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Theater scholar examines critical reception of religion on Broadway

Richard B. Harrison, left, as De Lawd, and Alonzo Fenderson, as Moses, in "The Green Pastures," 1930.

Since the era of George Jean Nathan, Cornell Class of 1904, the first-string critics of New York’s major newspapers – overwhelmingly white, male and educated at elite universities – have wielded outsized influence on which plays and musicals succeed in New York and thus the nation. Henry Bial, a scholar in American and Jewish performance studies, will analyze how this has shaped the way American theater represents religion in a public lecture, “The Gatekeepers: New York Theatre Critics and Policing of Religion on the American Stage” Oct. 17 at 4:30 p.m. in Lewis Auditorium, Goldwin Smith Hall.

“Bial’s proposed topic for the University Lecture is particularly relevant for Cornell, given the university’s oversight of The George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism,” said J. Ellen Gainor, professor in the Department of Performing and Media Arts in the College of Arts and Sciences. “Nathan created this prize ‘to encourage and assist in developing the art of drama criticism and the stimulation of intelligent playgoing,’ and Bial’s topic strikes me as highly relevant to our ongoing investment in promoting excellence in this field.”

Caroline Levine, the David and Kathleen Ryan Professor of Humanities and Picket Family Chair of the English Department, chairs the George Jean Nathan Award Committee of faculty from Cornell, Princeton and Yale Universities.

Bial, a professor of theater at the University of Kansas, will cite critical responses to religion-themed plays, from “Ben-Hur” (1899) to “Fiddler on the Roof” (1964) and “The Book of Mormon” (2011), to demonstrate that New York critics have tended to be deeply cynical about representations of religion, often equating piety with naiveté. Consequently, the stage in the 20th and 21st century has been far less accepting of religion than films and literature in the U.S.

“His talk discusses facets of our everyday culture from a critical but down-to-earth perspective, and helps make us a more sophisticated and engaged audience," Jonathan Boyarin, director of Jewish studies, said of Bial. “He has been extremely active in theater production as director, performer and dramaturg, as a scholar of American Jewish performance and identity and of religion on the Broadway stage, and as a university administrator.”

The lecture is sponsored by the Cornell University Lectures Committee and the Jewish Studies Program.

Ayla Cline is an administrative assistant in the College of Arts and Sciences.

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Jeff Tyson