In the introduction to Joe Papp: An American Life, biographer Helen Epstein presents contrasting descriptions of her subject, the late American director and producer: “Joe leapt into action driven by passion and rage and adrenaline,” says one close associate in a eulogy addressed to an audience packed with well-known actors and theater people. “Great numbers of us here spring from him, have learned from him, have loved and hated him, . . . have wept because of him and have triumphed with him. And we are his legacy.” Upon reading the fulsome obituaries of Papp, however, a former associate of the director rages, “Who would say, today or tomorrow, that the emperor had no clothes—that Joe Papp was just one more fast-talking con man who latched onto the nonprofit structure? . . . Arrogant and anti-intellectual autodidact, have done with you!”
It is one of the great triumphs of Epstein’s book that the author has succeeded in balancing these conflicting views of Papp’s complex personality and remarkable accomplishments. Joe Papp was perhaps the most vivid and important figure in American theater in the nearly forty years that followed his establishment of the New York Shakespeare Theater in 1954. He was arrogant, brash, energetic, and idealistic, loved by the many actors, directors, and writers whom he supported over the years but disliked as well, often by those who nevertheless continued to admire him and his accomplishments. A champion of Shakespearean drama for the poor of the city and a defender of multicultural casting in a period when this was unusual enough to be considered radical, he lived to see many of his ideas succeed, but he also saw some of them begin to lose their power in a city increasingly dominated by economic and cultural forces that threatened the survival of traditional theater. His successes and failures epitomize both sides of the American dream: the idealism that drives accomplishment and the cost demanded by the achievement of a goal.
Joseph Papirofsky was born in Brooklyn in 1921, the child of immigrant parents who lived on the margins of the working class. Although his brother and sisters later cast some doubt on the accuracy of his portrayal of family life, his own memories were of a cold and depressed household, characterized by poverty and a certain grimness. Social ties and a sense of community were scarce, and young Joseph spent most of his adolescence avoiding home. Although he was not a good enough student to get into Brooklyn College when he was graduated, school offered him at least the appreciation of teachers and a strong feeling for William Shakespeare, whose plays were taught and read as early as junior high school. His sense of isolation and poverty drew him, Epstein points out, to sympathy with the Communist Party and lay behind his activities as a union organizer when he took his first job, but they also resulted in a lifelong habit of denial, particularly at first where his Jewish background was concerned.
Papirofsky married early. His many relationships with women are discussed only briefly in this book—he married four times and fathered at least one child outside of marriage—but it is clear that the restlessness and quickness to judge that characterized his professional life were part of a personal pattern as well. After only a few months with his wife, he enlisted in the navy in 1942. His success in directing military entertainments led to an interest in acting. After leaving the navy in 1946, he was able to use the benefits of the G.I. Bill to enroll in the new Actor’s Laboratory School in Los Angeles, an integrated institution that was run by several former members of the Group Theater and had a reputation for radical politics. Papirofsky thrived on the atmosphere and made friends who would be close to him for years, but red-baiting and an investigation by the House Committee on Un-American Activities closed the school and put an end to Papirofsky’s only formal education beyond high school.
Settling in New York with, at first, a second wife and then, soon after, a third, Papirofsky was hired as a stage manager at CBS. His real life, however, soon began to develop after hours, in a theater company he founded with several friends in the back of the Emmanuel Church on the Lower East Side of New York. Although his earliest New York productions had been of plays by Sean O’Casey and Federico García Lorca, he was now able to do the Shakespeare he had always dreamed of. Unable, unfortunately, to raise money for the Romeo and Juliet he had planned, he produced instead two evenings of Shakespearean scenes, one starring the then unknown actress Colleen...
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