January 23, 2003

Mendelsohn Wins George Jean Nathan Award

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The Cornell University English Department awarded $10,000 to Prof. Daniel Mendelsohn, classics, Princeton University as the winner of the 2001-2002 George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism.

The George Jean Nathan Award — named for the famed author, drama critic, and Cornell alumnus — remains one of the most distinguished in the American theater.

Mendelsohn, an author and journalist, attracted attention from the selection committee based on three articles he wrote for the New York Review of Books. Selection committee members included the chairs of the English departments, and experts on theater from Cornell, Princeton, and Yale Universities.

Speaking on behalf of the Committee, Prof. Harry Shaw, English, praised Mendelsohn’s writing.

“We felt Mendelsohn’s outstanding reviews on the Greek theater were the best of the year, even though he was in competition with some very good writers,” Shaw said.

The award citation echoed this sentiment, stating, “Mendelsohn writes with elegance, erudition and humor about plays ancient and modern on the contemporary stage … [His] deep engagement with these dramatic texts, their histories and the ways in which they continue to be reimagined serves to remind us how theater has mattered and of why it matters still.”

Mendelsohn is a frequent contributor to various national publications, including The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Esquire. His critiques and essays have themselves received acclaim, notably in his selection as the 2001 winner of the Book Critics Circle Award for Excellence in Criticism.

According to Mendelsohn, being selected as the Nathan award winner for dramatic criticism came as a shock. Beginning as a book critic, it was only in the last three years that he began to focus on drama.

“I backed into it accidentally,” Mendelsohn said, detailing how he had approached his editor with an interest in reviewing a play based on a classical work. The drama attracted him, as it mirrored his Princeton doctoral work in classics. Shortly after, the New York Review of Books enlisted him to write a review of Broadway’s The Producers, and from there he continued writing on contemporary dramas.

Mendelsohn attributes his success in criticism to a devotion to research and “scholarly rigor.”

“I approach every play or every text as if it were a great play by Sophocles,” he said. He noted, for instance, that when reviewing a particular book, he often reads five of the author’s other works to write a more intelligent critique.

Mendelsohn recently completed a review of the new film, The Hours, for the New York Review of Books, while also pursuing projects outside the field of dramatic criticism: he is completing a book on Archimedes, a translation of the works of the modern Greek poet, C.P. Cavafy, and a book exploring the history of his family during the Holocaust.

Mendelsohn also detailed a connection he has with the award’s namesake that likely escaped the attention of the selection committee.

His favorite movie, All About Eve focuses on the life of a drama critic modeled after George Jean Nathan.

“It’s karmically perfect that I now have this award,” Mendelsohn said, “when I secretly admired him all along.”

Archived article by Michael Dickstein