Joseph Papp, founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Public Theater, died on Oct. 31, 1991. He was 70.
Joseph Papp was the most powerful and influential man in the American theatre, dominating his world through the force of his own dazzling paradoxical personality. For him, there was no contradiction in the diverse roles he chose to play. An idealist had to be a pragmatist, for how else would he able to bring his ideals into practice? It was natural that Papp, the preeminent figure in the nonprofit theatre, should become the producer of the longest running Broadway musical of all time. More than anyone, he was the bridge between those two traditionally anthithetical camps, the institutional and the commercial theatre—and proved that for continuing coexistence one had to nature the other.
Appropriately, Papp’s funeral was held in one of his theatres. Mourners spoke of him as a friend, father figure, mentor and boss, as a man of principle who never shied from confrontation. After his death, some of the artists who owed their entire careers (or at least the advent of their careers) to him lined up to carp at the fact that he had not given them the theatrical equivalent of academic tenure. Amid all the tributes, there were pockets of criticism, including what may have been the first instance of a paid obituary notice that was less than fully celebratory of the deceased. The Dramatists Guild said that with the death of Papp, its playwright members had “sustained a grave loss,” then added, in equivocation, “He was impulsive, mecurial [sic] and grandiose, but he was a generous and loving promoter of our plays wherever he found them.” I think Papp would have smiled at that notice, at the critical “but” and especially at that misspelling.
Papp was “mercurial” in the extreme. In what may have been an attempt to articulate his philosophy of theatre, he once said, “I can bend, backtrack, switch directions, do this or that, whatever is necessary—in order to survive. My tactics, out of necessity, keep changing, but my direction has never changed: new plays, new audiences.” His legacy endures in the plays and playwrights he introduced, in the actors whose careers he encouraged and in the commitment to theatre that was his hallmark.
Fiercely partisan, he stood up for the principles he believed in and for the plays he produced. In his extraordinary career, he found himself on both sides of the firing line—as sharpshooter and as target. A favorite role was as critic of the critics and as self-appointed ombudsman, badgering and even banning reviewers when he felt they had been negligent in their responsibility. He could be self-defensive and self-destructive. In pursuit of a populist theatre, he acted as a radical in art and in politics. For him, theatre was a necessity, an instrument of social as well as cultural enhancement.
He invented free Shakespeare in the park, a concept that was imitated in cities around the country and he drew many of our finest actors to challenge themselves in classics. In so doing, he brought Shakespeare to generations of theatregoers, although he never did fulfill his goal of creating an American approach to Shakespeare. His career was filled with grand schemes: a black and Hispanic classical company, the Festival Latino, a repertory ensemble that would allow for name actors to perform plays for short seasons (one of several dreams that never reached fruition). In his last years, he began a cycle of the complete Shakespearean canon.
In its first life, his company was an actors’ theatre devoted to the works of that one playwright. But at the Public Theater, the company became a playwrights’ theatre, as Papp discovered writers like David Rabe and Wallace Shawn, and adopted others like John Guare, David Henry Hwang and David Hare and gave them a continuing platform for their work. After a play failed, he would ask the playwright what play he wanted to do next—and then he would produce it, sometimes without ample regard for the work’s artistic merit. Similarly, a director’s failure would be followed by an opportunity for redemption with another production. Papp banked on the development of careers, and with encouragement often came artistic accomplishment.
He was surrounded by controversy and criticism, for what he did and for what he chose not to do. Though the New York Shakespeare Festival was the major American theatre of its time, it never produced a play by Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller. Other significant younger writers appeared irregularly; Papp’s encounter with Sam Shepard, for one, was disastrous. Many of our best women writers have never had a play produced at the Public. But the theatre did present controversial works by Caryl Churchill, Ntozake Shange and Elizabeth Swados, and the Public was Vaclav Havel’s home in exile. Papp’s critical blind spots could change with the seasons, and his choice of plays was not as exclusionary as it might have seemed. His eclecticism ran from Arthur Wing Pinero to Miguel Pinero.
In his theatre as in his life, he was an ardent advocate for civil and human rights, and he supported his positions through the plays he produced. He championed the role of minorities in the theatre, cross-casting plays before that policy was generally accepted. Even when there was an urgent need for money, he rejected grants on moral grounds, and he was the first to demonstrate for free speech and against eradicating theatrical landmarks.
With his natural flamboyance, he became a highly visible—and therefore vulnerable—figure on the theatrical landscape. The actor side of Papp could play to the grandstands, media-dramatizing his case. In the most literal sense, he was an opportunist. When he was attacked, he attached back. When he was struck by a financial crisis, he would announce an expansion. Defeat was not a word in his vocabulary. He was never at loss for ammunition; his mouth was his most effective weapon, turning failure into a psychological victory. Despite his eminence, he regarded himself as an underdog, and during his brief foray onto Broadway with a season of new plays, he boasted of his playwrights as renegades. Ironically, he became an insider, a producer who could have transformed Broadway, had he chosen to do so.
He learned to use himself as a selling point, and became his own best spokesman and fundraiser. Papp’s portrait, looking like a Tammany politician, would appear in advertisements for his theatre. In one daring performance venture, he did a one-man cabaret show, singing Depression songs like “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and directly confronting his disarmed critics. As always, Papp sang and danced to his own tune.
Informally and never for attribution, his people referred to him as the Godfather, a title that was not necessarily intended to be pejorative. Rewarding the faithful, punishing the faithless and the cowardly, shunning—at least for a time—dissidents, he was responsible for everything, including art, that emerged on stage at the Shakespeare Festival.
In terms of his personal decision-making, he was not so far removed from the old Hollywood studio chiefs. Just as a self-perpetuating tycoon selected and cast movies according to his wishes, Papp decided what he wanted to do and when he wanted to do it—and when he had to cut his losses. As a working director and playwright manque he could step in and assume control of an individual project. He would have preferred to write his own reviews. Where the Hollywood moguls were entrerpeneurs and, for the most part, not distinguished in matters of taste, Papp was a man of artistic sensibility and social conscience. He was shrewd, strong-willed and singleminded. He could also be sentimental.
One never knew what he might do next: a cutting-edge experiment by Mabou Mines or a revival of a nostalgic Broadway comedy (Cafe Crown). He might close a show before it opened, fire a director and take over the staging, or extend the run of a play in the face of negative notices. Once he suddenly closed a play on opening night, before my favorable review was printed in the next day’s newspaper. He agonized before taking over the theatre at Lincoln Center, and then when his work was on an upswing (matching innovative directors with classics), he surrendered his position and, in typical fashion, made it sound like a positive step. Papp’s mood was a variable as the weather in Central Park. A clear sky could rumble into a storm, but, as in the park, the performance continued.
To him, theatre was not a business. He was a patron of the arts. There was always a double meaning in his concept of free Shakespeare. It was his conviction that theatre should be as public as libraries. One should be able to check out a production, as, in his youth, he could check out a book from the library in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. At the same time, he wanted to liberate Shakespeare from textbook traditionalists and elocutionary Englishmen.
Papp was not a theatrical visionary like Stanislavsky or Grotowski. His theatre was not influential in the sense of the Comedie Francaise, the Moscow Art or the Berliner Ensemble. He created no new acting style, and, in the long run, the plays he produced could not be considered a body of work. However, as an institution, the Shakespeare Festival was our most important theatre. It preceded the burgeoning of the regional theatre movement, which brought about the decentralization, fragmentation and enrichment of the American theatre. As the New York equivalent of a regional company, the Shakespeare Festival presaged the rise in New York of other, similarly intentioned organizations, including the Manhattan Theatre Club, Circle Repertory Company and Playwrights Horizons.
When Papp was on top of several spheres, having spread his producing wings to encompass Broadway and Lincoln Center as well as Off Broadway and Central Park, I wrote, “Without him, there would be a vast emptiness in the American theatre,” and posed the question, “Who would do all those plays, fill all those stages, employ all those actors?” With Papp’s death, one suddenly realized how many evenings, how many hours had been spent in his theatres—how much, in fact, he had determined the very course of theatre in his lifetime.
Gussow is a theatre critic for the New York Times. This article is based on material from a forthcoming book on Joseph Papp and the New York Shakespeare Festival.
Summers in the Park With Joe
by David Patrick Stearns
The histories of England’s National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company began with foundation stones, laid to commemorate the “living memory” of William Shakespeare. Were there to be a symbolic representation of the founding of the New York Shakespeare Festival, it would probably be a flatbed truck with a broken axle. Such, in fact, was the absurd beginning of Shakespeare in Central Park.
In the summer of 1957, after several seasons with his nascent Shakespeare Workshop, Joseph Papp created his first Mobile Theater and took his troupe on the road. It was not enough that people came, free, to his theatre; he wanted to bring theatre to the people. Extending his new populist tradition, he been touring the boroughs of New York. Romeo and Juliet went to Queens, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. One night, returning from an engagement, the truck broke down while going through Central Park, conveniently suffering its collapse near the bank of the Belvedere Lake. The truck stayed, the show reopened in Central Park and the theatre—after protests by Robert Moses—grew up around it. The site had been claimed by Papp as squatter’s right.
As it turned out, the Belvedere Lake location had previously been scouted as a preferred place for Shakespeare in the Park. Was the truck breakdown an act of premeditation? If the collapse had been suffered on Staten Island, the caravan would no doubt have been magically resuscitated and found its way back into Manhattan. In other words, an event had been artfully improvised; Shakespeare in the Park had been stage-managed into existence.
The principle of free Shakespeare existed from the beginning, but, in comparison to Papp’s later operation, the original Shakespeare Workshop was makeshift. The surroundings in the Emmanuel Church at 729 East Sixth St. were threadbare, financial support was minimal and no one made any money. The company presented bits and pieces of Shakespeare, as in “An Evening of Scenes and Dances with Shakespeare’s Women.” Occasionally there was a full production. The first director was Joel Friedman, whose wife, Sylvia Gassel, was the workshop’s leading lady. There was no scenery, and the costumes were black and white. The approach was designed to be close to that of William Poel, the turn-of-the-century English director who specialized in versions of Shakespeare that emphasized the text at the expense of production details. As Papp said, “One thing I liked about Joel’s staging was the rapidity of his scene changes. The last word of one scene would be quickly followed by the first word of the following scene. We had a lot of actors who had very little experience. Some were off the street; they could barely speak. When someone didn’t show up, I would go on—sometimes even in the lady’s role.”
One early production was of As You Like It, starring Gassel as Rosalind, with Paul Stevens and J.D. Cannon. In the Long Island Daily Press, the novelist Meyer Levin gave the company one of its first reviews: “This is one of those incredibly energetic groups….living on love of the theatre…What emerges is unadulterated Shakespeare, and oddly enough American Shakespeare.”
That summer Papp decided to take the troupe outdoors to an amphitheatre in a park on the East River Drive at Grand Street. A 2,000-seat theatre, it had been built by the WPA in the 1930s. The first play was Julius Caesar, directed by Stuart Vaughan. One of the hundreds who responded to open casting calls was Roscoe Lee Browne, a champion 800-meter runner then working as a national sales representative for the Schenley Import Corporation. Faced with a promotion, he decided to change his career plans and become an actor. He showed up at the final audition and recited a speech by Cassius. Vaughan offered him the lesser role of Pindarus and then began to explain who the character. With typical hauteur, Browne said, “I know who Pindarus is.” The director added that Pindarus was black and therefore Browne’s color was appropriate. Browne was furious at the racial concern and when it came time to read the role he affected an outrageous patois: “Flah fu-thah awf, ma lord.” Then he asked Vaughan in natural voice, “Is that what you mean?” The other actors collapsed in laughter. Papp, who had been sitting silently in the background, came over to shake Browne’s hand and said, “How long have you been an actor?” Browne answered, “Twelve hours,” and added, “but I have no intention of bearing any torches.” Papp said, “You’re good. You’ll have words and you won’t have to bear a torch unless it’s part of the character.”
In Caesar, Browne played both Pindarus and the Soothsayer, beginning a career that later took him to Broadway and Hollywood. About that first Shakespeare production, he recalled, “On the Lower East Side, there were roaming gangs of boys. They were tough and they shouted and hurled stones at us. I don’t know how it occurred to Joseph but he walked over to them and asked them if they wanted to be in the play. They bore torches and spears and were in the battle scenes.” It was a clear case of Papp’s power of disarmament.
He was always on the lookout for new faces. In 1956, Harold Clurman was teaching a late-night class in acting. Two of the hopeful students were Peggy Bennion, then married to Papp, and Colleen Dewhurst. Bennion recommended her classmate to he husband and he telephoned, introducing himself as the founder of a new classical company. He said that he was casting Romeo and Juliet and wondered if Dewhurst would be interested in playing a role. “What role did you have in mind?” she asked. “Juliet, he said. She laughed loudly. Even at a young age, Dewhurst was a majestic, womanly presence, no one’s idea of a dewy Juliet. “Have you ever seen me?” she asked. Of course he hadn’t. They met, she joined the company, and Sylvia Gassel played Juliet.
A year later it was George C. Scott’s turn to be discovered. As Scott recalled, “I first came to New York in 1951. I failed over and over. I was 30 and I had been failing that whole year. I was about to give up acting for the 15th time. My second wife Pat and I were living in a one-room fourth-floor walkup on Central Park West. I was working nights for the Hanover bank as a check sorter.” During the day, despite discouragement, he continued to audition for roles. One day he leanred that the Shakespeare Festival was casting a production of Richard III. Though he had not done much Shakespeare, he went to the open audition and read for the title role. He did well enough to be called back. “I guess the possibility that I might be considered made me so nervous that I could hardly play the role. I was just terrible. I started to drink and I got very depressed. Then I said to myself, I can’t let his job go. I literally begged for another chance. They scheduled a third reading the following day. I did two soliloquies. After two or three days of agony, Joe Papp called and said, ‘You’ve got the job.’ I damned near died.” That was beginning of Scott’s career. When Richard III opened, he became the most talked-about actor in New York.
He followed Richard III with Jaques in As You Like It and then did Antony and Cleopatra with Dewhurst. It was, she remembered, “a simple, stripped-down production,” but it was passionate. “We were like two drunk lovers.” Individually and together, Scott and Dewhurst came to represent the essence of the early days of the Shakespeare Festival, powerful actors with the presence to command a large stage; they were naturals to play kings and queens.
In common with Dewhurst, Scott looks back at the Festival as the height of his career. “I don’t know if there’s a day that I don’t think about it,” he said. In case he might forget, there was always Papp to remind him. “You never square your accounts with Joe,” Scott reasoned. “He is probably the dearest and most ruthless man I have ever known—and the most dedicated. He would sacrifice himself, you, your mother, his mother. I say this with total respect. He is dedicated to an ideal and he will not let anyone or anything stand in his way. He’s like a great general who never asks anyone to do anything that he wouldn’t do himself. There’s a touch of Juan Peron in him, of Winston Churchill, of Ben Gurion. Thank God he’s only in the theatre.”
Thoughts on the Future
The day I walked into Joseph Papp’s office last March, he was talking David Greenspan out of directing Congreve’s The Way of the World with an all-male cast. When JoAnne Akalaitis phoned to intercede on Greenspan’s behalf, the cantankerous Papp upbraided her, declaring, “I’m not some sort of far-out pseudo-liberal!”
That exclamation might come as a surprise to those who know Papp and his causes—how he has fought tirelessly for the inclusion of minorities in theatre, battled Jesse Helms in the National Endowment for the Arts controversy, and would have actively protested the Persian Gulf War had his health been better. But Papp had been going through a period of intense self-examination: He was trying to pass on his knowledge of the theatre to Akalaitis, and thus was having to think about things he had previously done on instinct. What seemed to emerge were a number of precepts that suggested Papp the Producer had quite a different set of ideals from Papp the Liberal.
DAVID PATRICK STEARNS: This season you gave each of your associate directors—including Greenspan—a theatre with the understanding that they’d have artistic freedom in using it. Are you reneging on that?
JOSEPH PAPP: If I see us headed for disaster, I’m going to stop it. I have a responsibility. I am an anti-censorship person, but I’m also in the position in which I’m saying, “No, you can’t do this.” The New York Shakespeare Festival is an institution, not just a couple of guys and girls Off Broadway doing a show…You have to be conscious of the fact that you have a $14-million-a-year operation that we’ve cut down to $12 million. Once I say to somebody, “This is your theatre,” it’s a relative statement. We finance it, but I’m not a corporation or a foundation. I’m an artistic person, so there are aesthetics in this institution. It’s a delicate balance. Only someone of my experience can possibly walk that kind of tightrope. You don’t practice democracy in the theatre.
In arranging the New York Shakespeare Festival so it can eventually go on without you, why did you choose JoAnne Akalaitis?
We have different aesthetics in a certain sense, but in terms of the way we look at life, we’re pretty close. I didn’t want to get a duplicate of me. But I wanted somebody interesting, provocative and somebody who loves theatre. She has a single agenda: the theatre.
You referred to your painful cutbacks. How worried are you about the future of the festival?
I’m worried, but I feel strong because of the artistic changes that are taking place. I’ll lose some and gain some, but my gains will be better because they have a cutting edge on them. The directors are anything but conventional. There are at least 10 others I could’ve chosen. I didn’t make a mistake with any of them. I’m extremely happy.
You once said that if the New York Shakespeare Festival ever went down, you’d rather have it die with a bang than a whimper.
Now I’m in a totally different frame of mind. I don’t want to see this place to go down on any kind of scale. There would be a huge gap without this institution.
Have you always been a fighter?
I’ve been this way all of my life. I don’t know if you’d call that a fighter. I just hold onto things. I don’t like to be pushed around, particularly on fundamental issues that affect our democratic system.
Sometimes over the past few years, your role as a spokesman for various causes seemed to eclipse your life as a theatre producer.
I was finding it more interesting to fight for freedom of expression than to put on plays. It was a more direct way of dealing with things. I spent months on the NEA situation because I was getting bored with the theatre. But I don’t say that now.
There have been many rumors about your health. Are they true?
I don’t know why people are so interested in somebody’s health. I could say my health is nobody’s business. But if I’m dying, you’ll know it. It’s not like I’m some old king that’s dying and making bum decisions.
Nonetheless, do you ever feel any parallels with King Lear these days?
No. He was crazy. My mind has never been clearer.
David Patrick Stearns is theatre critic for USA Today.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!