Michael Goldman, scholar of Shakespeare and Ibsen, and ‘uniquely gifted person,’ dies at 87

Michael Goldman, professor of English, emeritus, scholar of Shakespeare and Ibsen, accomplished poet and one of the most distinguished voices in American dramatic criticism, died at home in Manhattan on Aug. 17. He was 87.

Michael Goldman

“Michael Goldman was a uniquely gifted person — a brilliant teacher, an original and inspired scholar/critic (of the most knotty of Ibsen plays, among others) and the most wittily congenial of colleagues,” said Joyce Carol Oates, the Roger S. Berlind ’52 Professor of the Humanities, Emeritus, who has taught at Princeton since 1978. “Michael was also, perhaps fundamentally, a poet whose poetry is distinguished by its admixture of intelligence and wonderment, the play of the mind reflecting upon itself, nuance rippling amid nuance.”

“In addition to being a reputable poet, Michael Goldman helped build the English department’s highly regarded programs in Shakespeare and modern drama, publishing award-winning books on actors and audiences and on modern tragedy,” said Simon Gikandi, the Class of 1943 University Professor of English and department chair. “He inspired several generations of Princeton students, many of whom went on to be prominent as writers and producers for the stage, film and television.”

Richard Greenberg, a 1980 graduate whose 2002 Broadway play “Take Me Out” won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony for Best Play (its 2022 Broadway revival also won the Tony), takes Goldman’s books off his shelf before getting to work on a new play. He said: “I open them at random and read, because on every page I'm reminded, in a scintillating way, of what theater can be — of all the exquisite potential that I'm about to fall short of.”

Goldman joined Princeton’s faculty in 1975 and transferred to emeritus status in 2001.

“I had many opportunities to admire his brilliance, his remarkable teaching ability, and the power and originality of his ideas about drama,” said John Fleming, the Louis W. Fairchild '24 Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Emeritus, who earned his Ph.D. at Princeton in 1963 and joined the faculty in 1965.

Fleming, who enjoyed a decades-long friendship with Goldman, continued: “While his intellectual and vocational gifts were extraordinary, they were not his essence as man and friend. The essence was something rarer: a quintessential decency that included a charming amiability, a sweetness of temperament, a deep-seated courtesy, and a most uncommon scrupulosity of thought, utterance and action.”

Goldman wrote seven books, including two volumes of poetry and several works of dramatic criticism. His 1973 book, "Shakespeare and the Energies of Drama" (Princeton University Press), which was nominated for the National Book Award, proposed a theory of drama describing the play as text that moderated between actor and audience. His 1985 book, “Acting and Action in Shakespearean Tragedy” (Princeton University Press) developed a new approach to the study of action in drama.

A lifelong Shakespeare scholar, Goldman was once traveling on an all-night train to a Shakespeare lecture when he wrote the "Kellerman's Anthem" — performed in the film “Dirty Dancing.” Goldman wrote the song at the request of his wife, Eleanor Bergstein, who wrote and co-produced the movie while living in Princeton.

He is one of only four people to have twice received the prestigious George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism: in 1976 for "The Actor's Freedom: Toward a Theory of Drama," and in 2000 for "Ibsen: The Dramaturgy of Fear," which focused on Ibsen’s dramatic effect on the audience.

Michael Cadden, University Lecturer in theater in the Lewis Center for the Arts, said Goldman’s double win set a high standard for Princeton scholars of theater in performance.” The George Jean Nathan Award has since been won by Jill Dolan, Dean of the College, the Annan Professor in English and professor of theater in the Lewis Center for the Arts, and Brian Herrera, associate professor of theater in the Lewis Center for the Arts.

Cadden met Goldman nearly 50 years ago when Goldman gave a guest lecture at the Yale University School of Drama, where Cadden was a student. A decade later, Goldman was instrumental in bringing Cadden to Princeton. He was a generous and supportive colleague and, of course, an extraordinary scholar of drama,” Cadden said. “His delight in just thinking about the theater certainly influenced my own teaching style.”

Born on May 11, 1936, Goldman grew up in New York City. He earned undergraduate degrees from Columbia College and Cambridge University and earned his Ph.D. at Princeton in 1962. Before joining the Princeton faculty, he taught at Columbia and Queens College, City University of New York.

He published poems in The New Yorker (the first at age 19) and the UK-based TLS (Times Literary Supplement), among other publications, and his work was included in “The Best American Poetry 2003.” He received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Guggenheim Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies.

Goldman was also a trained actor and baritone who sang Schubert lieder and show tunes, did radio acting and read poetry on the air for NPR. “His theatrical skills infused the brilliant insights of his lectures with a thrilling animation,” said Lawrence Danson, professor of English, emeritus. “He was admired and loved by the many students whose own careers were launched by the power of his example and by his always generous mentoring. He took as great delight in his students' successes as in his own.”

Playwright Greenberg recalled Goldman’s charisma in the classroom.

“I had a number of great professors at Princeton but Michael was the most important,” Greenberg said. “His ideas — about modern drama, about Ibsen — were surprising and kinetic. You came to class with a notion of the chilliness of Ibsen and suddenly you were being adverted to his opulence. Who'd ever paid attention to that? What other professor had quoted lyrics from ‘Pal Joey’ to illuminate ‘Peer Gynt?’ But when Professor Goldman did, it made perfect sense.”

Jennie Snyder Urman, a 1999 graduate and executive producer and showrunner for “Jane the Virgin,” took Goldman’s junior seminar on Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale.” She was so inspired, she asked him to be her senior thesis adviser. “I often say, he believed in me before I believed in myself,” said Urman, who is currently updating “Matlock,” starring Kathy Bates, for CBS. “He was a generous and steadfast mentor during college and beyond. I remain profoundly grateful for the huge impact he had on my life and my career.” 

Tomoko Minami '01 — whose senior thesis Goldman graded and awarded the Alan S. Downer Prize (given to a senior in the theater and performance track of the Department of English) — went to work for Bergstein after graduation.

“Over the last two decades, I have had the singular opportunity to travel around the world with Michael and Eleanor as we put on the stage musical of ‘Dirty Dancing’ in numerous countries,” Minami said. “It has been a true honor and an education of a lifetime to be witness Michael and Eleanor’s partnership and collaboration in life and in work.”

W. B. Worthen, a professor of theatre at Barnard College and a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, earned his Ph.D. at Princeton in 1981. He said he learned much about the art of teaching as one of Goldman’s preceptors in a Shakespeare course.

“The day I remember most of that semester was one class late in the fall: it was November, sunny, but already cold; McCosh 50 was — uncharacteristically — hot, and someone had opened the top of one of those tall, churchlike windows. As Michael was ending a particularly moving lecture, the last of the semester, on ‘The Tempest, a dove flew in. Michael paused, and we all watched in silence as the dove made a wide, gentle circle high above our heads, and then flew out. He smiled, his gaze following the dove out the window, and quietly said, ‘thank you.’"

Goldman is survived by his wife of 58 years, Eleanor Bergstein.

Contributions can be made in Goldman's memory to Médecins Sans Frontières.

View or share comments on a memorial page intended to honor Goldman’s life and legacy.