. “We were all terribly mean to the established dance critics, who were all music critics, really, and didn’t know a thing about dance,” he recalled. “We were kind of young Turks, obnoxious as hell.” Barnes also contributed to The New York Times and joined the paper as its regular dance critic in 1965.
Two years later he became one of the Times’ two theater critics as well, said The Washington Post. Typing with two fingers, he sometimes pounded out four reviews a day. In a time of cultural ferment, he championed such unconventional fare as Hair and A Chorus Line, as well as the edgy work of Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter, and David Mamet. Barnes wrote breezily, becoming the first Times theater critic to refer to himself in the first person. “I slipped ‘I’ into a review, then rushed home and sat by the telephone, fully expecting the managing editor to ring me up. But nothing. Not a peep.” His “witty and powerful” prose was frequently devastating. “One sure gauge I have of telling whether a play is boring me,” he wrote of What Did We Do Wrong? (1967), “is when a telephone rings in the last act and I start in my seat and hope it’s for me.”
Barnes’ cutting humor won him plenty of enemies, said The New York Times. The New York Shakespeare Festival impresario Joseph Papp once phoned him near midnight to yell, “I am going to get you, I am going to get you!” and during a TV debate about Hamlet, Papp pelted Barnes with peanut shells. “The combustible producer David Merrick vowed to stay on Broadway if only ‘for the pleasure of throwing his fat limey posterior out into the street.’” But Barnes gave as good as he got. Early on, Merrick sent him an irate telegram that read, “The honeymoon is over.” Barnes cabled back, “Dear David: I didn’t know we were married. I didn’t even know you were that kind of boy.”
In 1977, Barnes left the Times for the New York Post, where he wrote about both dance and drama for the rest of his life. He never lost his sting; last month, in his review of To Be or Not to Be, he declared, “Not. Definitely not.” In his honor, Broadway dimmed its marquee lights for one minute last week.