John Heilpern, longtime theatre critic for the New York Observer and author of John Osborne: The Many Lives of the Angry Young Man and Conference of the Birds: The Story of Peter Brook in Africa, died on Jan. 7. He was 78.
I didn’t know John Heilpern well, and I spent very little time with him—two facts that I regret very deeply now that he is gone. I saw John mainly at the theatre, where we would often find ourselves seated near one another at press performances. Our conversations consisted mainly of a few words of greeting before a show, and an occasional bit of chat at intermission.
This was rare for me: I am something of a hermit by nature, and I was never wholly comfortable with the New York critical fraternity’s old-time habit of clustering together and muttering comments on the piece under review that evening. In my lumpish and socially reclusive manner, I tended to adhere more to the rubric that Bernard Shaw once laid down: “A critic’s hand should be against every man, and every man’s hand against his.”
With John things were different. Socially forthright and articulate in a way that I was not, he came from the British journalistic tradition, in which collegiality does not exclude or gloss over disagreements about ideas. As a result, his social conversation at press performances was very different from the superficial sociability and gossip that too often pass for conversation among some of New York’s more cynical daily and weekly reviewers.
In the first place, being from a different country, where theatre practice and theatre’s place in the larger culture are very different—decades of transatlantic interchange have not made New York and London all that much like each other—he had questions about the how and the why of New York theatre, and particularly of Broadway. What drove people to put on a given play, and what drove audiences to like it, were subjects of fascination to him.
This was rare in my experience; far too many of our critics are interested in the profitability of a production, and not in the motives behind its success. John put his questions gruffly but succinctly, never with hostility to the play at hand (though he made no bones about his displeasure when he felt put off or let down by the work), but with the honest puzzlement of a serious traveler striving to grasp the customs of an arcane foreign world.
I remember on one occasion, at the intermission of a very long and incident-crammed play with a large cast, finding myself in a corner of the lobby with him, while he begged me, in a tone of almost anthropological curiosity, to explain how such a play could have the acclaim this one was audibly receiving. Disliking the work every bit as much as he did, I remember trying to explain to him, rather lamely, that Americans had become habituated to soap opera; when that clearly wouldn’t wash, I recall going on, still more lamely, to say something about the national fondness for all-you-can-eat restaurants. The expression that crossed John’s face made clear what he thought of my comparison.
His intellectual curiosity, always attempting to evolve answers to the puzzling questions America posed, gave his reviews in the New York Observer a special cachet for me. They were not like any other critic’s reviews. They gave an Englishman’s viewpoint of American work—and certainly not a “typically English” viewpoint, either, for John’s personality, both in person and on the page, was distinctive. Though sociable and gregarious by instinct, he was also something of a grouch—a temperament that comes naturally to theatre critics, who have to sit through much that is second- or third-rate while waiting and longing for the first-rate work with the astonishing streak of brilliance that will make the whole procedure of nightly theatregoing seem worthwhile. John was not a snarky negativist but an honest and fair-minded grouch, who kept his patience until some event came along that made him lose it. (I am trying very hard here not to mention the name of the TV star whose solo performance on Broadway drove John to a comparison with the drunken party behavior of an elderly relative.)
In his reviews, John had no hesitation about finding some gem of goodness in even the unhappiest theatrical mishap. But he was watchful for, and unyielding about, any attempt to palm off the shoddy on unsuspecting audiences. Most particularly, he was infuriated by facile attempts to shock. When he felt he had ethical justifications to wax grouchy, he did not hold back. It was not always easy to agree with him in such cases, and on one or two occasions I found myself openly arguing with him over the matter, but I always came away admiring the absolute forthrightness of his moral stance.
Even when disagreeing, I found this aspect of John’s writing particularly admirable. With rare exceptions, I had largely given up expecting my colleagues to think beyond easy platitudes, politically or morally. John would seize on a play’s politics and, if he saw fit, slam them down violently. On one of these occasions, he paid me a most startling compliment. At least, I think it was a compliment. John and I had both attended the revival of a well-known play that I had found thoroughly repellent. Because the playwright and his work were valued in many quarters, some close to home for me, I had tried to convey an objective view of the play’s substance while expressing what I thought was a thoroughly negative view of it.
Imagine my surprise when John’s review, in the next week’s Observer, quoted a phrase from my low estimate of the work, while adding that I viewed the play far more generously than he did. I was dumbfounded. But I had only been negative about the play—willing to give its theatrical strategies some credit while condemning its overall outlook. John, having seized on the latter and belabored the playwright for it, had been ferocious. So I suppose in that sense I was taking a “more generous” view of the work than he was, though I doubt that it seemed so to the unfortunate playwright.
Among my minor regrets is that I never asked John about the origin of his email address. Some misinformed person, on some occasion or other, must have addressed him, or perhaps introduced him, as “John Hatpin,” and John’s sardonic sense of humor, perhaps seasoned with a touch of defiant bravado, led him to select “hatpin” as his email address. I sometimes addressed him in emails, joshingly, as “Dr. Hatpin,” but I never asked him where the joke originated.
Now I wish I knew, for I miss both the sardonic humor and the bravado, along with the fervent passion for principle, that lay behind them. I respected John most, I see now, because he was a believer. The theatre for him was something more than a diversion; it was a cultural expression that invited and challenged thought. He had no patience with those who would cheapen it or use it as a vehicle for glib ironies. Sometimes, when I think I am being too easy on such transgressors, I regret not being more like him.
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