Book Reviews

Free for All: Joe Papp, The Public, and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told
by Kenneth Turan and Joe Papp

The Play That Changed My Life: Americas Foremost Playwrights on the Plays That Influenced Them
Edited by Ben Hodges

Reviews by Alan Gomberg

Free For All

The Play That Changed My Life

Two recent theatre books featuring contributions from a variety of people have been getting attention. I'm happy to say that both of them deserve it. Each provides testament to the effects that one person can have on others. In one case—Kenneth Turan and the late Joseph Papp's Free for All: Joe Papp, The Public, and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told—the person is Joe Papp. In the other case—The Play That Changed My Life: Americas Foremost Playwrights on the Plays That Influenced Them , edited by Ben Hodges—a number of people (by writing plays) are credited with changing the lives of others.

Free for All was a project initiated by Papp himself in the mid-1980s. It seems to have been Papp's own idea that the best way to tell the story of his life and the theater he founded was as an oral history, without much direct authorial commentary, containing both his memories and those of many of his associates. Turan (the film critic for the Los Angeles Times) turned in an initial manuscript of approximately 1,100 pages (cut down from nearly 10,000 pages of transcripts). That manuscript was rejected by Papp for uncertain reasons that may have included its length and the fact that he had just learned he had prostate cancer and that his son Tony had contracted AIDS.

We are fortunate that Turan came back to the project. The result is an invaluable time-travel visit to the recent past. The New York theatrical world that existed in the 1950s and 1960s, when Papp founded his theater and it became a major presence on the New York scene, now seems almost as distant as the theatre scene in Elizabethan London, even though it wasn't really long ago at all. The New York Shakespeare Festival still exists, the Public Theater still exists, and good and great productions will continue to be produced at the Delacorte and on Lafayette Street. But no one reading this book can doubt that a tremendous change has taken place since Papp started the NYSF. No young person today could hope that any theater he or she might start would have anything like the impact that Papp's company had. Of course, the NYSF seemed like an impossible idea when Papp started it, and he himself was doubtless amazed at how things turned out and how important the organization became.

The book proceeds in chronological order, starting with Joseph Papirofsky's childhood, growing up in a family that was impoverished even before the Depression started. Some of the vivid stories he tells about his childhood could be out of a Warner Brothers movie of the era. We learn of his youthful attempts to help earn money for his family: shining shoes; selling tomatoes and, later, roasted peanuts; working as a barker on Coney Island. We learn of the teachers and friends who had an influence on him and his time with the Young Communist League (though that last part might not have been in a Warner Brothers movie).

From his early days, he had a drive that led him to be put in positions of authority. As a chief petty officer in the Navy during World War II, he was in charge of an in-service entertainment unit, the only noncommissioned officer to run such a group. (A young dancer named Bob Fosse, whose talent he recognized, was in Papp's group.) Taking a chance on Los Angeles after the war, he gained membership in the Actors' Lab, a Los Angeles acting school and theatre company formed by Group Theatre vets including Phoebe Brand (who would be Papp's first acting teacher), Morris Carnovsky and Roman Bohnen. Papp soon became the first student on the theater's board and then was made managing director. The Actors' Lab didn't last long, but Papp learned a great deal about how to run a theater.

After the Lab closed, his connections there got him a job as assistant stage manager and understudy for Biff and Happy on the national tour of Death of a Salesman (starring Thomas Mitchell, who sometimes went on drunk).

Returning to New York, he quickly found himself broke. For a while he ran a small theater in Ulster County, New York, but he soon became one of the top stage managers at CBS during the Golden Age of Television. (One of the productions he stage managed was King Lear, starring Orson Welles and directed by Peter Brook.) His first producing venture in New York City was a couple of Sean O'Casey one-acts at the Yugoslav-American Hall on 41st Street, with the help of Bernard Gersten, whom he'd met at the Lab. (The production got a devastating review from Brooks Atkinson, who became a champion of Papp's a few years later.)

It's not long before we get to Papp's first attempts at producing free Shakespeare at various locations, which eventually lead to the building of the Delacorte. Among the other notable events of Papp's life and career that are recounted: his appearance before HUAC; his conflict with Robert Moses; the beginnings of the Public Theater on Lafayette Street; moving NYSF shows to Broadway (after not moving Hair to Broadway); the NYSF's first Pulitzer Prize winner (Charles Gordone's No Place to Be Somebody); the years producing at Lincoln Center while also continuing to produce in the park and on Lafayette Street; and the disastrous attempt to add to the mix a season of new American plays on Broadway.

Once past the early history of the NYSF, most of the individual chapters focus on one important production. Most of these were successes, but several disasters are covered. Among the latter are The Orphan, The Leaf People and True West. (Of the last, Tommy Lee Jones, who played Lee, says, "Of all the versions of that play that were done at the time, around New York and around the country, ours was distinguished by being the worst.") Surprisingly, a few acclaimed productions are barely mentioned (for example, Andrei Serban's production of The Cherry Orchard).

The craziness of life in the theatre is testified to a number of times, perhaps most memorably in the reminiscences of some of the original cast of That Championship Season, who seem to have been a particularly volatile group. We also learn of Papp's sometimes-stormy relationships with several playwrights. His relationship with David Rabe was perhaps the most complex of all.

Free for All is generally fascinating, the story of an extraordinary life. There are occasional touches of Rashomon, inevitable when various people remember events from several decades ago (or sometimes even events that are a good deal more recent). Also inevitable are occasional memories that, even if no one contradicts them in the pages of the book, are likely inaccurate, but overall this book seems more trustworthy than many other books recounting theatrical history. I was a bit disappointed that some important events in Papp's life and career are completely omitted. I understand the need to keep the book to a reasonable length, but I'd be interested in reading a longer version (even if not the 1,100-page version that Turan first showed to Papp).

If Free for All is not the definitive history of the Festival or of Papp's life (and it doesn't claim to be either of those things), it is invaluable for giving you a feeling of having been there. It will surely be an essential resource for anyone in the future attempting to write either a biography of Papp or a history of the NYSF. Adding to the book's appeal are two 16-page photo sections, in addition to photos at the beginning of each chapter.

The Play That Changed My Life
Beth Henley fell in love with theatre watching her mother, Lydy Becker Caldwell, act in many community theatre productions, including this production of The Glass Menagerie in which her mother (seen here with Ken Evans as the Gentleman Caller) played Laura.
Photo courtesy of New Stage Theatre, Jackson MS
The other book under consideration, The Play That Changed My Life: Americas Foremost Playwrights on the Plays That Influenced Them , features a number of prominent American playwrights discussing plays that affected them profoundly and that influenced them, in one way or another, in their decision to write plays and in their writing. There is an introduction by Paula Vogel; the other playwrights featured are David Auburn, Jon Robin Baitz, Nilo Cruz, Christopher Durang, Horton Foote, Charles Fuller, A.R. Gurney, Beth Henley, Tina Howe, David Henry Hwang, David Ives, Donald Margulies, Lynn Nottage, Suzan-Lori Parks, Sarah Ruhl, John Patrick Shanley, Diana Son, Regina Taylor, Regina Taylor and Doug Wright. If the cover's description of this group as "America's foremost playwrights" is a bit (or more than a bit) excessive, this is a lovely book.

Most of the chapters are essays (several of which had been published previously), but several are interviews, conducted by Ben Hodges, the book's editor.

If most of the plays and writers cited by the individual contributors here are not especially unexpected, there are some cool surprises. No one will be shocked to learn that Nottage was bowled over by seeing Mother Courage (specifically the National Theatre production in London that starred Judi Dench), but her description of the effect it had on her is nonetheless very moving. And you may get even a greater kick out of her memories of a children's play titled Succotash on Ice.

There are many interesting stories here, including Ives' memory of Edward Albee's response to an audience question when he came to speak to a hallful of blue-haired ladies in Chicago; the rather similar experiences that Ives and Margulies had watching old movies on TV with their fathers; and Margulies' memories of his family twice taking a hotel room in Manhattan for a week or so of theatregoing, even though they lived in Brooklyn.

The Plays That Changed My Life
The first two plays John Patrick Shanley saw were The Miracle Worker and this production of Cyrano de Bergerac (which he watched from the wings as a member of the stage crew), both at Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx. The Cyrano was particularly influential on him as he found the title character—"a poet who was the toughest guy in the room"—someone with whom he identified.
Photo courtesy of Cardinal Spellman High School, Bronx NY
Several of the writers touchingly sing the praises of nonprofessional theatre: community theatre, college theatre, and high-school theatre. (A high-school production of Cyrano de Bergerac was profoundly influential on John Patrick Shanley.) I was perhaps particularly enthralled by the contributions from Durang, Henley, Nottage, Parks, Ruhl and Shanley, but it almost seems wrong to cite favorites in a book that is so full of generosity of spirit from all the contributors.

The book contains some lovely photos; some of them are of famous productions, but I particularly enjoyed seeing the photos of nonprofessional productions.

While this book may be a bit less of an essential addition to a theatre-lover's book collection than Free for All, I'm sure that many will find it an enriching read. I know that I did.

Free for All: Joe Papp, The Public, and the Greatest Theater Story Ever ToldFree for All: Joe Papp, The Public, and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told
By Kenneth Turan and Joseph Papp
Doubleday, November 2009
608 pp
Hardcover MSRP $39.95
ISBN: 978-0767931687

The Play That Changed My LifeThe American Theatre Wing Presents the Play That Changed My Life: Americas Foremost Playwrights on the Plays That Influenced Them
Ben Hodges, Editor
Applause, November 2009
224 pp
Paperback MSRP $18.99
ISBN: 978-1557837400