Clive Barnes, 81; Influential Theater and Dance Critic

Clive Barnes's career as an arts critic spanned nearly 60 years and encompassed theater, dance and various forms of pop culture. He died of cancer.
Clive Barnes's career as an arts critic spanned nearly 60 years and encompassed theater, dance and various forms of pop culture. He died of cancer. (Courtesy Of The New York Post)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 20, 2008

Clive Barnes, 81, a witty and powerful arts critic whose voracious interest in theater of all forms led him from ballet to discotheques, died of cancer Nov. 19 at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan.

In a career spanning nearly 60 years, Mr. Barnes had some of the most prestigious jobs in arts journalism. In 1961, he became the Times of London's first full-time dance reviewer. He was recruited by the New York Times four years later, partly at the urging of dance impresario Lincoln Kirstein. Mr. Barnes doubled as the New York Times' chief theater critic.

Because of his multiple roles, he gained recognition as a prolific writer who seemingly covered every nook of New York's cultural life. "If you dimmed the lights in a car," a fellow critic quipped to Time magazine, "Clive would have tried to review it."

After the Times divided the theater and dance jobs and, in essence, demoted him, Mr. Barnes left in 1978 for the New York Post. He spent the past 30 years at the Post, which gave him freedom as an arts critic. He also contributed to dance publications and wrote books.

A ballet enthusiast since his childhood in London, Mr. Barnes once said his primary mission was to elevate dancing from "America's cultural ghetto." He championed dancers and choreographers including George Balanchine, Frederick Ashton, Antony Tudor, Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham and Jerome Robbins.

He once singled out Rebecca Wright, a featured dancer with the Joffrey Ballet, for "a performance of gossamer and thistledown."

But Mr. Barnes could be memorably devastating. He famously damned Kenneth Tynan's 1969 all-nude revue "Oh, Calcutta!" as "the kind of show to give pornography a dirty name."

He reduced his consideration of one play called "The Cupboard" to a single word: "Bare."

Mr. Barnes told Time in 1969, "My ideal criticism is to write a notice about a play that I didn't like and yet send people to the theater to see it."

Those on the receiving end of his typewriter did not always see it that way. Producer David Merrick wrote in Esquire that his only interest in bringing new shows to Broadway was "for the pleasure of throwing his [Mr. Barnes's] fat Limey posterior out in the street."

Mr. Barnes gave a laudatory review to Joseph Papp's production of "A Chorus Line," but the producer was never entirely satisfied with the critic and routinely sent demeaning notes about his understanding of theater.

The relationship reached a low when Papp began throwing peanut shells at Mr. Barnes during a televised debate over "Hamlet," according to Papp biographer Helen Epstein.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company