The idea of a New York Drama Critics’ Circle is not a new one in 1935. Twice before—in 1925 and 1932—the aisle-sitters of Gotham, prodded by their English counterparts, have made half-hearted stabs at assembling a local version of the London Drama Critics’ Circle. But another factor has now come into play: widespread dissatisfaction, in the critical community, with the annual winners of the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
In the 1933-1934 season, the Pulitzer board has outraged the local critics by overruling the recommendation of its own drama jury for Maxwell Anderson’s Mary of Scotland in favor of Sidney Kingsley’s Men in White. The following year, the board has raised hackles again by choosing Zoë Akins’s melodrama The Old Maid over works by Anderson, Lillian Hellman, Robert Sherwood, George S. Kaufman and Clifford Odets. In this context, the idea of establishing a second major drama award, decided by local critics, becomes increasingly appealing.
The organizational impetus for the founding of the Circle comes from Anderson’s fed-up press agent, Helen Deutsch, who contacts two leading critics of the day, Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times and Burns Mantle of the New York Daily News, to suggest the idea of a critics’ award. With these two on board—“No one was in the habit of refusing Miss Deutsch anything; she had style,” Atkinson recalls years afterward—Deutsch invites them and other prominent critics to a meeting at the Algonquin Hotel.
The first meeting of the New York Drama Critics’ Circle, on September 22, 1935, comprises nine critics—including Atkinson, Mantle, John Mason Brown of the New York Post and George Jean Nathan of Vanity Fair and Life—with Deutsch acting as secretary. One month later, the Circle’s second meeting adds eight new members, including The New Yorker’s Robert Benchley, the New York Herald Tribune’s Percy Hammond, the New York Mirror’s Walter Winchell and The New Republic’s Stark Young (who resigns his position on the Pulitzer play jury to join). Free liquor is provided by the hotel.
Atkinson is elected president of the group, which resolves to give an annual award to “the best new play by an American playwright produced in New York.” The prize itself is to be the Poor Plaque, designed by artist Henry Varnum Poor: a silver relief depicting a performance at the John Street Theatre, an 18th-century Manhattan playhouse. A loose constitution is written, as Atkinson reports, “gaily, over beer and sandwiches, in the home of [Morning Telegraph critic] Whitney Bolton.”
On March 25, 1936, the critics meet to determine the winner of the Circle’s first award, and wage a three-hour battle around a green-covered table in an upper room of the Algonquin. After five ballots, Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset receives the 14 votes required to win under the constitution’s so-called “Popeye clause,” which mandates a three-quarters majority. The three dissenting critics—John Anderson, Robert Garland and Percy Hammond—hold out for Robert Sherwood’s Idiot’s Delight.
The Circle’s first awards dinner is held at the Algonquin Hotel on April 5, 1936. George Jean Nathan delivers a speech attacking “certain other awards” given yearly to plays: “They have been so hamstrung by rules and regulations, by by-laws and by-by-laws, that they have come to represent exactly nothing. Whatever anyone may think of the awards given by the Drama Critics’ Circle, these awards will at least be forthright and unhedging. The best American play of the year: that is and will be the Circle’s one and only question.”
The dissenters are then permitted their turn. “Every feast, so they say, must have its death’s-head, but this one, partaking of the theater’s usual extravagances, has three,” says Percy Hammond, representing the Idiot’s Delight contingent. “Our objections to Winterset as the chosen masterpiece seem to be based on the fact that, even if it is good…we do not like it! To our taste it is spinach, smothered with music’s rich gravies, but still spinach.” (The practice of including a dissenting speech at the awards dinner is discontinued the following year.)
Brooks Atkinson reads selections from a long letter from Eugene O’Neill, saluting the newly formed Circle. “It is a terrible experience for a playwright to be forced by his conscience to praise critics for anything,’ O’Neill writes. “It isn’t done. It has never been done. There is something morbid and abnormal about it, something destructive to the noble tradition of what is current conduct for dramatists. In short, it gripes. Nevertheless, conscience drives me to reiterate that I think the Critics’ Circle Award is a damned fine idea.”
Finally, the Poor Plaque is presented to Anderson. “Except for the theatre critics of New York no body of men in the country is qualified by training, education and professional experience to render judgment on a season’s plays,” Anderson says in his acceptance speech. “I am, I assure you seriously, much more interested in that aspect of the ceremony than in the fact that the first award goes to Winterset.” (In 1946, no longer in favor, Anderson opines that most critics bring to the theater “nothing but hopelessness, recklessness and despair,” and refers to them as “the Jukes family of journalism,” after an infamous 19th-Century crime clan.)
The advent of the Drama Critics’ Circle Award is generally welcomed, but the fact that the Circle’s first award has gone to Deutsch’s client does not go unnoticed. Members of the Circle vociferously deny any intimation of foul play. “Although an alert press agent founded the Critics Circle, she never tried to influence its decisions, and no press agent or producer has ever had or tried to have the slightest influence on the annual awards,” Atkinson writes in his 1970 book, Broadway. “The collective taste of the Circle is no better or worse than that of the members who compose it, but its integrity is unimpeachable.”
1936-1937: The Poor Plaque goes again to Maxwell Anderson, this time for High Tor. “To win [this award] twice, as we have, is only possible because anything is possible, however unlikely,” Anderson says. “In other words, we are lucky dogs, and this is our day.”
1937-1938: The Drama Critics’ Circle votes to award a yearly citation to the best new foreign play of the season, as well as the best American play, announcing the change on November 1, 1937: “Inasmuch as the American theatre, more than any other, has become increasingly international in scope, the Circle believes that the new and added tribute is a proper gesture away from provincialism.”
1938-1939: The Circle is deadlocked in its balloting for Best American Play, with the most support going to Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (six votes) and Robert Sherwood’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois (five votes). Since the group’s rules require a three-quarters majority, no award is given; this omission is widely criticized in the press. Richard Lockridge writes in the New York Sun: “Only the telegraph wires were expeditious enough for one wag to communicate to a Circle member the suggestion that a new award be given: To the Drama Critics Circle for the best farce of the year.”
1939-1940: The DCC amends its rules to permit members to decide on awards via a simple majority, provided that three-quarters of them agree to do so. Robert Rice of P.M. is elected to the Circle at the age of 23, making him the youngest member in the group’s history. (He resigns his post the following year.)
1941-1942: In a thin year for American drama, the Circle votes 11-6 against giving an award for Best American Play (and donates the money usually reserved for its annual plaque, awards dinner and radio broadcast to the American Theatre Wing and British War Relief). Hoping to forestall criticism of its decision, the Circle issues a statement noting that although the group “was organized to encourage native playwrights and honor native dramatists, it [has] also the third obligation of maintaining the standards of the theatre and of dramatic criticism.”
1942-1943: In a gesture of support for the war effort, the Poor Plaque awarded to Sidney Kingsley for The Patriots is cast in plaster instead of silver, and Kingsley donates the unused silver to the Stage Canteen. The matrix for the plaque is subsequently lost, and the award becomes a scroll. (“The loss of Mr. Poor’s work of art is an act of criminal negligence,” Brooks Atkinson will write in 1952. “The first thing that a drama critic has to do when he applies for admission to heaven is to convince St. Peter that he is not personally responsible.”) DCC president John Anderson dies before the annual meeting, which is conducted by acting president Louis Kronenberger.
1943-1944: Riven by personal feuds, the Drama Critics’ Circle is tested by the resignations of four members, including George Jean Nathan, who writes that he is leaving “until such time as the Circle recaptures its original ideal of merit and dignity.” (He rejoins in 1947.)
1944-1945: New York City license commissioner Paul Moss forces the closing of Dorothy and Howard Baker’s drama Trio, after local clergymen criticize its lesbian content. The Drama Critics’ Circle, in an emergency meeting, agrees to unite with Actors Equity, the Dramatists Guild and the Association of Actors and Artists of America in a joint appeal to Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. Individual members subsequently take up the censored play’s cause in print and on the radio.
1945-1946: For the first time, the Circle awards a special citation to a musical, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Carousel; musicals will subsequently become a de facto annual category for awards. Also for the first time, the Circle fails to name either a Best American Play or a Best Foreign Play. This decision is widely criticized; former DCC member Robert Garland dismisses the Circle as “a waste of Scotch and time.”
1946-1947: In an effort to avoid future stalemates, the group agrees to make the awarding of a Best Play mandatory each year. A new set of voting procedures is proposed by New Leader critic Joseph Shipley and adopted: an initial unsigned vote, followed by a single signed voted and a weighted ballot. In other news, the Dramatists’ Guild—prodded by an irate Lillian Hellman—sends the DCC an official letter of reproach accusing critics of inebriation on opening nights; signed by Guild president Richard Rodgers, the letter chides unnamed Circle members for “coming to the theater in a physical condition which precludes capacity to appraise a play intelligently.” (George Jean Nathan envisions a satirical reply castigating dramatists for “coming into the theatre in a mental, literary and dramaturgical condition which precludes capacity to write a play intelligently.”)
1947-1948: The complicated Shipley plan is abandoned and the constitution amended again, at Shipley’s behest. The choice of the Best Play is now to be decided by the simplest system yet: “a plurality vote on a single signed ballot.” Brooks Atkinson, seconded by George Jean Nathan, moves that the Circle award a single play, irrespective of whether its origin is American or foreign. The motion is defeated, 11-5.
1948-1949: At the suggestion of John Chapman, the DCC bylaws are changed to permit critics from wire services to join.
1950-1951: At the request of Dramatists’ Guild president Moss Hart, Gilbert Gabriel moves that the Circle issue a statement opposing the blacklist of artists with suspected leftist leanings. The Circle unanimously approves and releases the following statement: “The Critics’ Circle joins with the Authors’ League of America, Actors’ Equity and every other organization protesting against irresponsible blacklisting in our field of arts, letters and entertainment. We are opposed to any such rule over ‘controversial personalities’ by hearsay or hysteria. We subscribe to no compromise which would sanction private censorship of the public’s right to see whatever plays and players it so will in our theatre. We are for that freedom of expression possible only in a free democracy.”
1951-1952: The Circle awards a special citation to George Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell, the first non-musical production so honored. The year’s winner for Best Musical, Pal Joey, is later discovered to have been ineligible: The Circle’s constitution, misplaced at the time of the vote, stipulates that the Best Musical winner must be a new work, not a revival. Gilbert Gabriel becomes the second DCC president to die before completing his term.
1953-1954: Best Musical The Golden Apple, which begins at the Phoenix Theatre before transferring to Broadway, becomes the first Off-Broadway production to win a DCC award.
1958-1959: For her first play, A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry becomes the first African-American playwright to win a Critics’ Circle Award. (“Best-Play Prize Won by Negro Girl, 28,” trumpets the New York Herald Tribune.)
1962-1963: The Circle narrowly approves a major change to its constitution. From now on, it chooses a Best Play regardless of national origin; depending on the outcome of this first vote, the Circle may then also award a Best American Play (if the Best Play is of foreign origin) or Best Foreign Play (if the Best Play is American). This represents a long-in-the-making victory for John Chapman of the New York Daily News, who has been lobbying for the change since 1947. Thomas Wenning of Newsweek becomes the third DCC president to die in office.
1965-1966: In another significant amendment to its constitution, the Circle votes to jettison the requirement that a Best Play be chosen every year, and discards the simple plurality rule in favor of a three-tiered system. If no play wins a majority of votes on the first ballot, a second vote is to be taken to determine whether an award is to be given at all. If so, each member then selects three choices, in preferential order: First choices are worth three points, second choices two, third choices one. The play with the most points wins.
1966-1967: The Institute for Advanced Studies in the Theatre Arts, in conjunction with the Harry and Margery G. Kahn Foundation, donates $5,000 to the Circle, earmarked for five years of $1,000 cash prizes to the recipients of the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play.
1969-1970: The Circle votes against including John Simon, the controversial new critic for New York magazine. This decision is reversed the following year.
1971-1972: After a mathematical mix-up, the Circle announces David Rabe’s Sticks and Bones as the Best Play winner—only to discover shortly thereafter that the play had in fact been edged out (37 points to 36 points) by Jason Miller’s That Championship Season. Embarrassed, the Circle awards a special citation to Sticks and Bones, as well as to Harold Pinter’s Old Times (which had also lost by a single point, in the Best Foreign Play category). In other news, some producers (David Merrick and Joseph Papp among them) attempt to deny tickets to critics they consider adversarial, including DCC members Martin Gottfried and John Simon. The Circle adopts a resolution censuring the practice—but stops short of a stronger resolution to boycott shows that do not invite all members.
1976-1977: The Circle tweaks its system of point scoring, mandating that the winning play receive not only a plurality of votes but also a total equal to the number of voting members multiplied by three and divided by two, plus one.
1977-1978: Producer Lucille Lortel donates $5,000 to subsidize $1,000 gifts to the next five years’ Best Play winners; she later donates an additional $15,000 to extend the prize. The Circle lodges a formal protest with the League of New York Theatre and Producers after John Simon is again dropped from the first-night list for Broadway productions.
1984-1985: The Best Play award goes to August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the first of eight Wilson works honored by the Circle.
1988-1989: New York Times critics Frank Rich and Mel Gussow depart the DCC under order from the newspaper’s executive editor, who decrees that Times critics may no longer participate in awards. Rich and Gussow subsequently rejoin the Circle as non-voting members, and Gussow serves as the Circle’s president through 1991.
1996-1997: After a reversal of their newspaper’s policy on the question, New York Times critics Ben Brantley and Peter Marks become voting members of the Circle. For the first time, the Best Play (How I Learned to Drive) and Best Musical (Violet) are both Off-Broadway productions.
2002-2003: The New York Times reverses itself again, forcing critics Ben Brantley and Bruce Weber to withdraw from the DCC.
2004-2005: In her will, the late Lucille Lortel bequeaths $70,000 to the Circle, supplementing her earlier $20,000 contribution. The prize for Best Play is accordingly raised to $2,500, with $1,000 going to the winner of the Best Foreign Play or Best American Play. The bequest comes with a caveat—likely inspired by the Circle’s repeated endorsement of August Wilson—that the cash prize may not go to the same playwright for more than two consecutive years.
2005-2006: Time Out New York critic Adam Feldman becomes the youngest president in the Circle’s history; his proposals for the group include a website. New York Post gossip columnist Michael Riedel reports that some Circle members are not sold on Feldman’s “newfangled ideas.”
2006-2007: The Circle launches its website, Dramacritics.org.
1935-1937 Brooks Atkinson, New York Times