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‘What a rough day it will be for the drama when Ireland is freed’: Dorothy Parker’s extraordinary theatre criticism

The American writer’s six-year run as theatre critic, including for Vanity Fair, is rarely remembered, but its wit and fearlessness lit up Broadway a century ago

“Open to reason though I am on the Irish question, I can’t help being appalled at the thought of what a rough day it will be for the drama when Ireland is freed,” Dorothy Parker wrote in 1919. “How,” she asked in a fiendishly funny review for Vanity Fair of the musical comedy Dark Rosaleen, “could an Irish drama make a hit without references to the oppressed Emerald Isle, spoken with a sob in the voice, to bring storms of emotion from the shrieking Sinn Féiners in the gallery?” A picture of Robert Emmet causes the entire audience, who are jammed to the roof, “to break down utterly and sob on one another’s shoulders”. She adds, “Home Rule may be a perfectly corking thing – but when it comes in, the Irish drama will immediately cease to make any money.”

Parker’s six-year run as a theatre critic is rarely remembered since it concluded, 100 years ago. It would be pushed to the side by the celebrity that followed: the legend of her as an acerbic member of the “Algonquin round table”, the group of campily literary scenesters, mythologised in newspaper columns, who met at the Algonquin Hotel in the city, later augmented by the spiffily cynical poems of Parker’s best-selling collection Enough Rope, the sad postmarital wasteland of her short story Big Blonde and, in 1937, the glitteringly dark version of Hollywood in her screenplay for A Star Is Born. Parker was an agile writer, pivoting several times. Her two runs as a book critic are arguably better remembered than her time as a Broadway reviewer.

Back in 1918, before there was a round table, she was a 24-year-old copy editor at Vogue. Vanity Fair offered her the theatre column vacated by PG Wodehouse. She used it to breezily discuss between seven and 10 plays a month. Producers’ reputations didn’t seem to intimidate her: when reviewing a first World War play directed by David Belasco, who was involved in more than 100 Broadway productions, she wrote that it was “not particularly stirring, as an appeal for the orphans of war; but, as propaganda for birth control, it was extraordinarily effective”.

She was in the audience both for premieres of Eugene O’Neill’s plays and for Irish plays receiving notable New York productions. Of the long, wearying Back to Methuselah, Bernard Shaw’s marathon staged over three evenings, she wrote that at the end “one came out into the street, and peered curiously about, to see what new buildings had gone up”. She spent most of her words about Lord Dunsany’s orientalist caper A Night at the Inn studying a disruptive group in the audience, the “kind of people who simply couldn’t get along without their sense of humour”.


Looking back at Parker’s writing, the critic Helen Shaw, of the New Yorker magazine, says that “the sceney-ness of her reportage gives you a sense of how drunk everybody was, how hilarious everyone finds things, how much she clearly wants to murder people in the audience who are laughing at the wrong joke nearby”.

Shaw has written that, in terms of critical type, Parker was a candidate for the scourge, a no-nonsense advocate that has modern iterations in Mary McCarthy and Frank Rich, aka the butcher of Broadway, but can also be traced back to passionate (albeit puritanical) attacks on the theatre industry in the 17th century. “Though every critic still makes the occasional, furious denunciation, most negative reviews are now written more in sorrow than in anger,” Shaw wrote. Has that trading-in of fury for melancholy somehow dimmed criticism, or made going to the theatre seem less essential? Can a critic’s disappointment still coalesce into something useful?

Shaw points out the brevity of Parker’s run compared with some journalists’ careers, and the brightness of its combustions over that time, as if a critic might write acidly only until it becomes too corrosive to sustain. “That’s because we are gentle, we are cowards, we’re writing beat-sweeteners, we know we’re going to write this for 30 years and so we can’t let that vitriol into our writing selves or else we’ll burn out. But she could,” Shaw says.

Not that Parker always wrote in a minor key. What did she sound like when she loved something? A review of Hedda Gabbler reads as a list of gratitudes; she tells the director that he “will never know all that he did for me” in a theatre season that had been “a long succession of thin evenings”. Typically, she isn’t meticulous about performance or design; this can be a drawback to her columns, which can whip events into something resembling zippy reports rather than criticism that can reassemble a play when read years later.

When Parker tries to discuss a play she likes, it sometimes doesn’t go further than hype and exaggeration. “She does have little pat phrases like, ‘If you do anything you must see this show.’ If you ‘do anything?’ She does have a little of that ‘run, don’t walk’ language in the way that she writes,” Shaw says.

“Even when she is full of praise she is going to make sure to guard herself against feeling foolish. As a theatre critic you feel afraid of a couple of things. You feel afraid of dismissing something because your own taste is too narrow and hasn’t absorbed it, of being proved wrong by history because you’re the person who said Annie Baker’s The Flick is a piece of garbage. The other fear is feeling too eager to impress, or seeming too soft, or having too low standards. You can really see her guarding against both positions.”

One explanation for the joyful heedlessness might be her youth; she was a theatre critic between the ages of 24 and 29. Soraya Nadia McDonald, a theatre critic based in New York, points out that Parker wrote like a person in their 20s: “It’s almost like we got her during her writing adolescence. The things you need to propel yourself into a purposeful adulthood before you encounter things that would make you afraid, those are the things that come in adolescence,” she says.

McDonald, who writes for Andscape, a pop-culture website, says that Parker’s pan of the comedy Come Seven, in which she attacks the dehumanising effects of minstrelsy, saying the characters are not black but “of the blackface race”, reminds her of a zinger by the essayist Zora Hurston, one of the black writers making similar arguments at that time. Hurston described the musicals Shuffle Along and Runnin’ Wild, with their absurd attempts to be compassionate towards black people, as resembling “a cross between the duck-billed platypus and a dictionary going crazy through the hips”.

“She is talking about this thing that irritates her, and that irritated me too, so I’m heartened it irritated Dorothy,” McDonald says.

What’s noteworthy are some of those fights that Parker chose. “I don’t particularly like it when she’s mean to the artists, but I think it’s hilarious when she’s mean to the critics,” Shaw says. In one of her final raves, Parker took on a keystone of New York theatre history. For 50 years no portrayal of Hamlet had been as highly regarded as Edwin Booth’s. Booth died just before Parker was born; that didn’t stop her from declaring John Barrymore, an actor in his meteoric rise, as the new prince to beat.

In her review of that production she says her audacious statement will, if spoken aloud, get her ousted from the academy. “I shall never in my life qualify as a professional reviewer,” she adds about not being around for Booth’s performance. She also admits “my heart is not broken” for missing it, and proceeds to write about a production she wants to talk about.

“So much of what you’re seeing on the page feels like a continuation of one of those conversations around the Algonquin table,” Shaw says. “You hear this person in her ear saying, ‘Of course, you never saw the great production. You only saw John Barrymore.’”

That young, brawly critic is a rare breed nowadays – including in New York, Shaw says. “You need some firestarters, because that will bring out the people with the blankets to put out the fires.”