Summer Reading: Joe Papp and The Public Theater in “Free for All”

Looking for a good book to read this summer about “a life in the theatre”? Here’s one we recommend. Thrilling and entertaining first-person accounts of the passionate cyclone that was Joe Papp, founder of The Public Theatre in NYC.

Heroes without flaws appear only in bad comics and worse books and movies. The giants who seize our attention and embody achievement at its most inspiring are often nearly as troublesome as they are noble, with defects and virtues that can stem from the same deep drives. Joseph Papp, the Brooklyn-born impresario who changed the face of the American theater by founding the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Public Theater, is unquestionably a hero of the complicated kind. His story is revisited in rich, rewarding detail in a fat new book, “Free for All: Joe Papp, the Public, and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told,” written by Kenneth Turan and — what’s this? — yes, Papp himself.

Although he was a man of protean force, even Papp’s admirers might wonder how someone dead 20 years could write a book.  As Turan explains in the introduction, with Papp’s endorsement and collaboration he began conducting interviews for a definitive oral history of the Shakespeare Festival and the Public Thea­ter more than 23 years ago. After a year and a half of research and writing, Turan presented his co-author with a first draft, only to have Papp take unexplained umbrage and summarily kill the project.

Did the 1,100-page opus seem too much like a literary tombstone to the already ailing producer, who had also recently learned that his son had contracted AIDS? (Papp died of prostate cancer in 1991.) Turan never learned. But as disheartening as this reversal was, he confesses that it didn’t exactly dumbfound him. As his more than 160 interviews amply revealed, Papp had a fierce will, a huge heart and a profound sense of loyalty, but also a tendency to turn against friends and collaborators when he felt betrayed, insulted or ill-used. Although he was a better producer than director, he possessed some of the easily inflamed sensitivity of the artists he devoted his life to nurturing.

Emerging from its time capsule today — at a slimmed-down, engrossing 593 pages, and with the assistance of Papp’s widow, Gail Merrifield Papp — the book still thrills with its tale of a historic passage in the American theater told with vividness and intimacy by the artists and administrators involved .

Joseph Papp at the Delacorte Theater construction site in 1961.

Love him or hate him, Papp was a major cultural force in the American Theatre in the second half of the 20th century. His unrelenting fervor and drive is one of the great theater stories ever told.

The book’s first half, which describes Papp’s early life and career and the creation of the Shakespeare Festival, is immensely pleasurable. Papp himself describes his impoverished youth in ripe detail, with stories of putting cardboard in his shoes, or earning money for the family by selling peanuts, delivering telegrams and working as a “chicken-flicker” (removing the feathers from the slaughtered birds by hand). An early love of music evolved into a love of the music in Shakespeare’s language. But Papp’s hungry upbringing and a youthful involvement in radicalism fired the conviction that “culture, by itself, was not significant. It had to be always doing something for the masses, for ordinary people, not just servicing an elite.”

Certainly the elite were nowhere in sight when Papp first brought together a small group of actors for a Shakespeare workshop in the auditorium of a church on East Sixth Street in 1954. His work in television production and at the Actors’ Lab, a Los Angeles offshoot of the Group Theater, had already made manifest Papp’s ability to organize and inspire. He was burning to apply it to his abiding dream to establish a theater. “I always saw theater as an important poetic and political force,” he says. “I never wanted to be in show business — that idea was anathema to me.”

Colleen Dewhurst and George C. Scott (1959)

Colleen Dewhurst, young and eager and willing to work anywhere, gets a phone call from Papp asking if she’d be interested in the company. He mentions they’re working on “Romeo and Juliet.” “Have you ever seen me?” she asks. No, he answers. “I couldn’t have been Juliet when I was 12,” she says. She heads downtown anyway, and her work with the Shakespeare Festival would make her career.

Roscoe Lee Browne’s path crosses Papp’s when Browne decides, literally overnight, to quit a promising career in business and become an actor. “How long have you been an actor?” Papp asks after Browne’s audition. “Twelve hours,” Browne responds. “But I have no intention of bearing any torches.” Browne’s eloquent description of Papp’s qualities as a producer is echoed throughout the book: “Joseph was as natural as rain, as approachable as your best friend, clear in his criticism of you, and absolutely splendidly wrathful about what was professional and what was not.” (Another apt and pithy description, from the writer James Kirkwood: a “cocky little street fighter.”)

Other voices include those of the actors George C. ScottColleen DewhurstMeryl Streep,Paul Rudd and James Earl Jones; the playwrights David Rabe and David Hare; the directors Bob Fosse and Mike Nichols; the composer Marvin Hamlisch; the former mayors Robert F. Wagner and John V. Lindsay; and dozens of people behind the scenes.

Wallace Shawn

One of Ms. Papp’s favorite stories in the book is about her husband’s running into Wallace Shawn, then a struggling playwright, on a street corner in 1975. As Papp told the story, he asked what Mr. Shawn was doing for a living. Working in the garment district as a shipping clerk, he replied.

“How much are you making a week?” Papp asked.

“A hundred dollars,” Mr. Shawn replied.

Papp told him: “Quit your job.” He would pay him the same amount to write.

“Are you serious?,” Mr. Shawn asked.

“ ‘Quit your job’ ” Papp said. ‘Quit — your — job!’ ”

Ms. Papp said: “I love that. That was very representative of how Joe operated. He was very impulsive, but smart. It was not an institutional move, but a very personal and creative move.”

Papp was devoted to actors and playwrights. Martin Sheen recounts that after Papp tapped him to play Hamlet, other cast members laughed at him because he had never been to college or read the play.

“I didn’t know how to pronounce words, honest to God,” he said. “I’d have to stop in the middle of something and say, ‘What’s a bodkin?’ ”

Papp told him: “Dare to fail, because you’ll never succeed on any level if you’re not willing to fail to the worst degree. So make an ass of yourself.”

The great stories of Papp’s David-and-Goliath successes — for example, the battle with the mighty Robert Moses over keeping Shakespeare in the Park free — are delightful to re-encounter through the voices of the people involved, like hearing the details of historic ballgames retold by the participants, inning by inning. The histories of the major artistic relationships in Papp’s life — his long collaboration and painful parting with his loyal associate Bernard Gersten, his fatherly love for the playwright David Rabe — are also examined from all sides. (There is little or nothing about his sometimes tumultuous personal life.) The inclusion of extensive input from his early collaborators makes clear that while Papp was the driving force in the creation of the Shakespeare Festival and the Public Theater, many dozens of others played significant roles.

"A Chorus Line"

The show-by-show blow-by-blow contains insightful commentary on such landmark works as “Hair,” “A Chorus Line” and “The Normal Heart.”

This important, colorful, capacious book amplifies our understanding of what now looks like the closest thing America will ever have to a national thea­ter. Showmanship has gotten a bad name recently, as it seems to apply mostly to talentless celebrities on endless odysseys of self-promotion and grandstanding cable TV pundits. Papp was probably as great a showman as the theater has seen, but he wasn’t trying to put something over on people. He was trying to bring something vital to them: living art.

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