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Of leaders, he was the quietest. A small, rotund, amicably soft-spoken man, Lloyd Richards, who died on his 87th birthday, June 29, of heart failure, seemed like the most easygoing person ever to run a major arts institution. But underneath the easy manner lay the unrelenting drive and determination of a man whose integrity of principle, and belief in the value of his art, formed a stone wall not easily breached. Though modestly unassuming in public, always preferring quiet compromise to an argument—at the O’Neill we used to joke that his role model was Abraham Lincoln—Lloyd was authoritative. He rarely raised his voice to win a point, but he made sure he won almost every point at issue.
That quality of quiet, persistent authority, which had brought Lloyd up from a poverty-stricken childhood to a leading position in the American theater, explains how he was able to achieve so much with so little flamboyance or self-advertisement. Coming of age in a time when a burgeoning generation of African American artists felt ready to enter the mainstream from which they had been so long and so unreasonably excluded, Lloyd Richards did not, as the phrase goes, seize the time: He merely walked up to it calmly, spoke to it with quiet authority, and got the jobs that made the time his own, making him a vital piece of its history. As he would tell interviewers in later years, he had never set out to be “the first” African American to direct a play on Broadway, or to direct a Broadway musical, or to head the acting faculty of a major university, or to be dean of a major school of drama. He could certainly not have planned, when he came to New York in 1947, to be among the first African Americans to head a major resident theater, or the first person of any ethnic group to run a program of national importance for nurturing young playwrights, for such things did not exist then. Yet these were simply jobs that were offered to Lloyd. His special gift lay in being a person to whom one would want to offer such jobs, and who, once hired, could sustain the job in a way that justified the offer.
The calm judiciousness with which Lloyd approached every crisis stood him in good stead in the theater, where emotions tend to run high and explosions over trivial matters are an everyday occurrence. During the two-decades-plus that I worked variously as a dramaturg and a critic-teacher while he was artistic director of the O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference, I can’t remember ever seeing him lose his temper; among countless anecdotes that involve Lloyd, I have few recollections of his even sounding angry. He didn’t need anger; authority came naturally to him, and he used it not only wisely, on the whole, but undivisively. There are very few artistic directors in the theater about whom you could say, “He was a good thing for our nation,” but Lloyd was one. Under his aegis, the O’Neill had a genuine communal feeling. The work was shared in a spirit of playfulness, generosity, and sociability, far—as far as Lloyd could keep it—from the professional jealousies and dollar signs that usually dominate our theatrical life. This spirit had its aesthetic limitations and its strategic weaknesses, but while it thrived, under Lloyd’s guidance, it was almost tangible. It seems to me, more than the atmosphere he created onstage in any of his celebrated Broadway productions, to be Lloyd’s major artistic triumph: a vision of what America could be if, with money motives, ethnic divisions, and gender barriers all firmly set aside, everybody simply worked together.