On the Sins of the Group Theatre

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Oddly, I received a review copy of a 23 year old book in the mail a few days ago. Vintage Books has just released a new edition of Wendy Smith’s 1990 Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America 1931-1940.

The timing of the book’s original publication is funny. At around the time it first came out, I was researching the same topic for communications guru Lilyan Wilder, who for some reason wanted to work up a proposal for a national African American theatre, which she intended to present to Oprah Winfrey. (Why me? I needed the work. Why Lilyan? I wasn’t about to ask—see previous answer. Why Oprah? She used to be one of Lilyan’s clients)  At any rate, as the model for the proposed theatre, she wanted me to use the Group Theatre, and so I read and re-read her copy of Harold Clurman’s 1946 classic The Fervent Years, which covers the same events of Smith’s book, and came to know the book thoroughly. (Here’s an irony for ya—-I learned from Smith’s book that the Group Theatre was essentially segregated. The handful of African American members were not allowed to participate fully in Group activities.)

At any rate, knowing The Fervent Years so thoroughly the value of Smith’s book was clear to me from start to finish. Objective and exhaustively researched, now we get the whole story, from the years leading up to the official launch of the theatre (there were several years of gestation), to the Groups’ long, long reach today.

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A little surprisingly, Clurman’s account seemed a little self-effacing to me. He was never a shrinking violet, yet his claims for the Group and himself seem to undersell their historic importance. A pall of failure hangs over his book. On the other hand, the extent of the Group’s legacy wasn’t yet known. Even if he had known (and later when he did know) the accounts would be colored by the usual internecine jealousies that always taint first person testimony, and seem ironically endemic to the Group. Clurman was their prophet but the longest shadows were to be cast by Elia Kazan and Clifford Odets (both of whom he seems to downplay in The Fervent Years), and by the teaching actor/ acting teachers Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, and Bobby Lewis (whom collectively taught most of the important American stage and screen actors from the late 40s through the 1970s: Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, the late lamented Julie Harris and literally hundreds of others — practically everybody.) Clurman, by all accounts, directed many great stage productions after the Group broke up, but the bulk of his tangible post-Group legacy today seems to rest in his 30 years of criticism for The New Republic and The Nation (friend Ian W. Hill was part of the editorial team of the edition that Applause Books put out many years ago). At any rate, (again ironically) Smith helps us to see Clurman’s importance also in a way that he never would have been able to communicate on his own behalf.

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At any rate, Smith’s book is definitive, indispensable to any student of American theatre history.

Now for the heresies.

Quite frankly, this Method bunch has always given me the willies. As will be no surprise to readers of my books or this blog, I am a fan of the star system, free enterprise, and the vaudeville aesthetic (with qualifications). But the Group was about 1) collectivism, 2) communism and 3) “truth”. I’ll demolish each of those idols in turn below.  But we all have our own spokes to occupy on the historical wheel. It is worthwhile learning about the Group’s origins and how they fit into the larger scheme of theatre history.

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The germ of course lies with Russian actor, director, teacher and theorist Konstantin Stanislavski (1863-1938), who is kind of the Newton of “truthful” acting in the theatre.  There had been a drive towards this goal in the theatre of Western Europe for centuries and a tradition of it in Russia since the early 19th century. It was Stanislavski who purposefully investigated how to achieve certain effects, systematized his findings, implemented them in productions, and taught them to acting students. The Moscow Art Theatre, which he co-founded in 1898, became legendary for its revolutionary acting style and is still going strong today. Stanislavski also wrote the highly influential books An Actor Prepares, An Actor’s Work on a Role and My Life in the Theatre. When I graduated from high school my aunt gave me a copy of An Actor Prepares, and that was my first exposure to his ideas. I don’t think I have ever been to an actor friend’s house without seeing it on their shelves. This is without a doubt due to the influence of the people who founded the Group Theatre.

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Yet they weren’t the only bearers of the new gospel. One of the first of the Stanislavksi-trained actors to make an impact in the U.S. was Alla Nazimova, who moved here in 1905 and was important not just on the legit stage, but also vaudeville and silent film (for much more on her see my post here).

Meantime, there was a homegrown development in several American cities in the mid-teens known as the Little Theatre Movement, which sprang up in reaction to the formulaic melodrama and big budget stage productions (which discouraged experimentation) which then reigned in American theatres, just as modernism was even then making a huge impact in fine arts and music. At this time were founded the Provincetown Players, which fostered the work of Eugene O’Neill, and the Washington Square Players, which evolved into the Theatre Guild.

It was while working at the Theatre Guild in the mid-twenties that three of its employees met and hatched the scheme for what became the Group Theatre:  actor Lee Strasberg, playreader and sometime actor Harold Clurman, and casting director (and aspiring director) Cheryl Crawford. All had been bitten by the Stanislavski bug. Clurman had been wowed by the Moscow Art Theatre when he saw them perform in Paris in 1922; Strasberg had seen them on their American tour in 1923. Both men then took classes from Stanislavski alum at the American Laboratory Theatre in the mid 20s.

The ALT had been founded in 1923 by Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya. Fans of old Hollywood films know Maria Ouspenskaya from many classic movies of the 30s and 40s. Among many other memorable roles, she played the old gypsy woman in the Universal Horror classic The Wolf Man (1940). (The timing of the arrival of Boleslavsky and Ouspenskaya.in the U.S. is significant; they came here fleeing the Russian Revolution. The obvious lesson of that fact – that the Russian Revolution would be something that people would want to flee — would be somehow lost on an unaccountable number of their acting students).

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At any rate, by 1930 the Depression had hit and people were flipping out. Many fell prey to Soviet propaganda and decided that the U.S.S.R. held answers for what ailed America. Strasberg’s and Clurman’s families were from Eastern Europe, as were those of many of the other members of what would become the Group; they could perhaps be forgiven for looking Eastward with both pride and rose-colored glasses for inspiration in those days. The two men and Crawford began to have a number of private conversations about the need for a theatre that would solve not only their aesthetic dissatisfaction with the mainstream theatrical product of their day, but would also speak to people’s political, social and economic concerns, and also fill a certain perceived spiritual void. Sound like a tall order? Yup.

At Crawford’s suggestion Clurman began giving weekly public talks to invited audiences of theatre professionals. By all reports these were inspirational, almost evangelical harangues designed to incite the listeners to take action. Such rabble rousing was in vogue in those days, no doubt helped along by the presence of radio in everyone’s lives. Everyone from preachers like Father Divine, Father Coughlin and Aimee Semple McPherson, to American politicians like Huey Long, to European ones like Mussolini and Hitler all specialized in working audiences into a frenzy.  The key ingredient, the Aphrodesiac in every case is passion. Clurman apparently held his audiences spellbound, babbling at them with the fury of a Jeremiah, and this was the magnet that drew people into what was to become the Group Theatre. When I read quotes from these speeches, indeed when I read just about any quote on any subject from Clurman, I am always at a loss to discover the compelling CONTENT in his diatribe, or any content at all. He expressed himself with an infuriating vagueness reminiscent of German mysticism, using a plethora of phrases to say almost nothing. To exaggerate only slightly, he always seemed to be saying  stuff like “We believe that we want to build a theatre that is the kind of theatre that expresses something about the kind of theatre that we want to build, that expresses the kind of theatre that we believe in!” If history has shown us anything, it’s that if you’re red enough in the face (no pun intended) when you say stuff like that, people will follow you anywhere. Clurman himself didn’t know what he meant or what he believed in. For a time it seemed to be communism, until he learned that it wasn’t.

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So he got a bunch of people on board (about 30 initially), some of them people who were quite important on the stage in their day. Stella and Luther Adler were the children of Yiddish theatre star Jacob Adler. Morris Carnovksy was also a big deal in the Yiddish theatre and on Broadway. Jules “John” Garfield and Franchot Tone went on to movie stardom; movie stars who came into the fold included Frances Farmer and Sylvia Sydney. Minor members who went onto bigger things included Lee. J. Cobb, Martin Ritt and Harry Morgan. Not to mention the aforementioned Kazan, Odets, Meisner, Lewis and many others. In addition to giving us Odets, the Group also sponsored original plays by John Howard Lawson, Sidney Kingsley, Irwin Shaw, Paul Green, Dawn Powell and others, as well as scenic art by Mordecai Gorelik and music by Kurt Weill.

Before launching their own theatre they first had a dry run trying to run an experimental studio at the Theatre Guild. One of their productions there was a Soviet play called Red Rust. Need I say more? They inevitably came into conflict with the board of the Theatre Guild (whom they deemed too conservative) and went off on their own.

Acting Teacher and Actor Lee Strasberg, 1956

Despite Clurman’s role as cheerleader, the early years of the Group were dominated by Strasberg, who played the important role of making an army out of them, breaking down their previous working methods and indoctrinating them in his version of Stanislavski’s system. Those familiar with the history of the Actor’s Studio already know about Strasberg’s infamous philosophy and working methods, terrorizing actors, harassing them, forcing them into dicey psychological territory in the name of reaching “affective memory”. The techniques have always struck me as creepy and cult-like, with results akin to psychological pornography. According to Smith, Strasberg was a weirdo who wouldn’t allow himself to be touched by other people (some actor!) and to avoid confrontations he would hide behind a newspaper (again I say, some actor!)  Still he built an effective company, one in which everyone was on the same aesthetic and philosophical page (in true cult fashion) and this sustained the core group for over a decade. Strasberg also directed most of the Group’s early productions, from their first production The House of Connelly (1931, by Paul Green, a modest hit) through the notorious flop Gold Eagle Guy (1934, by Melvin Levy).

Early on, Strasberg and the company seemed to have a tin ear for play development; they were positively obtuse in this area. They rejected Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset (Clurman thought Anderson shouldn’t write in verse). Another version has it, that Anderson wanted Burgess Meredith to play the lead (as he eventually did) but Meredith balked when the Group directors asked him if he would agree to “love the Group more than himself”, to which Meredith, like any sane and normal person, would not assent. Winterset  went on to win Best Play from New York Drama Critic’s Circle in 1935 and to run 195 performances – without the Group.

Likewise, nearly everyone in the Group belittled Sidney Kingsley’s Pulitzer Prize winning Men in White (1933), their first and (really only) early hit. The play actually kept the company afloat for several months. But Kingsley was so offended by their slights that he did not bring them his next hit play Dead End, which wound up playing for two years, again, with another producer.

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Meanwhile, the company had fostered the talent of one of the greatest American playwrights of the 20th century, Clifford Odets, and ignored him, refused to do his plays. Strasberg was especially dismissive but Clurman, though supportive of Odets, would not go to bat for him either. Then two things happened to shift the dynamics. First, there was a coup of sorts, and Strasberg was unseated from his position of dominance over the company. Heretofore, he’d commanded the actors with a near-dictatorial control, but no one was making good business decisions for the company. In 1934, the actors rebelled, and Strasberg’s influence was greatly diminished. He directed a couple of more important productions for the company in 1936 (The Case of Clyde Griffiths, Erwin Piscator’s adaptation of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy; and Johnny Jones, a musical by Paul Green and Kurt Weill), then resigned from the company in 1937.

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The other tectonic shift was that in late 1934 Odets’ play Waiting for Lefty had a premiere at another theatre and became a national sensation (this after YEARS of begging and pleading with the Group to produce his plays). Now the power belonged to Odets (and Clurman as his director, as well as the company’s director).  The Group proceeded to produce their own version of Waiting for Lefty (1935) as well as Till the Day I Die (1935), Awake and Sing! (1935), Paradise Lost (1935), Golden Boy (1937), Rocket to the Moon (1938) and Night Music (1940).

Odets’ plays were now performed all over the country and he began to work as a Hollywood screenwriter and married the movie star Louise Rainier. He now became in some respects the sole lifeblood of the theatre, bringing in Hollywood money and talent, and writing plays for the Group that paid their own way. But this success also brought in new tensions. The original idea had been an ensemble, where everyone put the needs of the Group ahead of themselves. On occasions too numerous to count, members had turned down more lucrative work elsewhere in order to remain available to the Group. Now that was sort of out the window. First Tone (who married Joan Crawford), then Odets, then John Garfield, and for awhile even Clurman “went Hollywood”. By 1940, the Group was functioning just like any other Broadway producing organization, and having abandoned its ideals, decided to call it a day.

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Clurman went on to direct one Hollywood movie, the fairly inept Deadline at Dawn (1946, written by Odets) and some important plays on Broadway, including the original productions of The Member of the Wedding (1950), The Autumn Garden (1951), Bus Stop (1955), Orpheus Descending (1957), A Touch of the Poet (1958), and Incident at Vichy (1964). Apparently terrible at play development during his early phase, he picked a fair amount of winners during his autumn years.

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Elia Kazan fared far better, directing the original stage productions of All My Sons (1947) A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Death of a Salesman (1949), Camino Reale (1953), Tea and Sympathy (1953), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), and Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), along with the classic films A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947), Panic in the Streets (1950), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), East of Eden (1955), Baby Doll (1956), A Face in the Crowd (1957), Splendor in the Grass (1961) and many others.

Odets went on to write Clash by Night (1941), the Hollywood movie None But the Lonely Heart (1944, which he also directed), The Big Knife (1949), The Country Girl (1950), The Flowering Peach (1954) and the screenplay for The Sweet Smell of Success (1957), among many others.

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In 1946, Kazan, Crawford and Lewis founded the Actor’s Studio, which Lee Strasberg grabbed the reigns of in 1951, turning out all those alumni we named above.  In addition, Crawford became a very important Broadway producer, producing literally scores of hit shows – too many to name here, look it up on IBDB. Yet with the Group Theatre, she was seldom allowed to direct anything and was stuck doing a lot of the grunt work of management (notably fundraising, which she indeed excelled at).

Do you know what my takeaway from this story is? Three things:

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1.) COLLECTIVISM SUCKS.

Without a doubt, idealism is a precondition for making great art. Aesthetic idealism, that is. But the Group Theatre were also political and organizational idealists. They not only wanted to make great art but they wanted to make it as a Utopian community, like some modern variant on Brook Farm. One can see the appeal. But do you know what happened to Brook Farm?

Don’t get me wrong. I love the idea of a COMPANY, i.e., repertory company, where the same group of people cooperates and performs together from play to play as an ensemble. 19th century stock companies were like that. The Mercury Theatre? That’s my dream. But a COLLECTIVE, where everyone has equal say, and nothing proceeds unless all are in agreement, is quite another idea. Organizationally it has never NOT been a disastrous way to attempt to run things. The expectation in a collective is to throw out everything humanity has learned about anthropology, sociology, psychology, sexuality and political organization, and to attempt to govern according to an abstraction, an aspiration dependent upon saintly behavior.  In real life people jostle for position, advantage, power, shekels and poontang. They just do. You can either devise a structure that acknowledges that fact and works with it, or you can attempt to put a straight-jacket on human nature and see how it works out. It doesn’t. It never has.

Also, any functional assembly of people gathered together to realize a common goal needs a leader, and division of labor. There can be different styles of leadership ranging from unilateral to inclusive but ultimately someone at the top needs to make “executive decisions” and marshal the others to help get the job done. None of the three directors of the group were actually willing to do the work required to be a leader. They all wanted to be artists. Strasberg was an autocratic artistic leader, but that didn’t help the COMPANY (as a business) any. And then the company rebelled and really no one was willing to lead them. Clurman, reluctantly, eventually did, or attempted to. The necessary steps he implemented in order to save the company meant abandoning the principle of collectivism.

To give them their due they accomplished amazing things. I hasten to point out that the Group Theatre weren’t producing low-budget, “downtown” theatre. They produced Broadway Shows in Broadway houses. Two dozen essentially non-commercial Broadway shows on Broadway budgets. But they built no organization. They couldn’t sustain themselves because (ironically) they employed the same show-by-show approach used by commercial Broadway producers and they burdened themselves with having to pay the performers when they were laid off as well as when they were working. There is a reason why some businesses do well. They are run like businesses. And if you are employing people to make a product, and then selling the product for money, then (at least on that level) you are a business. If a theatre is to survive, there is no other way to run it than like a business.

And at the level of art? You want to run the artistic end as a collective, too? Blecch!  Putting the needs of “the company” above the needs of the individual, as the three directors tried to get Burgess Meredith to sign off on? Sounds oppressive to me, stifling, suffocating. “There is no ‘I’ in ‘team’,” you say? Oh yeah? How about an “F” and a “U”? Cuz that’s how I’m spelling any team (an idea) that puts itself ahead of its members (flesh and blood reality). You want to subsume your identity, merge yourself into a group? The very thought makes me want to scream in terror.   Lord God in Heaven, please deliver me from “the Group”, “the Herd”, “the Hive”, “the Collective” and “the Team”. As an artist I say what I’ve got to say because I feel that I have to say it, and hopefully there is something truly unique about the fashion in which I say it. I have no idea how to say what “we” have to say, nor any desire to do so.

Not only is individualistic art the kind I like to make, it’s the kind I like to experience. I don’t want a theatre made up of a collective of anonymous well-trained puppet people. I want Bert Lahr. I prefer personalities. Trained or untrained. Honest and true or as phony as a three dollar bill. I have no interest in a theatre collective. Give me a Theatre of Personality. This, my friends is why dogs and babies always steal scenes on stage. The theatrical spectacle is not simply a function of What You Do (the action), it is also a function of Who You Are (the actor). The latter is just something you’re born with. Personality. It is the very lifeblood of vaudeville and Broadway, and community theatre (which ought to get far more respect than it does) as well. And the Personality who sells the most tickets, makes the most money. You know what I call that? FAIRNESS.

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2.)  COMMUNISM IS THE BLOODIEST FORM OF GOVERNMENT IN THE HISTORY OF MANKIND, WHICH RESULTED IN THE DEATHS OF AN ESTIMATED 100 MILLION PEOPLE

Why is that a lesson to be drawn from a book about the Group Theatre ? Because in my view it needs to be the bottom-line take away from ANY conversation touching on communism.  In my (non-existent) history course the word “communism” would never be uttered without the accompanying phrase, “the bloodiest form of government in the history of mankind, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 100 million people. ” Whenever I see a college kid in a Che Guevera tee shirt (or worse a middle aged person in one), I want to say “Cool! So you dig that hero of communism, the bloodiest form of government in the history of mankind, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 100 million people?” Because somehow this basic historical fact of the 20th century never seems to get through to people. Because of the lie that it was acting in the best interests of the people at the bottom of the social ladder, it gets a pass on murdering THREE TIMES the number of people as were killed by the various forms of Fascism, which made the tactical error of wearing their evil motives on their sleeve (quite literally, come to think of it).

Did it suck that the U.S. Congress and others in government harassed some Americans for their political beliefs and (worse) their former political beliefs in the 1940s and 50s? Did it suck that some people curried favor to save their own careers and that others went to jail, lost careers? Yep. You know what sucks even more? THE BLOODIEST FORM OF GOVERNMENT IN THE HISTORY OF MANKIND, WHICH RESULTED IN THE DEATHS OF AN ESTIMATED 100 MILLION PEOPLE. This doesn’t include, by the way, the misery index of the hundreds of millions who have lived in tyranny under communist rule. All told, the historical record of communism is perhaps about, oh, a BILLION times worse in scale than the official intolerance in the U.S. for the handful of people who sought to to bring that awful system HERE.

Two wrongs don’t make a right. In America we don’t believe in putting people in jail for their beliefs. I am down for that. Put my name on the petition of protest. But don’t expect me to find it cute or quaint or lovable or touching or  a “phase” or a “fad” or a “fashion” that certain people carried water for the second most bloodthirsty regime in human history. (The U.S.S.R. turns out to be a distant second in body count to Communist China.)

There was actually a communist cell in the Group Theatre with seven members, which actually reported on the doings of the Group back to the CP, in case their activities were not acceptable enough for Moscow. Through an entire decade of Stalin’s purges, political persecutions, forced resettlements, mass violations of human rights, etc etc, there was apparently no disillusionment or disenchantment from Group members until the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact in 1939. Until then, all the totalitarianism was just fine! Smith writes about how sad everyone in the Group was when their hero Stalin made his pact with Hitler. “He must have had a very good reason [for doing so]!” one of them bawled. Excuse me, while I throw up. You cannot forcibly redistribute income without gross violation of human rights. Period, end of story. There is only one appropriate emotion to associate with people who were part of the p.r. wing of the world’s largest human abattoir: shame.

Apologists say it was natural for many of those in the Groups’ generation to question the American system when the Depression hit. However, I can’t help noticing that the instant opportunities arose (as will happen where free enterprise is allowed to flourish), most of the members of the Group Theatre made what piles of money they could in the most commercial, capitalist industry on earth, and did so with scarcely a word of apology for their ingratitude, poor judgment, and disloyalty. You might draw the lesson, “How sad, they were corrupted and lost their ideals!” I draw the lesson that free enterprise won the argument of history. This country is so free it even rewards the bubble-heads who hate it.

And how ironic — the Method technique in time became not the preferred voice of experimental or radical theatre. It became the official aesthetic of the purely commercial storytelling perpetrated by Hollywood. When the stories of capitalism are told, they look and sound like the Method.

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3.) YOU CAN GO AHEAD AND SHOVE YOUR “TRUTH”!

I’m not talking about out there in the world where we need it, but in the one place where it doesn’t belong: the theatre, which is by definition, a lie. (Read your Oscar Wilde). I understand the reasons for the genesis of Stanislavski’s system, and why several generations initially embraced it. The theatre back in the day was dominated by the conventions of melodrama, which certain smart people hated and called phony. But they had their spoke of the wheel, I have mine. I’ve grown up in a world in which psychological REALISM is the default, and I am just as bored with it as they were with melodrama. The System or the Method may well be the best approaches for producing the illusion of truth in the theatre, but I vigorously dispute that this kind of truth is or should be the theatre’s principal aim.  I WANT the conventions and the style of melodrama. I want size, artifice, costume, mask, greasepaint, gesture, clowning, spectacle, magic tricks, theatricality. Give me the vaudeville aesthetic. The overriding concern is not that I believe you but that I pay attention to you. You’ll have a good job convincing me how “real” you’re being if I’m so bored by your performance and your production that I’m dreaming about the television program I could be watching instead…the television program with which you’re unsuccessfully trying to compete with your lacklustre tactic of realism. 

Here’s a hugely major historical point that Smith missed in her book. The Group Theater came into being at the precise historical moment as talkies did. At the time, no one even knew if live theatre would soon be obsolete. After all, we can watch talking plays in the cinema now! The method etc can be seen as a strategy for revitalizing theatre at that time, as a means for outdoing Hollywood. But that was then. This is now. The Monkees said that.

Okay, I’m all out of gas. I’ve been working on this friggin’ post for two days straight

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