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Theater Journalist and Biographer Mel Gussow Dies at 71

Mel Gussow
Mel Gussow, a longtime theater journalist who six years ago emerged from the shadows of his more flamboyant colleagues on the New York Times drama desk with a fine critical biography of Edward Albee, died on Friday, April 29 at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. He was 71 years old and had been undergoing treatment for cancer.

As second-string drama critic at the Times from 1969 to 1993, Gussow's beat was Off- and Off-Off Broadway, where he championed nontraditional and adventurous work. He also interviewed theater figures and became acquainted with the important playwrights of the era -- notably, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Arthur Miller, and Albee. Late in his career, Gussow wrote and had published books on all four of these men.

Gussow was born December 19, 1933 in New York City and raised on Long Island. He studied literature in college (Middlebury '55), then pursued a masters in journalism (Columbia '56). After a stint in the U.S. Army, he joined Newsweek. Three years later, the opening of Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was Gussow's first assignment as that magazine's Broadway reviewer. "On opening night, I had no idea that Virginia Woolf was going to represent my debut as a Broadway critic," Gussow recalled. "I knew that [first-string drama critic] Tom Wenning was ill, but I did not know he was suffering from terminal cancer. On Monday, he quietly told me that he was unable to write his review of Virginia Woolf. He asked me if I could fill in for him, which I did, for that play and for the rest of the season."

In Edward Albee: A Singular Journey, published by Simon & Schuster in 1999, Gussow offers a vivid recollection of that landmark premiere at the Billy Rose Theatre on October 13, 1962. "The evening was astonishing: laughter followed by gasps, as the characters wounded one another with words, as the play moved inexorably to its final catharsis. When the play ended at 11:40, there was a moment of silence, then thunderous applause, followed by curtain call after curtain call for the actors, who were high on the adrenaline of the evening. Amid the bravos, a cry was heard for the author, but Albee did not go onstage."

As the junior theater writer at Newsweek, Gussow had been following Albee's progress, confident that the young dramatist had a future. Reviewing Virginia Woolf, Gussow wrote: "Albee's new not only shocking and amusing but is also as emotionally shattering, in its own way, as Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night....Virginia Woolf is a splendidly acted, electrically staged (by Alan Schneider), brilliantly original work of art -- an excoriating theatrical experience, surging with shocks of recognition and dramatic fire. It will be igniting Broadway for some time to come."

After the opening of Virginia Woolf, Gussow chronicled Albee's progress, first in a Newsweek cover story and, ultimately, with the 1999 biography which, although authorized by the subject, displays few if any of the shortcomings associated with authorized studies.

Gussow's other published books include a 1971 biography of Darryl F. Zanuck, Don't Say Yes Until I Finish Talking; four collections of interviews: Conversations With Pinter, Conversations With Stoppard, Conversations With Miller, and Conversations With and About Beckett; a compilation of daily criticism, Theater on the Edge: New Visions, New Voices; and, most recently, a biography of Michael Gambon. But his exemplary biography of Albee, which combines revelations about the famously private playwright's life with critical insights on the plays, will likely prove to be Gussow's most enduring legacy.

Over the decades, Gussow served as president of the New York Drama Critics Circle, was a juror for the Pulitzer drama prize, and was a member of the editorial board of the Best Plays theater yearbooks. He was an adjunct professor of theater at New York University and a drama critic for radio station WQXR in New York. He held a Guggenheim Fellowship and, in 1978, received the George Jean Nathan Award for dramatic criticism.

Gussow's tenure as drama critic at the Times fell within an era of markedly colorful critical writing at that paper. With his no-frills prose and his ultra-serious, almost pious approach to theater, Gussow's reviews often seemed lackluster next to those of Walter Kerr and Frank Rich. But like Edith Oliver, his counterpart at The New Yorker, he was indefatigable in searching out the avant-garde and supporting emerging artists.

Gussow had hoped to write a biography of the reclusive Samuel Beckett. "With that objective in mind," he contacted the playwright, but was rebuffed. "I decided to try to get to know him," Gussow recalls in the introduction to Conversations With and About Beckett, "and in so doing to achieve a greater understanding of the art and the artist. Over the course of a dozen years, I visited him almost annually in Paris, and we exchanged letters, his written in his spidery longhand."

Beckett, who died in 1989, never wasted words. A statement that he made in 1988 is a suitable eulogy for Gussow. "Through the intervention of Alan Schneider, among others, [Beckett] was aware of what I had written about his plays," Gussow related. "He said to me, 'I want to thank you for everything you have done for the work in America.' Recalling Gogo's use of the word, 'Crritic!', as the ultimate insult, I took that as the ultimate compliment."

Gussow is survived by his wife, Ann, and their son, Ethan. Though no longer a reviewer, he was still a cultural writer on the staff of The New York Times at the time of his death.

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