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Volume four, Issue 28 | July 14-20, 2005

The New York Public Library Salutes the Man Who Brought Shakespeare to the Masses

Joseph Papp had a very simple idea. If Shakespeare belongs to me, thought the lean and hungry Brooklyn-born, 33-year-old radical—if he belongs to me for free—then he belongs to everybody. To everybody in every borough of this city, the greatest city in the world. For free.

That was 1954.

Here it is, under glass, November 1, 1954, in type too tiny for any normal eyes––a provisional charter granted by New York State to CBS producer and stage manager Papp to found and run, as an educational project, something called the Shakespeare Workshop.

Call it Exhibit A, this birth certificate of sorts, in the rewarding, nourishing, memory-rousing exhibit with the somewhat too-fancy title, “A Community of Artists: 50 Years of the Public Theater,” that until October 15 brings Joe & Co. to life in the capacious Donald and Mary Oenslager Gallery on the ground floor of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, at Lincoln Center.

In 1958, CBS would fire Joseph Papp for refusing to go and name names before the House Committee on Un-American Affairs, but Joe had other things on his mind.

By 1956, what had now been re-dubbed the Shakespearean Workshop Theater, was in vivid performance, for free, with unknown young actors––J.D. Cannon, Colleen Dewhurst, Roscoe Lee Browne and others––in the beautiful old wood-paneled Emmanuel Brotherhood on East Sixth Street, and, when summer came, in the tiny East River Amphitheater at the foot of Grand Street.

The next step was to tour the five boroughs as the New York Shakespeare Festival. Ten years further along, the effort would find a more permanent home, a variety of stages and renewed strength under the roof of the elegant, old, Astor Place Library that fund-raising Superman Papp had saved from demolition and converted into the Public Theater.

But first he had to slay the dragon.

Exhibit B lies quite near Exhibit A in the first case you come to as you enter the display. It is a 1958 letter from Joe Papp to Robert Moses, Commissioner of Everything, who was so infuriated at the whole idea of free Shakespeare in Central Park––if he hadn’t thought of it, nobody else had the right to think of it, least of all some damn lefty—that, hurling tablets in all directions, Moses imposed a Keep Off the Grass Commandment against any free Shakespeare in Central Park. Grass first, populace be damned.

The letter reads:

January 8, 1958.

Dear Commissioner Moses: 

Thank you for your letter of January 7. I am starting a campaign to raise funds for next summer’s production in the parks and will keep you informed of our progress.

I am also seeking long-range support to justify an outlay of city funds for a permanent outdoor amphitheater in Central Park…

Thank you for all your cooperation. We shall be honored to have you attend the opening of our coming production, ‘As You Like It.’

Respectfully,

Joseph Papp

The actual original letter, which bears the heavy-handed, scrawled, black-ink notations of the man his biographer Robert Caro dubbed “The Power Broker” (“Where are they doing this?… Won’t work, R.M.”), seems to have made its way, God knows how, from R.M.’s files into Papp’s own archives and from there to this exhibit case.

Just beyond it is another letter, headed Department of Parks, Arsenal, June 20, 1958, and addressed to Mrs. [sic] Helen Hayes, New York Shakespeare Festival, 1230 Fifth Avenue, New York 29, N.Y.

Dear Mrs. Hayes: 

I have your letter of June 12. Frankly I don’t care to take a leading part in further celebrating and advertising Mr. Papp.

Sincerely,

Robert Moses

Commissioner

It occurs to me that Moses may have had Helen Hayes, first lady of the American theater, mixed together in his head with Greenwich Village’s Shirley Hayes, the driving force of the movement that battled and beat him on the six-lane highway he wanted to carve through Washington Square around the same time.

Sixty-year-old Robert Moses, Yale 1909, born to wealth, imperious, non-Jewish Jew, had sorely underestimated the in-fighting, gut-punching young man from Brooklyn who decades later, at the peak of his career, fame, and fairly caustic reputation, would do a gig, solo, at the Ballroom on West Broadway, in charming, spirited rendition of the Yiddish songs of his youth. In the end, Moses had to sanction a $250,000 Board of Estimate appropriation for an open-air (pre-Delacorte) Shakespeare amphitheater in Central Park.

Before either one of those constructions had occurred in the park, one memorable evening the heavens split wide open and thunder and lightning and torrents came down out of a black sky just at the instant Macbeth exclaimed, to the cackling of the three witches: “So fair and foul a day I have not seen!” Everybody, actors and audience, led by a galloping Lady Macbeth—played by Dewhurst—tore for cover and laughter behind and beneath the rudimentary stage.

On the wall near the case in which these first two Exhibits reside is the reproduction of an “Across the Footlights” column from the New York Post of July 12, 1968. It is headlined “Papp, People, and Shrew,” and it begins:

Vitality is the indispensable ingredient of drama for the populace, or for anybody. Joseph Papp’s production of ‘The Taming of the Shrew,’ which alternates through August 22 with ‘Henry V’ as a New York Shakespeare Festival mobile production in sub-affluent areas of the boroughs, is rammed full of vitality for the populace. It is also, all things considered, pretty good.

The stars of that particular production were Robert Hooks as Petruchio and Ellen Holly as Katherine. I do not have to say that if anybody totally shattered the color line in American theater, it was Joe Papp. I was the writer of that particular review, and still believe that vitality is the most indispensable ingredient of, well, drama and everything else.

The motto of that 1968 production, by the way, the advertising come-on, was: “‘Kiss Me Kate,’ now in its 17th year, ‘The Taming of the Shrew,’ now in its 371st year.” Leave it to Joe for chutzpah.

On the next wall over there is a photo spread from an earlier Papp production of “The Taming of the Shrew”––the one starring Cannon and Dewhurst at the East River Amphitheater as the tugboats chug-chugged by in that very first summer of 1956. And then, if you walk to the far end of the Oenslager Gallery, you can catch a large-screen video fragment of yet another “Taming of the Shrew,” the 1978 donnybrook at the Delacorte:

PETRUCHIO: Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting? In his tail.

KATHERINE: In his tongue.

PETRUCHIO: Whose tongue?

KATHERINE: Yours, if you talk of tales. And so farewell.

PETRUCHIO: What, with my tongue in your tail? Nay, come again, good Kate. I am a gentleman.

She socks him.

Watching it, one feels again, with a shiver, how the sexuality––the vitality––fairly crackles between Raul Julia and Meryl Streep as they sling the blazing 400-year-old words back and forth. In my mind, Streep would give the only organic, fully alive performance in the Mike Nichols/New York Shakespeare Festival all-star production of “The Seagull” in Central Park some 20 years later.

If you stand or sit before that video screen a bit longer you can also relive the extraordinary moment at the Shubert Theatre in 1983 when, in celebration of the record-breaking 3,389th Broadway performance of “A Chorus Line,” co-creator Michael Bennnett salaams before a packed stage of the assembled applauding casts of that show, not to mention a roaring SRO audience.

Keep watching and you’ll see bits and pieces of “Hair,” of “Runaways,” of the Public Theater’s “Threepenny Opera,” of “For Colored Girls Who Have Contemplated Suicide,” of “The Pirates of Penzance,” of the thrilling first night of the 1970 “Two Gentlemen of Verona” at the Delacorte (the greatest rapport of audience and actors this theatergoer has ever experienced), all the way to George C. Wolfe’s long-running “Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk,” last season’s “Caroline, or Change,” and more.

If, indeed, the front half of the Oenslager Gallery is devoted to Joe Papp’s 37 years at the heart of everything, the back half of the extensive layout covers the two-year succession of Joanne Akalaitis, whose fine-minded choices were a little too esoteric for the hoi-polloi, followed by the dozen checkered years (some hits, some misses) of the George C. Wolfe regime that came to a close this past February. Wither the Public under the new guy, Oskar Eustis? With prayer and hope, we shall see.

The exhibition is, in the accurate phrase of a New York Public Library press release, “a mosaic” of elements from the vast Joseph Papp archives––433 boxes of it––in the library’s Billy Rose Theatre Collection. Gail Merrifield Papp, Joe’s widow, furnished much of the material from his private papers––perhaps including those letters to and from Robert Moses.

What you will find when you walk in, and will need a couple of hours to digest, are scripts, prompt sheets, cue sheets, revises––Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” had 27––cast lists, programs, press clips, reviews, interviews, letters, photographs, costumes, costume designs, set designs, miniature mock-ups, posters, videos, audio tapes, sheet music and much else.

Joseph Papp died of cancer, October 31, 1991, broken-hearted over the earlier death of his son Tony. This exhibit brings Joe, and what Joe stood for, back to life, but it is not in itself able to bring back a few things engraved only in personal memory. As for instance:

First view of Joe, 1955, slim and sharp in a black turtleneck, standing at the high, steep-raked rear of the Emmanuel Brotherhood, keeping eye and ear on the proceedings onstage far below.

Joe the Shakespearean, many years later, pacing around his office at the Public, talking of this and that and everything, and then, suddenly, out of nowhere, “Do you know whom I consider the greatest all-round American entertainer? Do you? Fred Astaire.”

Joe, sitting directly in front of me on a folding chair at a City Hall rally to save several about-to-be-gutted fine old Broadway theaters, suddenly turning his head back over his shoulder to dryly ask a fellow rebel: “Did you ever think we’d someday be here, you and I, fighting for Broadway?” (In the case of those theaters, this was a losing fight.)

Joe, on the telephone, to me, more than once: “You stupid son of a bitch, if you’re going to review one of my shows, why don’t you bring your brains.”

Joe, pacing around his Public Theater office on another occasion, not too long before his death, talking with heat and pride of the very beginnings of his free Shakespeare adventure. He pulls off the wall a framed document while all but shouting, “Look here! An Obie Award to the Shakespearean Workshop Theater, way back in 1956!” He starts reading the commendatory citation out loud, then after a half-dozen words stops in his tracks, looks his listener in the eyes, and says, with a cockeyed grin: “You wrote this, didn’t you.”

And one other memory, even closer to his death. Barbara Harris, Joe’s secretary at the Public, on the phone the morning after the appearance of a story by me on Joe’s retirement, and on the 37 years of life and work that had preceded that retirement: “There’s somebody here wants to speak to you.” She puts the somebody on. It is Joe Papp, who for days has been unavailable.

“I wasn’t going to come in,” he says. “I didn’t feel up to it. But I’m here because of your story.” It sounds like he’s crying. Happily crying, if that makes sense. “All last night,” he says, “I kept thinking about Colleen and about you and those early days. So I came in.”

It’s not anywhere in those 433 boxes of archival material, and not anywhere in “A Community of Artists: 50 Years of the Public Theater,” but ’tis enough, ’twill serve.

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