Joe Papp: The Man Behind Shakespeare in the Park

If you want to understand Joe Papp, don't think of his story as a showbiz fable, though it's certainly one of those: the poor Brooklyn, N.Y., kid who built a theatrical empire is one of the most captivating characters in our cultural history. To appreciate him properly, think of him as a kind of frontiersman. As the founding producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Public Theater, he took American drama to places it hadn't been before: seeking out new voices, changing the look and sound of Shakespeare, and, above all, serving up plays in Central Park for free. This took vision, tenacity, and—rare for his line of work—moments of real physical courage. "I've had more knives pointed at me than you can imagine," he said. That's not a metaphor.

Papp's story is sufficiently dramatic that any account of his life—his battles with New York's all-powerful Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, his struggle to mount plays in the wilds of Manhattan's Lower East Side—would be worth a look. Free for All, Kenneth Turan's new oral history of the Public, doesn't entirely capitalize on this rich material. It concentrates on a few major productions at the expense of others that are worthier, and it has almost nothing to say about the last two decades. (This reflects the book's weird genesis. In the mid-1980s Papp commissioned the book, only to kill it, without much explanation, after Turan had conducted 150 interviews. Though Papp's widow, Gail, has cooperated with the book's publication, Turan decided not to update it. Thus Papp's death in 1991 and everything that followed gets crammed into a too-brief afterword.)

While Free for All doesn't surpass the other book-length histories of the Public, its oral-history approach allows it to achieve something they don't: it goes some way toward resurrecting Joe Papp. His voice is everywhere in this story. Smart, obnoxious, and wised up, it all but leaps off the page. He is forever recounting how he talked some mayor or funder out of a fat check, or went chin to chin with some actor's manager or street kid who threatened his theater—something that tends to happen when you put on plays in corners of New York where plenty of people wouldn't go after dark.

Hearing about these adventures from Papp himself helps us to understand his motivations, what inspired him to pick all those fights in the first place. Even now, we have much to learn from a man who, upon being handed a check for $10,000, once told a backer, "you ought to be ashamed of yourself for giving me so little."

For someone who would play a vital role in the development of the American theater, Papp didn't always hold a lofty view of the art form. Plays, when he was young, struck him as "effete" and "sissy." But he had the right background to rethink that view. The son of poor Yiddish--speaking immigrants, he had been exposed to all sorts of music, served up to him without predefined ideas of high or low. So when he encountered Shakespeare—who is neither high nor low, or rather so lively a combination of the two that the distinction ceases to matter—he was swept away. The first time he and some friends heard a recording of Laurence Olivier doing the "Once more unto the breach" speech from Henry V, Papp said, "we started to scream, we started to yell, and we ran out as a group right down Sunset Boulevard for about 10 blocks, yelling at the top of our voices."

Papp had landed in Los Angeles after a wartime stint with the Navy, which he'd spent arranging entertainment on military bases. He began spending more and more time around the Actor's Lab, the production company and school founded by left-leaning alumni of the Group Theater. Its emphasis on socially relevant plays about contemporary life resonated with Papp, who said that his awareness of anti-Semitism "makes me fight for things, for any aspect of minority rights, black, Hispanic, and so on."

By the time he started producing Shakespeare plays in an East Village basement in 1955, his tough upbringing, his liberal politics, and his experience at the Lab combined to give his work the character it would have for the rest of his life. "Culture, by itself, was not significant," he believed. "It had to be always doing something for the masses, for ordinary people, not just servicing an elite."

Thus he brought Shakespeare with racially mixed casts to Central Park, and on flatbed trucks to rough neighborhoods like the one where he grew up. He premiered Hair, the Vietnam plays of David Rabe, and Miguel Piñero's brutal prison drama Short Eyes. Even as he denounced the shallowness of showbiz, Papp produced A Chorus Line, the ultimate musical of working-class performers, and used the proceeds of its Broadway transfer to take all sorts of risks, trying again and again to yoke together theater and society.

The point isn't that Papp found a surefire recipe for success. A lot of his shows were lousy, and lousy specifically because he let his ideology cloud his aesthetic judgment. But that is precisely what makes his story so compelling today. Plenty of people in the arts theorize about the virtues and pitfalls of putting culture to work for the good of society. Papp didn't theorize about it, he did it. He pushed and pushed toward the ideal he saw in his head, and left behind dozens of examples—classics to catastrophes—of what that kind of commitment can yield. When the need arose, he could make highfalutin claims for the dignity of the arts, but I like him best when he turned up at City Hall to woo some mayor with his blue-collar bardolatry: "Shakespeare should be as important as garbage collection."