A Principled Opportunist

Free for All
Joe Papp, The Public, and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told
Kenneth Turan and Joseph Papp
Doubleday, $39.95, 575 pp.

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...

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About the Author

Elizabeth Kirkland Cahill, a frequent contributor, is the co-author (with Joseph Papp) of Shakespeare Alive! and a 2010 graduate of Yale Divinity School.