Joe Papp. Those staccato monosyllables still evoke within me a mixture of dread and delight, nearly twenty-five years on. I first met Papp in 1986, when I happened to walk into his office at the Public Theater at just the right moment and he hired me to work on a new project. Over the next two and a half years, I found him both terrifying and fascinating, almost a compendium of the Shakespearean characters whose lines he could quote at will: mercurial as Puck, imperious as Julius Caesar, principled and rash as Coriolanus, impulsive as Romeo, and tyrannical as Prospero. He was, in short, everything he is said to be in Kenneth Turan’s oral history Free for All: Joe Papp, The Public, and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told.

Papp founded the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1954, driven by his ambition to make Shakespeare’s plays widely accessible. In 1959, after winning a court battle against Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, he established free Shakespeare in Central Park. In the course of his long career as a producer, he fostered contemporary American plays and musicals, brought several major productions to Broadway, and launched the careers of innumerable playwrights and actors.           

The story of Papp’s life and work is told in Free for All in a series of recollections from Papp and people who knew and worked with him. Kenneth Turan (now a film critic for the Los Angeles Times) began the project in the 1980s and interviewed more than one hundred fifty of Papp’s collaborators (a quarter of whom have since died). Papp canceled the project abruptly after he read the first draft, but Turan sought the approval of Papp’s widow, Gail Merrifield Papp, to take it up again after her husband’s death in 1991. The result is as close to a page-turner as oral history can get. The brisk pace, the multitudinous voices, the moments of desperation and serendipity, and the sense of theater history unfolding make Free for All a riveting read.

The person of Joe Papp and the institution of the New York Shakespeare Festival were essentially one and the same. Born to Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn, Papp survived a hardscrabble childhood, enlisted in the Navy, and after World War II found his way to the West Coast, where he joined the newly formed Actors’ Laboratory. Back in New York five years later, he began to produce Shakespeare’s plays in the city’s neighborhoods, spurred by what one observer described as a “messianic” zeal to bring Shakespeare to ordinary people.

The founding of the Shakespeare Workshop in the basement of Emmanuel Presbyterian Church on the Lower East Side is a high point in the book’s account of Papp’s early career. This seat-of-the-pants effort, in which Papp and his comrades transported heavy movie-theater seats from the Bronx and tried to bolt them to the floor, scrounged for props and lights, and faced down boisterous audiences, brings to mind Shakespeare’s blundering “rude mechanicals” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It takes us to the very heart of theater—the passion and collaboration that undergird the chanciness of the whole enterprise. Here, the confluence of Papp’s determination, his unrelenting opportunism, and a lot of luck led to a string of successes. Before he knew it, Papp himself was the establishment.

“There has to be a single idea by which a theater operates,” Papp told Turan, “otherwise you go here, you go there, you don’t know where you’re going.” As Papp and his enterprise made the transition from private upstart to public theater, his initial purity of purpose underwent some expansion of its own, to what might more accurately be called “principled opportunism.” Originally Papp set out to bring Shakespeare to the masses; then, as he embraced contemporary plays (to “enrich” the Shakespeare productions, he explained), his professed aim was to bring the highest quality work to the greatest number of people. He refused to acknowledge that there might be a tension between these two poles. Later, the productions at the Public Theater on Lafayette Street were supplemented (some might say compromised) by Papp’s assumption of complete responsibility for the theatrical productions at Lincoln Center. Then there were the game-changing productions that made it to Broadway—Two Gentlemen of Verona, Hair, A Chorus Line. These successes left him hungry for the next big hit that could fund the more challenging and abrasive work he valued, such as David Rabe’s Vietnam War plays The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and Sticks and Bones.

Papp had more than good instincts; he had the gumption to take risks and make things happen. The man simply exuded power. I’ll never forget the first time I encountered him, lounging with supreme confidence behind an impossibly huge desk in the sanctum sanctorum of his office, every wall adorned by show posters and tributes galore, an enormous cigar close at hand. His fighting spirit was incredible; he never backed down from a challenge. His high-profile battle against Robert Moses is perhaps the most famous, but there were many more such fights. He did not hesitate to go to the mat for a writer. As director Michael Lindsay-Hogg (who worked on Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart) says, “at least he bullies in the right causes.”

Free for All’s portrait of Papp closes with the words of actress Linda Hunt: “He kept bringing people in, bringing people into the circle, and that’s his great gift.” Her observation is supported by the abundance of voices in the book, each with its own inflection and perspective. Colleen Dewhurst consistently and charmingly calls Papp by the formal name “Joseph.” Jerry Stiller reminisces hilariously about the mutt he adopted as his sidekick in Two Gentlemen of Verona. Playwrights David Rabe, Jason Miller, Larry Kramer, and Dennis Reardon reflect on the father-son dynamic that characterized their relationships with this dominating man. We hear from city officials, costume designers, and famous actors who began their careers at the Shakespeare Festival (Kevin Kline and Meryl Streep among them). Most poignantly, perhaps, we hear early and often from Bernie Gersten, Papp’s longtime number two who was dismissed in 1979. The recollections of this traumatic separation and its causes—given different emphasis and weight by each of the parties—are ineffably sad.

The multiplicity of voices means that no one voice has a lock on the truth. In chapter 17, for example, three men offer three different versions of the process that led to Papp’s decision to produce Jason Miller’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play That Championship Season. Everyone remembers things differently, everyone heightens his own role, and everyone has his own story to tell. As in the theater, where we form our judgments based on both what the characters tell us about themselves and on how they relate to other characters and to the world of the play, so it is here: who can say with certainty how That Championship Season came to be?

This may have been the reason for Joe Papp’s angry termination of the oral history project. From the very beginning of his career, he had insisted on total control (note that he is even now listed as co-author of this book!). “Democracy in the theater is ridiculous, I don’t believe in it,” he told Turan. “Someone has to be in a position to make a decision.” In his theater, he was that someone, always and everywhere—firing directors, taking over productions, commissioning new works, moving shows to Broadway, deciding what, when, and where his next move would be. He may have heard the chorus of voices in this book as a challenge to that authority. Now, however, nearly two decades later, Free for All stands as a tribute to a complex, passionate man who tenaciously pursued a vision of a broad-based, relevant American theater. Rest in peace, Joe; your legacy is not only safe, it is deepened and enriched by this marvelous book.

Elizabeth Kirkland Cahill, a graduate of Yale Divinity School, chairs the  board of the Preservation Society of Charleston.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the 2010-05-21 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.