Helen Kirch Chinoy’s book about the origins of the Group Theatre is nearly as fascinating—and frustrating—as the company itself.
Born in 1922, Chinoy was too young to have been directly involved in the famed theatre ensemble, which lasted for a decade starting in 1931, but she participated in a Group-influenced radical children’s theatre; saw the company’s production of ensemble member Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing when it came to her hometown of Newark, N.J.; and “devoured” articles by its members.
By the time she started teaching theatre at Smith College, where she remained for nearly three decades, Chinoy was already well known for having co-authored the book Actors on Acting with her sister-in-law, theatrical agent Toby Cole. She later co-authored other books, including Directors on Directing and Women in American Theatre. All three are still used as college textbooks and also include chapters on or by members of the Group Theatre.
In 1974, Chinoy attended an annual meeting of theatre scholars at which three Group alumni shared memories of the company. Inspired by their testimonies, she tracked down other alumni—which led, in 1976, to the publication of Reunion: A Self-Portrait of the Group Theatre, her oral history of more than a dozen members. On and off for the next quarter-century, Chinoy researched the company, authoring several scholarly articles and working slowly on a comprehensive history. Then, in 2001, she stopped working on the book.
“She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and could not continue,” her son, former CNN correspondent Mike Chinoy, explains. He and his sister Clara, a flamenco dancer who lives in Spain, “struggled to find some way to complete it, but we could never find a way forward.” Helen Krich Chinoy died in 2010 at the age of 87.
It was only after her death that Don Wilmeth and Milly Barranger, emeritus professors of theatre at Brown University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, respectively, took up the challenge of completing the book. It required some two years of labor to fulfill Chinoy’s aim of telling the Group’s story “personally and authoritatively,” as they put it. The Group Theatre: Passion, Politics, and Performance in the Depression Era came out in October. “It is a kind of miracle that this book has been published,” Mike Chinoy believes.
Given this back-story, one has high hopes for The Group Theatre to stand out among multiple books written about “the bravest and single most significant experiment in the history of the American theatre.”
The volume covers the basics of the company’s 10 years of existence, with chapters grouped into three sections: People, Performance and Politics. We are introduced to the Group as the 27 original actors and three directors enjoy an idyllic first summer retreat at the Brookfield Center in Connecticut, with an unheard-of 12 weeks of rehearsals for their first play. Everybody worked and studied and lived together in an aura of bohemian communality. And, eventually, we’re made privy to the seemingly endless meetings, debates and frustrations of the Group a decade later, when its many problems—“personal, creative, financial and organizational”—seemed too overwhelming to fix, and the doors to its office in the Sardi’s building were locked for the last time.
In the middle- amid some dense discussions of interpersonal relationships and administrative and financial matters—are some tasty tidbits about preparations for plays and intensive rehearsal techniques and exercises. For the hospital operating scene in one of the company’s biggest hits on Broadway, Men in White, co-founder Lee Strasberg had the cast improvise the doctor’s scrubbing-up scene in more than a hundred ways—as if they were Incas praying in a temple, while listening to the second movement of Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 7,” etc.—and instructed the cast to practice their scrubbing-up upon awakening each morning during the many weeks of rehearsal.
A chapter about the feud between Strasberg and Stella Adler offers a taste of the book at its best. Their conflict began over different interpretations of the Stanislavsky system of acting, which was embraced by the Group in its effort to be “emotionally truthful.” The crux of their debate: How much of that emotion should be mined from the actor’s personal experience?
Both Strasberg (whom Chinoy paints as a withdrawn, difficult man) and Adler (the elegant daughter of Jacob Adler—a star of the Yiddish stage so famous that even Stanislavsky knew of him—and an accomplished actress when she joined the Group) made their greatest impact years later as acting teachers. Their conflict began after Adler became discouraged and miserable performing under Strasberg’s direction in a production. Soon after, she studied directly with Stanislavsky in Europe, and concluded that Strasberg got Stanislavsky’s methods wrong. Chinoy weighs evidence to deliver informed speculation about this now-legendary rift, and provides a quick overview of the then-prevalent theories of acting, doing it all in a clear narrative.
The book is also successful, though slightly less so, in explaining the complex relationship between co-founder Harold Clurman and the playwright he nurtured and directed, Odets, who called Clurman his “favorite character outside of fiction.” There is an intriguing, albeit cursory, chapter on the often-ignored women of the Group, with a brief exploration of the company’s pervasive sexism. (Perhaps ironically, the third co-founder of the Group, Cheryl Crawford, is the least present throughout Chinoy’s book.) Also worthwhile, though problematic, is the extensive and un-romanticized effort to sort through the complicated and easily misunderstood radical politics of the Group and its individual members.
These are highlights, however, in a book that winds up disappointing in too many ways. There are errors, infelicities and omissions. Chinoy’s book states that the Group produced 21 new American plays in its 10 years—but there are 23 plays listed at the end of Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931–1940 by Wendy Smith, a 1990 book recently reissued. Chinoy’s book says that Actors’ Equity was founded in 1919, but the book Performance of the Century was published in 2013 to celebrate the union’s centennial. (The organization’s website also states the founding was in 1913.)
Chinoy’s book is written in serviceable prose, but it rarely rises above that, and sometimes descends into loaded or outmoded language (“fellow travelers,” “homosexual alliances”) and academese.
Such carelessness and casualness are exacerbated by the book’s major shortcomings. Chinoy had an elaborate plan for extensive source notes—“a running commentary,” the editors tell us—but they say it would have made the book longer than the publisher wanted, and, in any case, they say, too many of her notes were indecipherable for them to have followed her approach. So there are none of the chapter end notes that are standard for academic books; instead, the editors have inserted citations in parentheses within the body of the text, mostly of published memoirs (especially Clurman’s The Fervent Years) and secondary sources (often, Wendy Smith’s book about the Group). “We are aware,” the editors write in a note on sources, “that not all significant quotes have sources cited.”
For similar reasons, the editors also decided not to attempt constructing the chapters on the Group’s legacy and influence that Chinoy had planned. Instead we get a summary of the company’s lasting importance—the Group “introduced ‘method acting,’ changed the face of American theatre, and has had a lasting impact on film and television”—with virtually no elaboration. There are only a handful of sentences about the Group members’ later distinguished careers, arguably the main reason why a theatre company that died 70 years ago still matters.
These limitations and omissions make the reader question what The Group Theatre adds to the already-voluminous literature on the Group. It is difficult to see the book as the definitive scholarly history Chinoy intended—one is asked to take both Chinoy’s scholarship and the significance of her subject on faith.
But faith, of course, is at the heart of the story of the Group Theatre. “Is it a religion?” asked a bewildered attendant at one of Clurman’s many lectures that led to the formation of the Group. “Yes,” Clurman replied. This is a book for the faithful legions.
Jonathan Mandell is a frequent contributor to the magazine.