In a sad coincidence, Otis L. Guernsey, Jr., editor of the past 36 volumes of the indispensable Best Plays series of books, died of pancreatic cancer on Wednesday, May 2--just a few weeks after his retirement from that position.
"For nearly two generations, Otis was a leading voice in the theater," said Jeffrey Eric Jenkins, who was recently named as Guernsey's Best Plays successor. "He mentored young theater writers of all sorts. It was always a pleasure to talk to him on the phone or over lunch at his beloved Yale Club." Shortly before his death, Guernsey said of Jenkins' appointment: "I am delighted that a critic of Mr. Jenkins' stature and achievement wants to carry on the Best Plays series." The 2000-2001 edition will mark the 82nd consecutive year of publication of the annual chronicle of U.S. theater, founded by Burns Mantle in 1920. Former editors include John Chapman, Louis Kronenberger, and Henry Hewes; the last named gentleman will serve as a consultant to Jenkins, who spoke with TheaterMania about his plans for the series just a few days before Guernsey's passing.
"Best Plays has always provided a kind of armchair view of what's going on in the theater," said Jenkins, who went on to note that "we're going to be making some changes beginning next year. For one thing, we've recruited an editorial board of 14 theater critics from around the country--people like Robert Brustein, Mel Gussow, John Istel, Linda Winer, and Charles Wright. Another change is that we will no longer excerpt the plays, for a variety of reasons: Playwrights generally don't love the idea, and it costs a lot in terms of money and time spent in negotiations. Instead, we're going to have essays about the 10 best plays or musicals of the year.
"We have a lot of work to do," Jenkins continued. "The 1999-2000 edition just came out a couple of weeks ago, but we plan to have the book out in September-October each year--maybe not this year, but we do hope to have it out by November at the latest. We want to announce the 10 best plays a week or so before the Tony Awards, and we'll have a ceremony in the fall at which we'll present certificates to the winners."
Jenkins fondly recalled Guernsey, who began his career at the now defunct Herald Tribune, rising from copy boy to become a film and theater critic. As the paper's arts editor, he hired and mentored Walter Kerr. Guernsey also had a stint at Show magazine and edited the Dramatists Guild Quarterly for many years. He was a founding member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a past chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle, also serving on the New York Drama Critics Circle, the Pulitzer Committee for Drama, and the Tony nominating committee. A winner of the Margo Jones Citizen of the Theater Medal, the New England Theater Conference Award for Lifetime Achievement, and the Founders Award of the Theatre Hall of Fame, he was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame this past January 29.
"Otis was a great gentleman," said Jenkins. "His encyclopedic knowledge of 20th century U.S. theater greatly enhanced his work on Best Plays. I considered him my friend and a cherished mentor. I miss him already."