Interviews | September 01, 2002
Interviewer: Could we begin by discussing your tenure as theater critic of The New York Times, from January 1, 1966, to August 31 of the same year?
Kauffmann: I had not sought the post; I had been invited by Times executives to meet with them. They said they were considering major changes in their Culture Department and wanted “to pick my brains.” This was just a gentleman’s agreement to avoid any feeling of job inter-view. I was even asked to suggest candidates for the drama job-and recommended two men. In the course of several conversations with various executives, I was asked my opinion of Times criticism in general. I replied that it seemed to me a “cultural dump.” I vigorously excepted Ada Louise Huxtable, their critic of architecture, and Clive Barnes, who had just joined them as dance critic, and later, when Hilton Kramer became one of their art critics, I most certainly excepted him. Otherwise I assured them that I and, in my experience, the intellectual community held most Times criticism in very low esteem. They then engaged me.
My employment was part of the paper’s response to the cultural shifts in American life. Quite objectively, I think it can be seen as a frontier operation: an attempt, because of the social pressure of the cultural explosion, to give power to serious theater criticism. The move was based on an assumption that the theater audience was now ready to have plays judged by standards cognate to those in dance and art criticism. This was and still is true, that there is a large audience being neglected and alienated both by Broadway and by the kind of reviewing that Broadway likes. But the ratio of that audience to the total audience is not yet large enough.
Interviewer: Was there any public reaction to your being appointed the Times drama critic?
Kauffmann: When my appointment was announced, a week or so before I started, uproar broke out. I had been the film critic for The New Republic and the theater critic for the PBS television station in New York, and moving to the Times, I meant simply to continue in critical practice what I had been able to do in those places. I had no image of setting forth bravely to take lofty critical principles into the vulgar newspaper world. Yet this was the assumption. People telephoned to interview me and asked me to comment on my reputation as being anti-Broadway. Some, a few, put me in shining armor before I wrote a line for the Times. This, meant as a compliment, made me feel awkward.
Interviewer: Why did you take the post at the Times? Your preceding eight years at The New Republic had been almost unqualifiedly pleasurable, had they not?
Kauffmann: I knew that I was making a trade: a trade that in no way involved my critical standards but that was a barter of my stylistic range and subtlety, which had free play in The New Republic, in return for the sheer power of a huge newspaper. I wanted that power-much less for self-aggrandizement (although I am no violet; genuine violets don’t become critics) than to serve the theater according to my lights.
I had been trained for the theater through my four years of college, had spent ten years in a repertory company devoted to classics, had written and published plays, had directed in summer theaters and elsewhere and for the three previous years had been the drama critic of Channel 13, the educational TV station in New York-all of which had produced and sustained in me a symbiotic love and despair. The more one loved the theater, the more reason one had to despair of the New York theater, particularly on Broadway, and not least because of the general quality of newspaper drama reviewing. The clear implication on the Times‘ part was that I was expected to improve the latter. I accepted entirely purposefully because I thought that in some measure I could do it and thus possibly help the theater itself.
Interviewer: Can you give some background? Why did it need your, or any serious critic’s, help?
Kauffmann: From its beginnings until late in the nineteenth century, the American theater lived throughout America. There were touring companies, particularly on the frontier, but many towns had stock companies, and every large city had its own substantial theater or theaters-Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Richmond and so on.
Toward 1900 this situation changed rapidly, principally for economic reasons. The railroads made it more feasible and profitable to book touring shows-complete with scenery-that originated in New York, and increasingly local theaters became local theater buildings, temporary habitations for companies passing through. Thus, for all intents and purposes, from about 1900 until after the Second World War the American theater was Broadway.
Interviewer: But most of its intents and purposes were highly dubious.
Kauffmann: It’s true that on Broadway there has always been a preponderance of junk. But if you call the roll of American dramatists of note in this century until about 1960, you see that without exception they have all flowered on Broadway. They aspired to Broadway; and though some of them began elsewhere, like O’Neill at the Provincetown Playhouse, Broadway is where they fulfilled themselves. Insofar as our theater has produced dramatists of consequence-and it has done so only in this century-Broadway is where it happened.
Interviewer: There certainly have been changes in this situation vis-a-vis dramatists.
Kauffmann: Right, but there is another important element that continues to apply to Broadway. It is the best yardstick of production quality that we have. Broadway’s best work marks the high points in American acting and production. Despite the atrocious productions that always have been available on Broadway and that have proportionately in-creased in recent years, it is nonsense to deny that Broadway at its best is still American production at its best.
Now unless one faces this cultural-historical fact it is impossible to understand the gravity of our condition. Because it is perfectly apparent that Broadway is deteriorating rapidly. There is no touch of romantic nostalgia in this statement. The reason is obvious: highly increased costs have greatly reduced adventurousness and caused Broadway to search more feverishly than ever for formulas and for “pretested properties,” have made it cater even more exclusively to the latest demands and largest segment of its audience.
For a time in the postwar years, off-Broadway helped to offset the Broadway decline, but cost increases there have had stifling effects. Then there is off-off-Broadway. OOB uses mostly nonprofessional actors in improvised environments. It has at least the considerable merit of vitality. There is promise in off-off-Broadway, so long as it doesn’t completely justify its existence by being the residence of promise and so long as its amateurism is not exalted into an aesthetic.
Interviewer: What function is there for a New York newspaper theater critic?
Kauffmann: Here are the only justifications I can see for doing the work. First, the job should not be construed as a contest between art and commerce. Patent commerce should be allowed to be as commercial as it likes, unmolested. The critic should ignore what does not interest him, as do the theater and film critics of good magazines. No productions should be criticized except those that clearly aspire to criticism. If the critic is uncertain about a production, he can attend the last preview-which should be his standard practice anyway. If he is uninterested, a reporter can go to the opening. Art critics do not review bill-boards; music critics do not review dance bands and pop singers. Why should a drama critic review Cactus Flower? To be ultraclear, this is not an encyclical against light comedy or revues or musicals: for example, I very much enjoyed Mike Nichols’s pastry-chef direction of Barefoot in the Park and spoke about it at length on television.
Interviewer: Could you say more about the justification for theater criticism as it butts heads with the business world?
Kauffmann: Yes, of course. Early in my stay on the Times I saw a show called The Wayward Stork, a farce about artificial insemination in which the doctor injects the wrong woman. I had read about the success of its long out-of-town tour with a TV star in the leading role, and indeed at the performance I saw, the audience rocked and screamed around me while I sat numb. My review reflected my revulsion. To the argument, which I subsequently heard, that I ought to have recorded the audience’s reaction, my reply was, and still would be, that I had been engaged to record my own reactions, not other people’s, and that if I applied the reporting principle, I also would have to report the occasions when I laugh and almost everyone else is silent. This response usually squelched the objection, but I have come more and more to believe that my presence at the show was an intrusion between it and a large public that might possibly have enjoyed it for months. It was only nominally a play; my judgment was no more relevant to what was happening on that stage than it would have been to a pie-eating contest.
Interviewer: Couldn’t a second-stringer have reviewed a production of The Wayward Stork?
Kauffmann: There ought to be an identification between the newspaper and a critical view in the public’s mind. Besides, I know from experience that it is discomfiting to see a review in one’s own journal with which one disagrees. The only way the critic can be of service to his readers is by providing his own standards-with his own insights and defects-as a frame of reference. The situation in the music and book and art departments is unavoidable because of the far greater number of discussable offerings in those fields than in the theater.
Interviewer: You said earlier that the job of a metropolitan theater critic should not be construed as a contest between art and commerce. Are there any other arguments you wish to make about the profession of drama criticism?
Kauffmann: My second point is a large one with several subdivisions. Today the drama critic of a major newspaper ought to consider himself a national critic, not a local one who makes sporadic trips to the hinter-lands. I began to put this idea into practice during my eight months on the Times. I visited about a quarter of the resident professional theaters in the United States and Canada, several of them more than once, and would have visited more if there had not been an airline strike in the summer of 1966. The first motive for this practice is purely selfish: there isn’t enough to sustain a critic’s interest in New York.
But there is a deeper, less personal reason: Broadway is strangulating. If the American theater is to survive-no sure thing, in my opinion, despite the statistics-its other areas must prosper: resident theaters, university theaters, small, independent theaters. These out-of-New York theaters, as I have seen them, do not need to be patronized; they need to be criticized, as much for the critic’s benefit as theirs. Where merit exists, it needs to be noticed so that it can be helped; and for his own competence, the critic needs to know what is happening nation-ally in order to be authoritative in judgment and comparison. The Broadway yardstick of production quality, as I said, has been our best, but now it needs both testing and application: testing to see if it continues to be our best; application to other theaters with the hope of helping them. I saw productions of Mother Courage in Milwaukee and The Last Analysis in Philadelphia that were better than the Broadway productions of these plays.
As to the metropolitan reader’s interest in theaters he is unlikely to attend, it is at least as high as his interest in reviews of concerts that have passed and books he will not read. Much more so, I would hazard, if he cares about the theater at all.
Interviewer: Are there any other arguments for a national view or perspective of the theater?
Kauffmann: One is the little-regarded but crucial matter of ego-satisfaction for the members of these outlying professional theaters. Financial rewards are generally small; rewards in terms of opportunities for good work are much greater. But recognition of this work is generally insufficient. It is not the New York critic’s function to publicize a performance in Walla Walla so that the director or leading actor can get a New York job, but he can supply occasional, sympathetically rigorous criticism.
Most cities are even worse off for criticism than New York. Dozens of resident-theater directors and managers have told me how sick they are of the endless meaningless praise they get from the local press, leavened occasionally by equally meaningless carping. Even though the New York critic can visit any one theater only occasionally, these visits can be of value to a valuable theater. The criticism gives the local company a sense of resonance and appraisal. Such criticism, if it can be honestly favorable, helps to certify the theater to its community. This is not only a matter of fund-raising but of intrinsic audience sympathy. Some administrators of resident theaters have noted that foundation grants have enabled them to choose plays regardless of the community’s wishes and taste. When the subsidy is removed, they find them-selves with, say, a four-year-old theater and an insufficient audience. Since in most cases local criticism is inadequate, the prestige of a metropolitan critic can help to keep the subsidy forthcoming and help to vitalize and enlarge the local audience.
Interviewer: Tell me what it was like going from a magazine of relatively modest circulation to a huge, powerful newspaper.
Kauffmann: My stay on The New Republic had been very pleasant. I felt that I was speaking every week to a responsive and relatively homogeneous audience. I said earlier that I had little naivete about the Times job before I began, but there was one matter I had anticipated insufficiently-the change in reader response. The Times’ readership is not only very much larger than The New Republic‘s but much more heterogeneous. They virtually brag at the Times that almost half of their readers are not college graduates.
From the start my mail was much larger, I was told, than my predecessor’s; and from the start there were many letters of commendation. But the majority of letters opposed me with a heat that was shocking. The proportion of pro and anti letters shifted considerably as the months went on, but the heat of the anti letters did not diminish. I particularly cherished the communiques from an anonymous backer of Sweet Charity, a musical I had disliked. Every week he sent me a copy of the box-office receipts as reported in Variety, accompanied by an obscene scrawl.
Interviewer: Were there any other visible or tangible indications of your power?
Kauffmann: After the first edition of the newspaper came off the press, I would take a copy home with me. If there were any errors in my piece, I would phone in corrections from home. It was one of the few attributes of power I enjoyed, being able to sit home and make changes in the Times. Another power I liked was telephoning in my reviews from far places. I visited resident theaters in other cities, and in the summer I went to theater festivals, and in both cases I had to dictate my reviews over the phone. I had been given a special number to call at the Times office. It was always answered by the most bored voice I have ever heard. I would dictate what I had just written—at the moment the most important words in the world to me—and the voice would say, “Yeah? That all? More? Yeah?” I enjoyed the counterpoint between him and me.
Interviewer: What was the day-to-day writing of newspaper reviews like before the advent of the word-processor? You had an office, didn’t you?
Kauffmann: At the Times I had a cubicle against the wall of a huge room filled with desks; I had a secretary just outside; I had a key to the back door of the building on 44th Street so that on opening nights I wouldn’t have to take time to go around to the front door on 43rd Street if the back were more convenient; I had a credit card.
I disliked the office. Not the people but the idea of newspapers. Clatter and deadlines and hats on the backs of heads, all the movie mystique about newspapers, never held a jot of romance for me. I was there as a critic, I told myself, who happened to be on a newspaper, not as a newspaperman. I even hated the coarse gray copy paper that we typed on and that by nightfall covered the floor. I suppose that now, in word-processor days, there is no such paper drizzle, but it was everywhere then. It seemed to seep up through the floor.
I was a technological pioneer. When I was hired, I had asked for an electric typewriter, the kind that I used at home, so that it would be familiar to me. The machine was purchased promptly, the first electric typewriter in the building outside of the executive offices. My secretary, who had worked for some of the theater critics before me, was impressed by it. She wanted to help. Just before she left the office at five o’clock on the day I was to do my first review, she switched on the typewriter to save me time when I got there after the play. When I arrived about nine that evening, the typewriter was hot. But it seemed the warmth of her concern, so I enjoyed it.
Interviewer: I’d like to hear a little bit about your dealings with the printing department at the Times.
Kauffmann: In those days of Linotype machines, I had to type one or at the most two paragraphs on a sheet of that copy paper, complete, without a run-on sentence to the next page. This was to help the Linotype operator and to save time. Sheet after sheet. Outside my cubicle waited a copy boy. He took each sheet upstairs to the composing room while I kept typing. I tried to sound calm and experienced as I called “Copy!” and the boy jumped. It was part of the performance.
When the review was finished, I had a sip of Irish whisky from a bottle in my desk. Then I got into a tiny two-person elevator and went up to the composing room. The first paragraphs had already been set, and the proof strips were hanging on hooks outside the composing room. I read the strips and corrected them. By the time I finished them, the last strips were ready.
Interviewer: You did this for eight months. Did one particular event lead to your dismissal?
Kauffmann: Before I accepted the Times job, I said to the editor with whom the matter was settled, “You know you will have trouble because of me.” He replied, “We don’t expect you to change your spots. We want you because of your spots.” We agreed on a minimum engagement of a year and a half. “But,” he said, “that’s merely a standard precaution—for both our sakes. We hope this will be for life.” The engagement lasted eight months, until the Herald Tribune died and their drama critic became available, when my contract was settled. Ten minutes after the details of my termination were final, someone appeared in my cubicle to take away my key to the back door and my credit card.
Interviewer: Let’s move back in time now to your career as a book editor—a literary critic at one remove, if you will. Is it true that you didn’t want to take that position with Alfred A. Knopf?
Kauffmann: That’s right. I had left my last editorial job a year before, in the summer of 1958, because that small publishing house was in difficulties and couldn’t afford to keep me on. I had not been worried because a London theatrical manager had taken an option on a play of mine and was talking grandly about an early production. In the spring of 1959 the option was dropped. Our savings now had to carry me and my wife until I could find another publishing job. At one time it would have been exciting to get a job so quickly with such a prestigious house. Now, how-ever, I had not intended to go back into publishing at all. The job was an emblem of disappointment.
Interviewer: Why did they want you in particular at Knopf?
Kauffmann: I had been engaged for my experience with American writers, particularly novelists. Knopf was not really competitive, I was told, on the American side. In recent years their connections with American writers had slipped. I was there primarily to repair that situation.
Interviewer: What exactly did you do? How did you proceed?
Kauffmann: I set up appointments with all the literary agents and magazine editors I knew and some I had never met. I wrote or telephoned suitable authors who might be available. I knew that on any given day a very limited number of publishable manuscripts existed and that most of them were committed elsewhere. I also knew that in publishing the competition is not only between houses; it is between editors in the same house. In my previous jobs I had spent most of my time with manuscripts and with authors. Acquisition had largely been done by others. I felt I had to climb an almost perpendicular rock face. I wanted to succeed, at least as much for ego satisfaction as out of dedication. I was writing a weekly article for The New Republic, seeing films and reading books to review for them, but I was also carrying manuscripts home because my days were busy panting after agents and authors like a dog begging for scraps. I kept telling myself that I was lucky to have found a job with a top publisher.
Interviewer: What was it like working with Alfred Knopf himself?
Kauffmann: He was vastly experienced in every branch of publishing. On every problem that arose he had a quick opinion, even if it was only a specific reference to someone who could solve the problem. His literary taste was severely limited, however. That was hard to reconcile with the quality of his list until I saw that many of his famous authors had been published elsewhere first. If they were American, like Willa Cather, someone else had launched them. If they were foreign, like Thomas Mann, they had had reputations abroad before the house took them on. I saw, too, that Mr. Knopf was in awe of most academics, especially professors of American history, whom he delighted to publish. In fiction and poetry and general books, he relied on the opinion of others, previous publishers or his editors. With academic books, he relied on the author’s position in the field and the endorsement of other academics. Aside from his experience, I saw that his own chief resource was not great taste or intellect but huge ambition to be a great publisher.
Interviewer: What about his day-to-day-relationship with his editors?
Kauffmann: His power gave him a contradictory attitude toward his editors, including me. He had engaged them because he thought them qualified and he needed their advice more than he admitted, but he didn’t want to be threatened by them. He wanted them to succeed, or he would have looked foolish for engaging them. He also wanted them to blunder and fail, or he would not have been indispensable.
Interviewer: For the most part, you didn’t do well at Knopf, did you?
Kauffmann: No. As I said earlier, I had done relatively little acquisition. Others had acquired; I had judged and edited. Here at Knopf I had moved into an almost new profession, and I felt somewhat inadequate. Around me were editors who had strings of authors they had known for years, editors who foamed with new projects of wide variety. I tried to think up projects, but little came that was of use. Through the months I signed a few books of mild promise.
Interviewer: Nothing of great promise came along?
Kauffmann: Only one new project stirred me greatly. I had begun at Knopf in early June of 1959. After my first weeks of lunching with agents, they sent me some dog-eared manuscripts. Then I went to call on an agent, no lunch, a quiet woman named Elizabeth Otis. We chatted in her little office, which was like a corner of a living room, and a week or so later she sent me the manuscript of a novel called Confessions of a Moviegoer, by Walker Percy. Perhaps she chose to send it to me because I had been for a year the film critic for The New Republic.
From the first page I knew I had found a real writer. I felt an added excitement about the chance to establish myself at Knopf. But my heart began to hurt as I continued. Percy never stopped being a real writer, but he had not written a satisfactory novel. I couldn’t recommend it for publication. The worst of it was that some other publisher might take the novel as it was, risking loss, just to get another author. I thought this would be a poor move for Knopf.
Interviewer: What did you do?
Kauffmann: I had to send the manuscript back. I wrote a three-page letter to Miss Otis, telling her how dismal I felt and explaining what I thought was needed. I added that if Percy ever felt like doing more work on the book, I would be eager to see it again. I viewed the matter as finished. I expected that she and Percy would discount my suggestions, that I would have to add the experience to my debit account at Knopf. But in mid-July Miss Otis telephoned to say that Percy was going to work on the book. It was a happy surprise. The revised novel arrived three months later, much improved but, I thought, not yet ready for publication. I also thought that after Percy’s evidence of good faith, it was time for the firm to reciprocate. We ought to take an option on the book if we were going to ask him to do more work.
Interviewer: What was Alfred Knopf’s view of the situation?
Kauffmann: After some characteristic reluctance, he agreed to take an option on Percy’s book—for $250 against a total of $1,000 if we finally accepted it.
Interviewer: Which Knopf did.
Kauffmann: Eventually. When the second revision of Percy’s novel arrived in January of 1960, I felt it needed still more work. I asked two other editors to read it and make suggestions. They agreed with me about the quality of the book, its promise, its need for further work. Percy felt dashed, naturally, but he decided to do more on the book along the lines suggested. In August of 1960 he sent in the third revision. I voted to accept it, and others agreed with me.
Interviewer: This acquisition didn’t turn your fortunes around at Knopf?
Kauffmann: Not really. I had some luck with other books, but it was not my forte to hunt up books or to commission them. Every day I felt less competent at it. It affected me. My wife began to hope that I would quit or be fired. I wanted to succeed at the same time that I wanted to get out. In May of 1960 the treasurer of the firm called me in and showed me the total of my lunch tabs since the previous June. He asked bluntly what the firm had gotten in return. My reply was sound enough: a year is a short time in which to ask an editor in book publishing for cash results. But I knew that I didn’t have much coming to change matters. In late August I returned to the office from vacation. I felt that nothing had changed, that I was putting on my costume again for more performances of a play whose run was uncertain. My adventures with new manuscripts continued as sorrily as before. The big exception was Walker Percy’s novel, now finally revised. The title, with his approval, was shortened to The Moviegoer. The book went into production.
Interviewer: When was it finally published?
Kauffmann: In May of 1961. It was favorably but inadequately reviewed, and it sank. Anyone who has worked in publishing knows of excellent books that sank. I thought that Percy’s novel had become another such ghost, and thought so for almost a year. Then the chance intervention of a man I never met altered the novel’s fate.
Interviewer: Who was that?
Kauffmann: A. J. Liebling, then the press critic of The New Yorker. He had read one of the reviews, and he was interested because of the New Orleans setting. Liebling knew much about Louisiana, had written a book about it. He bought a copy of The Moviegoer and was greatly taken by it. By this time, toward the end of the year, the judges for the National Book Awards were at work reading for the 1962 prizes. Liebling’s wife, Jean Stafford, was one of the three judges that year in the fiction category. Liebling gave Stafford his copy of the book and urged her to read it. She had not heard of it. The Knopf people had not included it in the batch of eligible novels that they had sent to the judges as candidates for the fiction award. Stafford urged her fellow judges to read the book. The three of them unanimously voted the fiction award to The Moviegoer. The book, lifted from oblivion, joined the body of American literature. Percy was encouraged for his future work.
Interviewer: But not by Alfred Knopf.
Kauffmann: No. After I left the firm, a friend of mine was present when the news of the award was brought to Mr. Knopf. I was told that he snarled and said, “They’re running that prize into the ground.” I was also told that when Percy came up to New York to accept the award, Mr. Knopf treated him with reserve. Percy’s subsequent books were published elsewhere.
Interviewer: You left Knopf …
Kauffmann: Knopf left me, you could say. I was one day called into a vice-president’s office. A decision had been reached. Knopf and I were to go our own ways. I was to leave at the end of September, about a week away. My only feeling was that a misty picture had come into focus. I had been an editor for almost eleven years and had often loved it. But as I had been discovering my weakness in that work, I was discovering some strengths elsewhere—in criticism.
Interviewer: Could we conclude by discussing an incident in your career as an author?
Kauffmann: You mean the flap over The Philanderer?
Kauffmann: The Philanderer caused a crisis in literary-legal history, at least in Great Britain. The novel was prosecuted there twice for what we call “obscenity,” what they call “obscene libel.” It was published in Britain in 1953 and later that year prosecuted on the Isle of Man, where it was judged obscene and banned. But because the Manx have their own legal system, The Philanderer was still available in the rest of the United Kingdom. In 1954 my book was prosecuted in England itself, where it caused quite an uproar in the press.
Interviewer: Were you actually a defendant?
Kauffmann: Yes and no. The real defendants were the publishing house, Martin Secker and Warburg, the head of the house, Fred Warburg, and the printers of the book, the Camelot Press. The first and third parties were defendants only technically. Warburg himself had been served with a summons in April of 1954. It was Warburg who had astonished both the British publishing world and the legal profession by pleading not guilty when he was arraigned before a magistrate in May. Most publishers of books indicted for obscene libel wisely pleaded guilty on arraignment, paid fines, withdrew their books and went about their business. Not Warburg. He was not going to take the easy way if it implied that he had done some shabby publishing. Secker and Warburg was a firm of about the same standing as Knopf in America. They even shared some authors with Knopf, such as Mann and Kafka. Warburg took his firm’s reputation, as well as his own, quite seriously. He declined to admit that he had published an obscene book, even though his plea of not guilty entailed considerable legal expense. It also entailed the possibility of prison.
For my part, I was told that if I had been in England, I, too, would have been arrested; and that if Warburg had been convicted, I would not have been able to visit England again under pain of arrest.
Interviewer: Was The Philanderer as obscene or pornographic as the prosecution maintained?
Kauffmann: Well, the editor of the London Sunday Express said that my novel was “calculated and deliberate pornography … as degraded an essay in salacity as I have ever read.” But his comments puzzled me. My book was by no means the outer limit of current daring, and it had not been written to test those limits, only to deal as competently as I could with the subject. The protagonist was a young husband, happily married, who for various reasons had difficulties with fidelity. Sexual episodes were of the essence. The American publisher had made suggestions about the manuscript, not one of which was related to salacity or fear of censorship. The American reviewers did not think the book intolerably frank. Some of the British reviewers had, in fact, been much more favorable than the Americans, and none of them had been offended.
Interviewer: Then came the legal action and responses in the spring of 1954. To what did you ascribe them?
Kauffmann: To a Victorianism still hovering over the law that had long left the literary world. A judge named Cockburn had handed down a ruling on obscenity in 1868 that still weighed on English law. The test was a book’s tendency to deprave and corrupt. When I read the phrase to my wife, she laughed. “My goodness,” she said. “You were just sitting in your room at the back of our apartment writing a book and now you’re corrupting a whole country.”
Interviewer: Who spoke for the defense?
Kauffmann: The book itself. For the defense, Graham Greene and Malcolm Muggeridge had been invited to attend; they were in court to testify to Warburg’s character and, if nothing else in a literary way, that the novel was not corruptive. Mr. Justice Stable, with precedents, disallowed expert evidence on both sides. The only really useful evidence in this vein would have been a prosecution witness to testify that my book had corrupted him or her. But, even if that could have been true, who would have been willing to say so?
The sitting was relatively brief. Mr. Justice Stable gave each member of the jury a copy of my book—twelve more copies sold, I thought. He told them to go home and read it, unassisted by the prosecution’s typed excerpts. He urged them to read it as a whole, not to look for special passages, and he asked them to return in three days.
Interviewer: Mr. Justice Stable’s summing-up, his charge to the jury, is now a classic in English law and publishing history.
Kauffmann: Yes. To brutalize his humane and charming eloquence, this is the gist. Pornography certainly exists. Any adult can recognize it. But because it exists, shall nonpornographers be restrained from writing as fully and well as they can about contemporary life? Which, then, was this particular novel? Exploitation or exploration? If it was not a new argument, it was new in an English court of law. He then asked the jurors to retire and consider their verdict. Fifty minutes later they returned with a verdict of not guilty.
Interviewer: I guess the trial, with all its free publicity, helped sales.
Kauffmann: It certainly did. The Philanderer went into more printings, a number of them, all with Mr. Justice Stable’s summing-up as an appendix. When Penguin reprinted the book a few years later, again the summing-up was an appendix. In December of 1954, Alfred and Blanche Knopf, for whom I was to work just five years further on but whom I then did not know, did a handsome brochure of the summing-up which they sent to friends as a holiday present. The case became the occasion for a book that Warburg commissioned from a young English barrister, called Obscenity and the Law. Warburg himself wrote a long account of the trial, which eventually appeared in The New Yorker. In a few years the case became part of the impetus toward a revised English obscenity statute, which led to the publication there of the complete Lady Chatterley’s Lover. When that publication led to a test case under the revised statute, The Philanderer case figured in the testimony.
Interviewer: Is it true that John Mortimer, the English playwright who is also a lawyer or barrister, wrote an obituary notice in the New Statesman for Mr. Justice Stable when he died in 1977?
Kauffmann: Yes. Mortimer had known him professionally, referred to him as “Owly” Stable, and praised him, especially for his summing-up in The Philanderer case, which Mortimer called “an elegant and lucid essay on the importance of reflecting the contemporary world in fiction.” Mortimer also said that, twenty-three years after the trial, my book seemed “considerably less offensive and controversial than Enid Blyton.” She was an English writer of children’s books.
Interviewer: Do you agree?
Kauffmann: I reread The Philanderer myself not long ago, for the first time since the trial, and I do agree with him. Infamy is so fleeting.
Stanley Kauffmann is the author of seven novels, published in the U.S. and abroad, and a former editor in the book publishing industry. In 1958 he began his career in criticism as the film critic with The New Republic, where he has served almost continuously since that time as both a film and a theater critic. He has contributed reviews and articles to many other journals and has received numerous awards and fellowships, among them the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism (1974), two Ford Foundation fellowships and an Emmy Award for his TV series about film that aired from 1963 to 1967. He currently lives in Manhattan with his wife of many years, Laura. This interview was conducted in July 2001 in New York.
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