John H. Muse of the University of Chicago and arts journalist Helen Shaw have been named winners of the 2017-18 George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism.
The award is administered by Cornell’s Department of English. The Nathan Award Committee, comprising the heads of the English departments of Cornell, Princeton and Yale universities, cited the writers’ “invigorating and perceptive theatrical analyses” in announcing the honor.
Muse’s book, “Microdramas: Crucibles for Theater and Time,” was chosen for its “elegant arguments.” The book explores brevity in theater since the late 19th century and argues that very short plays reveal fundamental assumptions about theater’s limits and possibilities.
“Edward Albee used to quip that all his plays were full-length; some were simply shorter than others. In ‘Microdramas,’ John H. Muse succeeds in deploying his own witty intelligence to elucidate how Albee’s joke cuts to the heart of the modern theatrical experience,” the committee noted.
Muse is assistant professor of English and director of Graduate Studies in Theater and Performance Studies at the University of Chicago, where he teaches modern and contemporary theater and literature. His research explores the margins between theater and related art forms such as closet dramas, plays that resemble visual art, novels in dramatic form, and digital and other forms of virtual theater. His current project, “Theater and the Virtual,” investigates theatrical activity that is not present or tangible, as well as the virtuality of embodied theater.
Shaw writes about theater and performance for 4Columns, ArtForum, Art in America and Time Out New York, where she has been a critic for 14 years. The Nathan Award Committee cited Shaw’s essays for their intimate familiarity with traditions of formally inventive, genre-redefining performance, noting that she writes “with penetrating insight into the strategies of the contemporary theater’s most daring artists. Shaw’s particular gift is to acknowledge, and linger in, her own uncertainty – to write with muscular ambivalence about works that don’t always realize their ambitions, and that are all the more invigorating as a result.”
The committee cited Shaw’s review, in the online arts journal 4Columns, of Ariane Mnouchkine’s newest work for Théâtre du Soleil, “A Room in India.”
Shaw teaches theater studies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She has been a MacDowell fellow, has twice curated the Prelude Festival, and is a nominator/voter for the Drama Desk Awards, the Lucille Lortel Awards, the Hewes Design Awards and the New York Drama Critics Circle. Her work has appeared in American Theatre, the Village Voice, the New York Sun and Theatre Forum, among other publications.
The award was endowed by George Jean Nathan (1882-1958), a prominent theater critic who published 34 books on the theater and co-edited (with H.L. Mencken) two influential magazines, The Smart Set and The American Mercury. Nathan graduated from Cornell in 1904. As a student, he was editor of The Cornell Daily Sun and humor magazine The Cornell Widow.
Previous Nathan award winners include Jill Dolan, Randy Gener, Alisa Solomon, Ben Brantley, Elinor Fuchs, Hilton Als, Cornell professor H. Scott McMillin and Sara Holdren.
Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.