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Kerr, Walter Francis

Kerr, Walter Francis

(b. 8 July 1913 in Evanston, Illinois; d. 9 October 1996 in Dobbs Ferry, New York), Pulitzer Prize-winning drama critic and author.

One of four children born to Walter Sylvester Kerr, a construction foreman, and Esther Daugherty Kerr, the future drama critic of the New York Times began his career at the age of thirteen, writing for the Illinois weekly newsmagazine Evanston Review. As featured columnist in the junior section of the magazine, Kerr reviewed movies under the title “Junior Film Fans” until, two years into high school, he became the Review’s regular movie critic. Upon graduating from Evanston’s St. George High School in 1931, he received a trip to Hollywood as a present from his parents. Throughout a long and distinguished career in the theater, it was the movies—and most notably silent comedy—that remained Kerr’s most ardent preoccupation and in many ways the key to his mature thought.

From 1931 to 1933 Kerr attended DePaul University in Chicago on a four-year scholarship, which he was forced to relinquish for a full-time job due to the economic depression. Even so, he was able to find work in the film industry as a booking clerk for the Fox Film Company. At the same time, he was hired by the Evanston Daily News-Index to criticize films once or twice a week, a pace he was to maintain until he entered graduate school.

In 1935 he returned to college, this time at Northwestern University’s School of Speech, a school noted for its drama department. Here, amidst a wide range of on-campus editorial involvements, he wrote two musicals and was publicity director of the university theater. He earned his B.S. in 1937 and an M.A. the following year. At Northwestern he received his tutelage in theory, playwriting, and history of the theater mainly from the distinguished drama teacher Hubert Heffner, who oversaw Kerr’s master’s thesis, a farce entitled Christopher over Chaos. This play, one of the 1939 winners of the Maxwell Anderson play contest at Stanford University, was eventually produced when Kerr was on the faculty of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Kerr joined the newly formed drama department at Catholic University in 1938 after he met its founder, the Reverend Gilbert Hartke, at a meeting of the National Catholic Theater Conference in Chicago. Over the next eleven years, in addition to directing, writing, and adapting plays for the modern stage, Kerr lectured on dramaturgy and the history of the theater. In 1939, with Leo Brady, he wrote Yankee Doodle Boy about the life of George M. Cohan. In so doing, the pair originated a genre known as “musical biography,” which Hollywood was to adopt for films about George Gershwin and other Tin Pan Alley greats. Their subsequent revue, Count Me In, was the first of Kerr’s original works to reach Broadway, two of the other three coming in collaboration with his wife, the humorist Jean Kerr.

It was in 1941, while lecturing at Marywood College in Scranton, Pennsylvania, that Kerr attended a production of Romeo and Juliet and met the stage manager, a nineteen-year-old undergraduate named Jean Collins. For the next three summers, Collins studied at Catholic University, and on 16 August 1943, shortly after her graduation from Marywood, the two were married. Between 1944 and 1949, Kerr and his young wife pursued various theatrical ventures that would eventually take them beyond the university environment.

In 1944 they adapted Franz Werfel’s historical novel Song of Bernadette for the amateur stage. In March 1946, three years after the release of the celebrated film of the same name, the play appeared on Broadway. By then Kerr’s “musical biography” of American song, Sing Out, Sweet Land, had made the transition from university production to Broadway opening to national tour. The couple then collaborated on a revue that arrived on Broadway in 1949 under the name Touch and Go, closing in London late the next year.

All of this activity was not without due appreciation, despite mixed results on the commercial front, and in mid-1949 the Kerrs took leave of Catholic University and what Time magazine called “the finest non-professional theater in the country” to make their way in New York City.

Although he did not abandon playwriting entirely, it was during this period that Kerr decided to devote himself primarily to criticism. In the fall of 1950 he took a job reviewing plays on a weekly basis for Commonweal, a well-regarded Catholic journal of opinion. One year later he succeeded Howard Barnes as drama critic for the New York Herald-Tribune. He had a fifteen-year run with the Herald, until it closed in 1966, whereupon he became drama critic for the New York Times. There he wrote weekly columns of a more substantial sort than would be possible for a newspaper critic writing daily. This choice played well into his strengths as a lecturer and scholar, while his experience in playwriting and directing gave him a detailed, sympathetic insight into what he was criticizing. He had a distinguished career with the Times until his retirement in 1983 at the age of seventy.

Over the intervening years, Kerr produced a prodigious body of work, including some three thousand reviews and essays before 1976. Substantial selections from his reviews saw republication as collections of essays, namely Pieces at Eight (1958); Theatre in Spite of Itself (1963); Thirty Plays Hath November (1969); God on the Gymnasium Floor, and Other Theatrical Adventures (1971); and Journey to the Center of the Theater (1979). All these collections show an unusual mixture of talent and learning, taste and principle, that to an even greater extent carries over to the full-length “theoretical” works that Kerr managed to write in addition to his journalistic pieces.

These works include the early book How Not to Write a Play (1955), drawn from Kerr’s playwriting experiences during the Washington years; and Criticism and Censorship (1957), an extended lecture originally delivered at Marquette University. Then came his masterful treatment of the contemplative act in art and culture, published under the title The Decline of Pleasure (1962), and five years later another tour de force, Tragedy and Comedy, in which Kerr traced the complex interplay of these two ancient forms from their Greek roots down to the “pathos” of the modern stage. In 1975 he brought forth what is in many ways his signature work, The Silent Clowns, an affectionate journey through the technical intricacies and philosophical implications of silent film comedy. It was for these full-length works, as well as for his many years of opening-night reviews, that Kerr was honored with the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1978.

In 1990 the refurbished Ritz Theatre was renamed the Walter Kerr Theatre in his honor. The night following his death from pneumonia in a nursing home in 1996, the lights on Broadway were dimmed in his memory. He is buried in Greenwood Union Cemetery in Rye, New York.

In the midst of a rich and demanding career, Kerr married well and raised five sons and a daughter—a blessed life that perhaps explains the wholesomeness of his work. He was a many-sided man and had a sense of the Great Tradition, in philosophy no less than in drama. He could speak as tellingly about Periclean Athens as about the effect of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud on the eclipse of genuine tragedy in our age. At the same time, he was open to the intellectual currents of the times, invoking an evolutionary model to illuminate both the nature of tragedy and the plight of a generation unduly constrained by an abstract sense of value and pleasure.

Nevertheless, comedy was Kerr’s preferred theme, as his detractors were quick to point out. Even Tragedy and Comedy began as a book about comedy. At Kerr’s hand, not only Falstaff but Shylock, too, reveal his true essence when seen from the perspective of the comic, understood as nature’s limiting counterpoint to tragedy’s expansive theme. From Kerr’s perspective, Charlie Chaplin’s ultimate limitation was that he had no limitation.

Kerr was that exceptional philosopher of culture who was both a real philosopher and a cultured man of his time. In fact, The Decline of Pleasure was cited as one of the top sixty spiritual books of the half-century. In the end Kerr wrote grateful prose: responsive, first of all, to a primordial presence, intellectually intuitive, thoroughly playful, witty and good-natured, the work of a man graciously pleased with his lot. As he said in concluding The Decline of Pleasure, “I am pleased in that instant when I discover that I am not alone. My joy, like the discovery, is profound.”

The Walter and Jean Kerr Papers, covering the years 1929–1987, are at the State Historical Society Library at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. A detailed examination of Kerr’s journalistic work was published by Roderick Bladel in Walter Kerr: An Analysis of His Criticism (1976). The text contains valuable biographical information but does not attempt to engage the longer works. The years leading up to Kerr’s tenure with the Herald-Tribune are covered in great detail in Current Biography (1953). A respectful obituary, including excerpts from Kerr’s more memorable reviews, is in the New York Times (10 Oct. 1996).

Kenneth M. Batinovich

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