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William Winter

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William Winter

"rank, deadly pessimism… a disease, injurious alike to the stage and to the public." William Winter on Ibsenism and the new Realism movement.

"The Ibsen movement… impressed me, from the beginning, as unhealthful and injurious. The province of art, and especially of dramatic art, is beauty, not deformity; the need of the world is to be cheered, not depressed; and the author who avows, as Ibsen did, that he goes down into the sewers, -whatever the purpose of his descent into those insalubrious regions, -should be left to the enjoyment of them." William Winter in Mansfield's biography

Winter, William [Mercutio] (1836-1917) American journalist, poet and the most influential and widely read critic of his era. He was born in Gloucester, MA and educated at Harvard Law School. Winter abandoned a law career for a literary one. Influenced by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, he turned to poetry and reviewing books. He moved to New York in 1859, and cast his lot with a struggling little band of writers who afterward became the prominent men of letters of their day. This group of literary bohemians including Bayard Taylor and Walt Whitman and others met in Pfaff’s Cellar in New York in the 1850’s and Winter summed up his memories of them in Old Friends (1909).

He worked for a period as assistant editor and book reviewer for the Saturday Press. In 1860-1861 he wrote briefly for The Leader before taking charge of the Albion dramatic department (1861-1865), writing as Mercutio. In 1865 he replaced Edward H. House as chief critic for the New York Tribune, a post he held until his retirement in 1909, establishing himself as the foremost drama critic of his generation.

After he retired, he contributed articles to various magazines. The foundation of Winter’s critical beliefs was essentially Aristotelian, tempered with 19th century romantic idealism (later called ‘the Genteel Tradition’). His early criticism was learned, basically sound, and open-minded, but with the rise of realism in the 1880s he became increasingly unaccepting of new theatrical movements and was the often shrill leader of the anti-Ibsenites. He considered acting the primary art of the theatre and the standard drama preferable to modern plays. He regarded the theatre as a temple of art to elevate and inspire humankind, and rejected the notion that art should depict real life. To Winter, beauty and morality were inseparable in art, and Realism had banished both from the stage. He continued to promote not only the standards of writing he knew as a young man but also the methods of acting prevalent when he first attended plays.

Winter was respected by the theatre community. He was a guest of honor at the American Lambs, an informal supper club of top Broadway actors and theatre artists that met a 44th & Broadway and staged charity show. Critics and agents were, by charter, banned from membership in the club, but Winter was popular enough as both a friend of the theatre community and a wit that he was invited to their roasts.

Despite his insider status, he was apparently an incorruptible critic. Major J.B. Pond, a big booking agent and associate of Winter’s, recounted that he was approached by a theatrical manager, who asked if Winter was well-off. Pond replied, "He’s not rich. How could he be, with only the recourses of his pen as his income, and with a family of sons and a daughter to educate?" The manager then asked if Winter could be "induced" to write a good review of the show at the Union Square Theatre for $2,500. Pond told the manager that Winter could not be bought. Disappointed, the man manager fumed that he had already purchased a good review from the city’s next best critic for less than half as much.

Winter was more than just a critic. He was a professional fly-on-the-wall who made his living writing about the theatre people he knew and the theatre events of which he managed to be a part.

Winter prepared acting versions of Shakespeare’s plays for Edwin Booth and Augustine Daly.  He wrote numerous books on theatre, including Other Days (1908), Old Friends (1909), and the two-volume The Wallet of Time (1913), as well as biographies of David Belasco, Edwin Booth, Joseph Jefferson, Richard Mansfield, and Ada Rehan. His penchant for composing memorial odes to dead actors earned him the nickname "Weeping Willie." His more than 50 books provide a comprehensive record of the late-19th-century American stage.

(click on photo to enlarge)


William Winter's home,
New Brighton, Staten Island,
New York

in February 1916

Joseph Haworth's letter of December 23, 1886 to William Winter asking to be reviewed in "Hoodman Blind"
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Joseph Haworth's letter of March 6, 1888 to William Winter asking for a critique.
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Joseph Haworth & William Winter

Joseph Haworth had enormous respect for William Winter’s opinion, although Winter was often critical of Haworth’s work. Reading Winter’s reviews in the New York Herald, it is clear that he was a man of strong and well-founded opinions, particularly in the realm of classical acting. But he also had his prejudices and blind spots, and for some reason had hostility to youthful aspirants. On opening night of Romeo and Juliet, starring Haworth and Julia Marlowe, Joe’s friend Colonel Robert Ingersoll approached Winter at the first intermission in rapturous ecstasy:

"What do you think of that?" said Ingersoll. "Isn’t it wonderful? Isn’t it glorious? Did you ever hear Shakespeare spoken like that?"

"Poof!" said Winter. "The Balcony Scene! Anybody can play the Balcony Scene well. Wait till she comes to the Potion Scene. Then you’ll see. She’ll fail completely."

"You critics make me tired," said the Colonel. "You sit in your little cells playing with your little fingers on your little yardsticks and don’t see anything else. I tell you a girl that can read like that is a genius, and you’ll see the day when you have to acknowledge it."

This loud public rebuke nettled Winter and he gave Marlowe a mixed review. It also began a ten-year period in which William Winter resisted giving Miss Marlowe her due, culminating with an ingenuous and charming confession that he had been wrong about her. Winter’s December 13, 1887 review of Haworth’s Romeo was mixed as well, objecting to the actor’s unsentimental approach to the role:

"A Robust Romeo"

The Romeo of Mr. Haworth fully shared the honors won by the Juliet, though it, too, had its faults. In the earlier scenes it was inartistically robust and lacking almost totally in sentiment. The actor rattled through many of his lines instead of reading them for their full value. In the forcible scenes, however, he was strong, very strong, and his work was throughout picturesque. The killing of Tybalt was done with a realistic access of passion and vigor of movement that won for the actor three calls before the curtain, the applause being mingled with loud bravos."

Joseph Haworth seemed to accept such criticism as constructive, and he actually invited Winter to critique him in a letter dated March 6, 1888. He was in the planning stages of an unrealized project in which he would co-star with the great Mrs. Fiske. She had passed on some words of praise that Winter had bestowed on Haworth’s talent, but also mentioned that Winter had found "one thing lacking." In the letter, Haworth wrote:

"Your printed words of commendation are most valuable to any artist, but a personal word of suggestion and criticism would be invaluable to me beyond all things…Let me know what that fault is. Is it not due think you to my first night nervousness…If you can find leisure, do enlighten me and know I will always hold you in grateful remembrance and pray God to bless you always."

Two years earlier, Haworth had written to Winter asking for assistance of a more commercial nature. He was embarking on his first starring vehicle and wanted to be sure that the Herald covered the play’s New York opening. On December 23, 1886 he wrote:

"I begin a career at the Grand Opera House on Monday next in Hoodman Blind. If I succeed, it means a tour of the country in the tragic drama next season. Will you do me the favor to pass judgment on me some time next week?… I know it is asking a great deal but I am an American product and I hope excusable for my boldness."

Joseph Haworth became a star in New York theatre in the 1880’s, when he was trumpeted as the next great American actor. In the following decades, season after season, he starred in important plays and projects. Haworth weathered years when he was accused of not living up to his early promise, but throughout those years he fought commercial pressures and continued doing the classical canon. Late in his career, he rose artistically like a phoenix. William Winter chronicled this burst of growth.

In his February 18, 1903 review of Tolstoy’s Resurrection, Winter wrote:

"In all the scenes Miss Walsh or Mr. Haworth was the dominating figure. They had much to do and they did it well. Mr. Haworth was effective alike in his utterance and his reticence. He expressed strong emotions without contortion.

"The scene in the jury room, after the verdict had been rendered, was especially moving and true to nature. It was a fine presentation of a robust nature shaken to its depth by sorrow, shame and remorse, but preserving masculine mastery over its expression."

A separate article in the New York Herald that same day stated: "Joseph Haworth’s interpretation of the Prince Dimitri marks him as a great actor." Haworth had entered the new century on the cutting edge of modern acting with a triumph in the Moscow Art Theatre vehicle. But the wildly successful Resurrection was his final performance. William Winter eulogized Joe in this way:

"Haworth, who had been taught by McCullough, possessed rare ability, pursued his art with ceaseless, glowing fervor, accomplished much, but died in the morning of his fame."

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