Theater

Joe Papp Crowns Himself 

He commands the most imposing force in theatre, uniting playwrights and philanthropists. Does he run like Henry V or Sammy Glick?

by

At the top of a Central Park hill, sweating in the cruel afternoon sun, some 50 young men are fran­tically waving banners, thwacking at each other with sticks, and hauling a huge wooden tower around. Furiously concentrated, seemingly oblivious to the heat, they respond to shouted commands from a man in a white shirt. Joe Papp, rehearsing Henry V, is once more leading his troupe.

Though he directs his followers with the single-minded intensity that young Henry brought to the fields of Agincourt, Papp carries 54 years. And despite his relentless omnipresence in the American theatre scene, his energies are not limitless. Three or four hours into rehearsal, the heat begins to get to him, and he removes his shirt. Suddenly, King Henry vanishes. Revealing, in an old-fashioned sleeveless undershirt, Shmuel Papirofsky’s aging boy.

Joseph Papp is both: the leader operating with what one critic called Henry’s “brilliance of inspired efficiency,” and the street-smart survivor of an impoverished Williamsburg childhood. There, as shoe-shine boy, chicken-plucker and — with his father — as a push­cart peanut vendor, life was work. It still is. The GI Bill and the Actors Studio may have provided a path to affluence, but the habit of struggle is ingrained. Henry’s leadership, in a mystery obscured by the centuries, was a function of his noble birth; Papp’s, perhaps no less mysteriously, is a triumph of the will.

“This play is really a study of leadership,” he said during a din­ner break, “of the leader of a major organization — a president, maybe — anybody that is in charge of men. It’s the third time I’ve done this play, and I’m doing it again now because I’ve learned a great deal about leadership since the last time. Now Paul Rudd, who’s playing Henry, doesn’t know any of that yet. He’s still really beginning; I gave him his first job, in the ensemble, only a few years ago. So I have to teach him about leadership. My authority has to be gradually transferred to him. For instance, I have to let him talk directly to the ensemble — direct them, almost — until he begins to feel like a king. A king, right. This isn’t some fucking Ei­senhower. He’s got to feel about his men the way I feel about the people in this show. Their souls are their own, but their duty is to me.”

For Papp, leadership is not sim­ply a matter of hortatory rhetoric, but an all-consuming attention to detail. During a brief break in rehearsing Henry, three men in suits suddenly appear at his side. Carrying proposed illustrations from the adventurous ad agency of Case & McGrath (“I picked ’em myself,” says Papp. “Everyone said I was crazy to take a firm that hadn’t done theatre before, but they’ve been great.”), they retreat with Papp to the upper reaches of the Delacorte Theatre where he critically examines their work. Pleased with the illustration for Henry V, he nonetheless insists that a new model be brought in to pose for For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, then dis­misses them. “And don’t,” he adds as they turn to make their way down the aisles, “Say ‘The Public Theatre.’ Say ‘The New York Shakespeare Festival.’ The theatre’s only a place; the festival is the organization.”

The New York Shakespeare Fes­tival is a somewhat anachronistic misnomer for an $8.5 million com­bine that, like Papp, came up from poverty. From its exceedingly unprepossessing origins in a black Presbyterian church located between Avenues C and D on the Lower East Side, the Shakespeare Festival is at once the hottest ticket on Broadway (A Chorus Line), the establishment (Papp’s operation at Lincoln Center), six theatres and workshops at the Public Theatre on Lafayette Street, and, of course, free Shake­speare in the park. In addition to the plays and playwrights he de­velops himself, his tentacles reach out to regional theatres as far away as Minnesota and snake through the city’s ethnic and avant garde companies. At his command, a play may begin in a workshop at the Public Theatre, be staged by an independent company as an Equity showcase, move back to the Public for a full-dress run, and then leap to the high-risk, high-profit commercial center of Broadway. And when he scores, Papp scores big. Including film rights and touring companies, A Chorus Line alone should pump more than $6 million annually back into the festival. And because the parent organization must by law be nonprofit, that money can only be used for still more expansion. As a result, The New York Shakespeare Festival, already the single most important force in contemporary theatre, will inevitably grow more powerful. With Joe Papp as its undisputed leader.

He is the organization’s engine; money is its fuel. Over the years, the festival has run up a sizable deficit (“We have about a million dollars in unpaid bills,” he says calmly), and the profits from A Chorus Line could put it firmly into the black for the first time in its history. “But that,” he points out, “Is what you call a very uncreative use of money. So I said let’s not pay the bills. Let’s take it and bang it into something that’s important for us. And that’s writers.”

Thus a sizable chunk of the Chorus Line profits will go to a new festival enterprise: a play­wrights-on-payroll project. “Lis­ten,” he edges forward in his chair, “we’re going to have maybe 20 people who’ll be able to write plays for a living. Not a big living, but a real one, maybe as much as $10,000 a year. Plus — and this is the advantage of the payroll arrange­ment — unemployment, hospitalization… The kind of stuff that writers never get.”

It all sounds marvelous, but the stratagem behind it is classically expansionist: Never get out of debt, always use any new money to grow, always have a reason to ask people for even more. Become indispensable, then force people to keep you going. This sequence is part of the Papp armamentarium.

Years ago, he hustled some money to buy the old Astor Library on Lafayette Street and turn it into a collection of theatres. (“We kept a landmark from being torn down: people were glad to help us do that.”) He made it a genuinely exciting space with theatres of different shapes and sizes, poured every available dollar into renovating it, and created a place where a playwright’s dreams at least had a shot at coming true. Then he cried poor. Using the press — and the romance surrounding the free Shakespeare in the park — which, of course, could have gone on without the Public Theatre — he pressed the city for help. He got his financial backers — the Upper East Side cul­tural establishment, who were also John Lindsay’s constituency — to lean on the mayor. Finally he sold the buildings back to the city for $2.6 million, then leased it from them for a dollar a year. With all that capital — and six theatres for only a dollar a year — he expanded again, this time by underwriting productions at other companies.

If that all sounds more like Sammy Glick than like Henry V, it should, for there is at least a side of Papp that is as success-obsessed as Schulberg’s slum kid who made it big in Hollywood. That Papp surfaced in his aborted attempt to organize a Broadway season for his playwrights last year, essentially reducing the Public Theatre to a mere workshop. His increas­ing use of the Public Theatre as a prestige-conferring showcase for companies which developed their styles apart from him — this year’s Beckett performances by Lee Breuer’s Mabou Mines troupe was only the most notable example — shows that side as well. Like David Merrick scouring London theatres for Broadway vehicles, Papp patrols the avant-garde. As a result, though the Public Theatre may be full of treasures, many theatre people see Papp more as a claim jumper than a pioneer.

But it isn’t that simple. He isn’t that simple. Just when it seems that he has overreached himself and allowed the entrepreneur to overwhelm the experimenter, he suddenly relocates his original obsession and pursues it with the same relentless drive that pro­pelled him out of the jungle of Williamsburg. And through the only slightly more polite jungle of Manhattan theatre.

In those moments, though Papp is no less driven, “making it big” has less to do with Broadway marquees than with an almost abstract search for quality. The search is still single-minded, but it contains an element of detachment that makes it almost noble.

This Papp emerges as he directs Henry V. Not so much in the collision of the French and English forces as in the victorious king’s romantic byplay with Katherine of France. Their romance, which dominates the play’s final act, has been a perpetual problem for Shakespeareans, causing centuries of critics to echo Dr. Johnson’s strictures: “The truth is that the poet’s matter failed him in the fifth act, and he was glad to fill it up with whatever he could get; and not even Shakespeare can write well without a proper subject. It is a vain endeavour for the most skill­ful hand to cultivate barrenness, or to paint upon vacuity.”

And yet, as Papp develops the scene, its tenderness becomes unpredictably affecting. At first, he works with Rudd, setting the tone of Henry’s speeches, seeing their flatness as part of a deliberate effort not to overwhelm Katherine with his newly proven magnificence. “No, no, Paul,” he counsels, “what you’re trying to do here is comfort her, make her a little more at ease.” As Rudd gradually finds his way inside the lines, Meryl Streep’s Katherine begins to respond in kind. Sud­denly, the electricity between them is palpable, and Henry is at once king and lover.

“I’d wanted to play Henry for a long time,” says Rudd, “so I had my own ideas pretty well established, but there’s no other director in the theatre who could give me what Joe has. He identifies so strongly with the character that what I’m learning is Joe’s own understanding of himself. He’s deepened, not changed, the Henry that I’ve thought about. Now, those human moments — when he’s alone, with his brothers, or with Kate — those are more mature than I could have imagined.

“The strength that’s in Henry normally doesn’t come across in those scenes, so you don’t understand why his soldiers followed him the way they did. In this play, you will. Henry — and Joe — find a specialness in people and use it to make them rise to their capacity. We’ve done the battle scenes hundreds of times now, but the ensemble will still do everything he asks them. There are guys flinging themselves around in ways you wouldn’t believe, all for him. And by opening night, they’ll be doing it for me — for Henry.”

Papp has always been among the most physical of directors, and bodies were hurtling across his stage and bashing into one another when O’Horgan was a harpist. Actors do what he demands —­ and perhaps more than they ima­gined themselves capable of — because he expects it. And because — like Henry in the play Papp has returned to more than any of Shakespeare’s other histo­ries — he is quick to reward loyalty. And to punish any flagging: “There are 60 guys in the ensem­ble — and they’re all damn lucky to be there — so if I see someone sitting on his ass behind me smok­ing a cigarette when other people are out there moving the tower, he’s through. That’s all.

“But there are, every year, one or two who emerge, who become leaders themselves. They’re a lit­tle hungrier than the others, maybe, but whatever it is, they must be supported. Right now, I guess I believe in individuality more than anything else, and I’m gonna respond to anyone who shows that kind of individual drive.

“It’s a critical time now — a per­fect time to be working with Henry V — because right now we’re going through a time of no leadership. I’m not a political director in any simplistic sense; ideology per se I find boring in life and boring in the theatre. Like with Jimmy Carter, there’s an unknown there, and it’s the unknown that interests me. The predictable is the worst thing on stage or in life. So I don’t find his smile negative; I find it,” he pauses, “interesting. I want to know what’s behind it, of course, but I already know that he’s a man who’s certain what he wants — and is prepared to go out and get it.”

He could, of course, be talking about himself. Eating dinner in a small Italian restaurant near the park, seeming to forget his striped bass while he gestures with a focused intensity, he is charming. He is also, I suspect, fully as calculating as the masquerading Henry V walking among his troops. One can never forget that Joe Papp is one of the two people to face down Robert Moses and get away with it. And that the other — Nelson Rockefeller — has a lot more going for him than any kid from Wil­liamsburg ever did. If ever a man was prepared to go out and get exactly what he wanted, it is Joe Papp. And so one wonders, as one does with Jimmy Carter, about the vision behind the smile.

So does Papp. On Henry, again: “For the six months before we started rehearsal this time, I immersed myself in history. I was trying to find the reasons why a small group of men could overwhelm a host 10 times their size. I know about the shape of the harbors, I know about the geogra­phy at Harfleur, I know how many people it took to maintain a siege, I know the accuracy of a long bow. I knew all about medieval arms, everything like that. But I still find the roots psychological. I know why Henry won and the French lost: A leaderless group can al­ways be defeated by a small number of men supported by their own self-assurance and faith in their leader.

“But the leader has to have faith in himself. And that’s why the most important scene in the play is when Michael Williams — and this is the first time in non-comic English theatre where you have common men with two names — questions the authenticity of the war. It’s a turning point because Henry­ — whose father stole the crown­ — needs to feel that his cause is pure. And there he is, on the eve of the most important battle in his life, and he thinks he’s doing pretty well, and there’s this one son of a bitch questioning everything. All of a sudden, he’s got to ask himself, ‘Must you be pure? Do you have to be impeccable?’ ”

That question is one that Papp is struggling to answer for himself. Sometimes, as when he defends his Broadway adventure by arguing that it was the only way for his playwrights to make real money, the attempt seems a contrived rationalization for his own ambi­tion. At others, he seems genuinely striving for a kind of purity rare in the theatre. Or anywhere.

Certainly Papp’s energies and fiscal razzle-dazzle are a key ele­ment in New York’s fantastic explosion of minority theatre. Woodie King, whose New Federal Theatre has consistently developed new black and Puerto Rican playwrights and actors, is only one beneficiary of the Papp largess: “When we did Colored Girls at the Federal, it cost us about $8,000; Joe put up half of that. Right now, it’s at the Public, making a little money for the first time, and we’re getting half of those profits to put back into other new productions. And when it goes to Broadway in the fall, we’ll still have a piece of it. But it’s not just that he’s abso­lutely fair as far as money goes —­ though that’s rare enough, right — ­it’s that he had the guts to go with that play from the beginning. He’s a leader, not a follower. Even if Colored Girls hadn’t been a success, it would always be a bench mark for any play that really was built on poetry. And he was eager to be out there with it.”

That sort of putting one’s money where one’s ideals are has long been a mark of Papp’s operation, but it paradoxically grows more difficult as there is more money to spread around. It’s a long way from the basement of the ghetto church to the marble excesses of Lincoln Center, and the sheer size of the operation becomes overwhelming. Suddenly, there is just too much to keep track of, and bureaucracy perforce replaces personality. With the routinization of charisma, the obsessive search for quality quietly ends. “Inspired brilliance of efficiency” becomes, as it did for Henry V, meaningless.

Papp knows that — he is tormented by it. “I need,” he said, “a course of action to believe in.” But as he left the restaurant, he began to walk faster. “It will take me,” he said as he crossed the street against the light, “exactly seven minutes to get back to the theatre from here. And rehearsal is set to start up again in five.” By the time he reached the edge of the park, he was running. Still.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 25, 2020

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