Joe Papp Seeks a Bigger Stage
The Man Who Brought Free Shakespeare Outdoors is Fighting For a Socially Committed National Touring Company
by Stuart W. Little
Saturday Review -  February 26, 1972

American plays in the 1970’s may well be simpler and more human than those of the last decade.  They may also attract a bigger audience drawn from every region and social class in the country. Or so Joseph Papp predicts.

Papp is the energetic and innovative producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater.  His organization has two homes: One is a 2300 seat open-air amphitheater in Central park, where Shakespeare is presented to the public free every summer: the other a complex of four separate auditoriums housed since 1967 in the former Astor Library on Lafayette Street in downtown Manhattan.  At both locations, which are financed partly by public funds and partly by private donations, many people who never have seen a play before are beginning to love live drama.  Vibrant productions and the low-ticket prices on Lafayette Street (Student tickets sell for as little as $2.00) are packing them in.

Papp recently turned fifty and is generating ever more plans and ideas.  In Two Gentlemen of Verona, a rock adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy, Papp has given Broadway its freshest musical of the season.  Another Papp Production, Sticks and Bones, has been so well received at the Public Theater on Lafayette Street that it is being transferred uptown, where it will become Broadway’s only serious new American play.  David Rabe, the author, was discovered by Papp and may well be the best new American playwright since Edward Albee.

Since the first of 1972, Papp has been trying to clear his desk of all the clutter of production details that accompany success in order to concentrate on what matters to him most: a populist concept of an American national theater.

No one who has watched Papp plan and maneuver over the years would be surprised by this bold ambition, for from small beginnings he has built a major theatrical power base.  He was born Joseph Pairofsky of Eastern European parents in Brooklyn in 1921: his father pushed a wheelbarrow through the Williamsburg section.  At the public library and free band concerts, Papp acquired an early love of culture.  His first theatrical experience was as an actor; he once toured in a national company of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. In the late 1940’s he began a career in directing.  Brooks Atkinson, the critic for the New York Times, panned his first attempts, some one act plays of Sean O’Casey.

His New York Shakespeare Festival had its origins in a church basement on New York’s Lower East Side in 1951 when he organized a workshop.  He first took Shakespeare outdoors in 1956 by staging plays in the East River Amphitheater, thus establishing the pattern of free performances that survives to the present.  The following summer he moved his stage to Central Park.

Beginning in 1966, Papp established a year round operation by acquiring a permanent indoor home, the Astor Library, Papp, in financial straits last spring for the costly renovation, succeeded in selling the building to the city for $2.6 million – it’s cost plus improvements.  Typically, he had turned a narrow escape into a major cultural victory.  Now he was ready to fight for a national theater.

His plans have not yet been fully worked out, but Papp envisions setting up, through massive government aid and private funding, the American National Theater Service.  Its most important function would be underwriting the financial losses incurred by a national tour of almost any serious play. Papp, moreover, hopes his productions will reach not only those cities with theaters, but also small, remote towns that have facilities not grander than a church or a high school auditorium.

Papp’s operations in New York already represents on a small scale what his projected American National Theater Service might be able to do for the entire nation.  He has taken his Shakespeare productions out into the streets of the five city boroughs in the summer; each unit, a truck that contains all necessary sets, props, and sound equipment and that can be opened up into a small stage.  In the winter his actors tour the city schools.  Papp has also organized university tours of such one-man shows as Jack MacGowran’s dramatic readings from the plays and novels of Samuel Beckett.  Joseph, in short, has had plenty of experience taking the theater to the people, but now he wants to reach not just New Yorkers but all Americans.

How will the American National Theater Service be funded?  For the service’s first year, Papp seeks $1-million from the federal government and $400,000 for private sources (the first private donor will be the Rockefeller Foundation, which Papp already has approached).  For the second year, an expanded program would receive a full operation and ideally would receive and annual government subsidy of $3-million and an increased amount of private money.  When fully operative, the service would not only underwrite tours of plays but also publish scripts and make films.  In the near future Papp hopes to be able to present the whole scheme to President Nixon.

The National Theater Service has been conceived at an opportune historical moment.  With the Vietnam War drawing to some kind of close, Papp feels we are at the beginning of a more positive era.  The service would assist in the “liberation and purification” of this era’s spirit.  In the kinds of scripts submitted to him, Papp detects a shift.  He senses a growing reaction against the experimental, dehumanized drama of the past decade.  Many plays of the 1960’s more often assaulted the senses than made sense.  Actors moved in restless patterns, produced choral shrieks and moans rather than coherent individual speech, and flung one another about more like angry gymnasts than sensitive, normal human beings.

“I think there is a kind of revulsion against the purely formal aspects of art,” Papp says, “and a need to get back to the humanness of theater.  I only know this by reading what is submitted to me.  There is less death and negation in the writing, Black playwrights seem to be less angry than they were and more personal.  They write about love, about family, about a real-life situation in a bar.” A return to a simpler, more human treatment of fundamental problems, Papp believes, will help the theater to address a broader public.

Papp’s recent thinking has obviously been profoundly influence by his “discovery’ of David Rabb, a playwright whose name Papp mentions in the same breath with Eugene O’Neill’s.  For many years Papp dealt with only one playwright: Shakespeare.  Papp’s artistic and organizational energies went into developing an American approach to the classic plays.  More specifically, he casts blacks and Puerto Ricans in leading Shakespearean roles, sometimes modernized the lines, and even added rock music – all on Shakespeare’s own theory that a play must be as you like it.  Papp’s urbanization of Shakespeare hit a new height with Two Gentleman of Verona, with its joyful rock score, its celebration of love, and its ethnically diverse cast.

Since his acquisition of the Public Theater, Papp has been turning more toward new plays and musicals.  He helped create Hair, from which his theater still derives substantial royalties.  He produced Charles Gordone’s No Place to be Somebody, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1970.  These spectacular successes and Papp’s openness to new writers and writing brought scripts flooding in.  David Rabb’s first play, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, came in the mail.  Although Papp was on the lookout for a play about the war, he had been getting only predictable antiwar preachments.

Rabb’s play was different.  It had a military setting, to be sure; in the rapid-fire dialogue and long monologue of the first few scenes, Rabe erupted with a magma of military slang, soldierly lore, swear words, and barracks insults.  Yet it was more than a routine propagandist diatribe.  And the central character was puzzling.  “I had a strange feeling when I read the play,”  Papp recalled.  “I didn’t have an immediate positive reaction to it. I didn’t know who Pavlo was.  Was he a Puerto Rican?  Was he working class?  It was a peculiar play.”

Not quite knowing what to do with the script, Papp put it aside until another director brought it back to his attention.  Mel Shapiro, who recently staged Two Gentlemen of Verona, arranged for Rabe to meet Papp.  From the first Papp was taken with Rabe, a big sandy-haired man with the build of a football player, who talks slowly and frankly but writes fast and wild for his stage characters.   “He was modest and shy and thoughtful,” Papp said. “But I felt we were not talking on the same plane.  I needed to get a director who could relate to David.  “I believed only a buddy in the war – and it had to be that war – would do.”

Papp picked Jeff Bleckner, who had studied with Papp at the Yale Drama School and had served in Vietnam.  At the initial meeting in Papp’s office, Bleckner and Rabe, sizing each other up and getting to know each other, carried on the barest of conversations.  New playwright and director fast became a firm team – Pavlo Hummel opened last May and is still running—and the two men now work together with great respect.

“I participated with them in planning the production,” Papp said.  While the work was going on, I became more and more interested in the play, for example, the mother’s speech had seemed tedious, but onstage it came alive.”

The speech, as it happens, is central to the script, Pavlo Hummel is a strange, blasted character with an un-created past, a tortured present and a future he can foresee only as doomed.  With mounting desperation but diminishing success, Pavlo labors to make his pride in his uniform compensate for the indifference of his family.  Pavlo’s brother doesn’t bother to stop combing his hair in order to acknowledge Pavlo’s return home on leave.  Pavlo’s mother belittles her son by derisively asking him about his service in the Army, “How do you like being a robot?”  Acted-out scenes of violence tumble furiously one upon another: drill-field punishments; scuffles with sadistic buddies who loath Pavlo’s zeal; and a girl in a Saigon whorehouse and throws a grenade at the hero.  But in a play studded with such overt brutality there is perhaps no greater crime than the understated neglect by brother and mother.  In her long speech Pavlo’s mother recites how a woman moving about in a department store finally receives the news of her son’s death in Vietnam.  On his first leave Pavlo Hummel has already been given up at home.

Rabe started Pavlo Hummel about six months after he returned from Vietnam in January 1967.  He then began to write Sticks and Bones, a play about a blind Vietnam soldier coming home. These two plays are linked thematically; in both, the soldier’s family refuses to comprehend the son’s experience of the war. Rabe himself did not perceive the similarities until the second play was finished.  He is now writing a third play.  The Orphan (Papp hopes to produce it in the fall), and recognizes that when it is done he will have completed a dramatic trilogy, which was not his original intention.

Papp’s main purpose in transferring Sticks and Bones to Broadway is to provide a larger and more conspicuous platform for a playwright with important ideas to communicate.  Yet the transfer does pose a risk to the life of the play; Broadway audiences often do not respond to dramas that state strong ideas.  But he believes a show that can sell out on a Tuesday night in a 300-seat theater in downtown New York has enough draw to fill the 799-seats of Broadway’s Golden Theater: “It has that kind of push.”

Papp will consider the move a success if the production breaks even; his regard for money is respectful if not altogether commercial, at the Public Theater The Black Terror is running at a weekly loss of $5,000 dollars.  “I don’t ask myself why we are supporting that play.  I think in terms of perpetuating an important work. This is the most important statement being made today in the theater.  Why do you produce plays in the first place?  You produce them because they have something to say and you want as many people to hear them as possible.”  Richard Wesley’s argumentative play is the most eloquent treatment yet staged of the conflict among blacks cause by their attempts to justify the use of violent means to achieve liberation.

“I know exactly what plays I want,” Papp said of his most vital function—the choice of scripts—a function he reserves to himself.  “But you can’t order them up.  By producing certain playwrights you can attract others.  We want those plays that will make an impact on society.  I’m looking for a kind of simplicity and directness in the writing, a kind of simplicity that David Rabb has, that will reach great numbers of people.”

While setting up such criteria, Papp is not turning his back on the kind of avant-garde drama that provided so much theater excitement during the last decade.  His small Other Stage at the Public Theater is open to “plays that are important to do, plays that are literary, that are sophisticated, that are probing, that are avant-garde.”

But Papp takes a skeptical view of plays that do not relate to the wider problems of society.  “I’m impatient with other plays unless they are brilliant.  The brilliant play, even if it has no relevance to our times, is always an exception. Then I would drop all requirements, all limitations.

Papp has some further bold schemes for the months ahead.  Concerned about the erosion of police morale in New York City that has resulted from public antagonism, he is ambitious to form a gigantic police chorus and see what influence such a singing group might have in altering attitudes. To the same end, he would form a parallel chorus of inmates from the city’s penitentiaries.  Out of his American National Theater Service, eventually he would like to see emerge a multi-racial acting company.  “Then there would be a true national theater.  It would not be just an Anglo-Saxon theater.  We would have to have actors who speak well. They would be white, black, and Puerto Rican, and would express the true racial makeup of this country. Then we could start to build an audience.”

To put these major schemes into effect, Papp has tried to reduce his administrative duties.  Much of the load can be taken up by his able co-producer, Bernard Gersten, who is both everywhere Papp is and everywhere Papp cannot be.

Still, it is hard for Papp to relinquish detail.  Large or small, most decisions land on his desk. Recently a talented young graphic artist came to Papp at the dragging end of the business day.  Willingly adding half an hour to office time, Papp examined with care a portfolio containing a number of fresh and detailed drawings of children that showed a quick eye for their impish curiosity.  When Papp, who was genuinely enthusiastic about the drawings, heard that a couple of publishers had rejected the artist’s ideas, he turned to Gersten, “Maybe we ought to go into children’s book publishing, Bernie.”  But the artist had really come to sell Papp on a logo, a typographical symbol for the Public Theater.  Papp, who’s theater uses distinctive type faces but has never had a logo, wasn’t really in the market for one.

“You know how long I’ve been hearing about a logo?”  Papp asked rhetorically.  Twenty years.  ‘You need a logo.’ People have been saying that for twenty years.”

The artist, conscious of losing ground rapidly, switched to the consumer’s survey as defense: “I’ve shown these to a number of people and their opinion….”  Papp interrupted.  “You know the most important opinion you can get on that?”  The Public Theater producer, the seasoned wager of so many public wars to build his theater to its present position of strength, looked at the artist levelly for a full four seconds. “Mine,” he said.

Copyright Saturday Review.

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