“Life isn’t printed on dollar bills!” --Clifford Odets, “Awake and Sing”
“Print the legend . “ --"The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”
First came the word--or rather the words of Harold Clurman, a 29-something-year-old play reader for the Theatre Guild with his own directorial ambitions. In manifesto-like lectures in concert halls and cafeterias and apartments, he messianically articulated a dream for actors:
“The individualism of self-assertion is self-destructive. . . . The individual can realize himself only by seeking his spiritual brethren and by making their common aspirations and problems the object of his active devotion. . . . If the theatre is in art . . . collective art though it be . . . it must create . . . an expression that will have . . . an identity and significance with which people, sharing the common experience, may sense their kinship and to which they can attach themselves.”
Guild co-workers Lee Strasberg, a young actor and director only too ready to translate Clurman’s ideological vision into workaday theater, and Cheryl Crawford, a seemingly calm, sensible, practical stage manager who also hoped someday to be a director, joined ranks alongside Clurman.
And on the rainy morning of June 8, 1931, 27 actors and actresses, their assorted spouses and children, joined the three founders in front of the Guild Theatre on West 52nd Street, boarded a caravan of old cars and drove out toward Danbury, Conn. Five miles from town they stopped at Brookfield Center, a vacated vacation resort consisting of a bleak barn, a dining hall in need of repair and enough assorted small cottages to house their motley crew. And in the next 10 weeks--with $4,800 raised from friends and sympathizers to cover their room and board--the legendary Group Theatre was launched.
Sixty years later, that first summer of the Group together as a collective unit is still recalled by its surviving members with the nostalgia of Castroites remembering the Sierra Mastre. Dreams were churning into reality. There were rehearsals for the Broadway production of “The House of Connelly,” a play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Green. Classes in affective memory--instructions and exercises on how to use the resources of one’s own emotional experiences as a basis for a character’s actions--were taught by Strasberg (“He was God that summer,” recalls Bobby Lewis). Afternoon lectures were delivered by Clurman on the need for actors to meld their lives as sensitive artists and socially conscious people into cohesive theatrical expressions: A good actor, he reiterated, was a good person serving the message of a good play.
And, of course, all was not play of the theatrical variety; there was also real play. Serious drinkers like Art Smith and Franchot Tone had huge stores of applejack under their beds; Morris Carnovsky, J. Edward Bromberg and Tony Kraber dabbled at chess; Clifford Odets chased after every actress (“He didn’t understand how any woman could refuse him,” according to Elia Kazan), and Clurman was slavish in his devotion to one particular woman, Stella Adler.
By summer’s end, Joe Bromberg had summed up the group’s mood: “None of us will ever be really satisfied anywhere else in the theater again.” Nor were they.
In the next few years, the Group spent more summers in the country and had its share of Broadway successes in the city. But it never solved two essential problems. The first was an organizational one: how to function as a true collective and cooperative. Only for a very brief period did its members receive anything like monthly pay checks, and when the money supply ran low, even these paychecks were not parceled out fairly.
The second unresolved problem that plagued the Group throughout its existence was a haphazard, scattershot, undemocratic and highly arbitrary method--or rather lack of method--in finding and choosing plays. (“You don’t seem to understand, Clifford,” Lee Strasberg told Odets in refusing to put on “Awake and Sing.” “We don’t like your play.”) Nor was it the Group itself that originally produced the signature work most identified with it--Odets’ “Waiting for Lefty"--but rather a moonlighting group within the Group that had hooked up with another theater collective.
In fact, Wendy Smith’s “Real Life Drama,” which actually seems to eschew most of the drama in order to present a sober and orderly accounting of the Group’s history, makes it abundantly clear that given not only the economic hardships of the period both within and without theater but also the cast of the curious characters of the Group leadership triumvirate, it was nothing short of miraculous that the Group ever managed to survive the decade.
Harold Clurman. A wonderful cheerleader, a brilliant and compulsive nonstop talker, but an insecure leader once the cheering stopped. He demanded the powers of an autocrat, yet could never act authoritatively. A sophisticate with a rakish boulevardier appearance and a gregarious cosmopolite, he was still like a lap dog to Stella Adler and too often torn between her demands and the Group’s needs.
Lee Strasberg. An austere autodidact who could perform the role of an artistic teacher brilliantly but could never learn the art of relating to people socially as equals. A Talmudist manque--or even a manque Old Testament God himself, given his terrifying rages--he would withdraw into his world of books at any moment of crisis. He was such a luft mensch , so far above and beyond materialist considerations, for example, that he once even walked away from an offer of a contribution of $50,000 when the Group was at its most desperately destitute.
Cheryl Crawford. A hard-working, determined woman who could not only respond quickly and affirmatively to offers of money but also could work well with playwrights, composers and players in achieving a creative collaboration. But the Group was essentially sexist and the fact that Crawford was a woman--never mind that she was a lesbian--denied her any real chance of asserting power. In her own autobiography, she would describe with irony, but not without accuracy, her chief function as “constantly introducing Harold and Lee to each other.”
There were sporadic attempts by the actors in the Group to seize more control, and they did achieve a say through the formation of an advisory Actors Committee in 1933 and through a push for further democratization in 1936, but not enough to stem the ineffectual drift of their leaders. At the same time, the actors were never quite up to tossing their directors overboard.
Thus, although formed as an antidote to the Broadway system of hit and flop, success and failure, that denied an actor continuity in his life, the Group actually became more and more part of the Broadway system, venturing offshore only in its summers in the country. And like any product of the Broadway system, it eventually ran out of money, making it, if one is to judge solely in Broadway show-biz terms, a failure.
But oh, what a failure it was! There has never been a more successful failure in the history of American theater, for the Group, whose existence (1931-1940) almost paralleled the decade itself, still represents what toilers in film and stage today like to remember best about the theater of the ‘30s: It was angry and it was scrappy, unafraid to attack rising political totalitarianism, yet still question unbridled and avaricious democratic capitalism; it was both street-smart and idealistic, believing in art and life with equal passion. Humanity, to anachronistically render the diction of its play-writing luminary Odets, was its bottom line.
Which makes the dark shadows cast by the less-than-exemplary subsequent behavior of Odets and Elia Kazan, its most celebrated directorial alums, all the more difficult to accept. During the enfeebled ‘50s--a time of Korea, the war that dare not speak its name, and McCarthy, the scourge that even the President feared to take on--both Odets and Kazan testified and informed on former Group colleagues as Communists, consigning them to the show-business hell of the blacklist so that they could continue to labor themselves. Historian Smith carefully points out that Communist membership within the Group was minor, and any influence they could have had upon a nebulous leadership would have been negligible.
Still, even with Odets relegated to a Shoeless Joe Jackson role, the legend of the Group itself endures. The teaching of Stella Adler, Robert Lewis, Lee Strasberg and Sandy Meisner; the directing not only of Kazan but also of Sidney Lumet; the playwrighting of both Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller; in effect, the basic style of contemporary American acting as exemplified by a multitude of performers such as Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Julie Harris, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Maureen Stapleton, Karl Malden, Eli Wallach--not to mention such institutional shadows as the Actors Studio, Joe Papp’s Shakespeare Festival, and the Lincoln Centre Theatre--all bear the gritty fingerprints of the Group Theatre.
Yet, I would suspect that perhaps the closest paradigm we have today of Clurman’s original dream for a group acting ensemble is the weekly gathering of a hit sit-com family to go over the new script. The players all are secure in their jobs, able to plot their own lives weeks and months and even years ahead. There is an easy camaraderie, the shared history and continuity that comes from working together over an extended period; the actors are as familiar with the inner lives of the characters they play as the director is accepting all their quirky talents and individual mannerisms. And, together, they all share in the same kindred purpose.
Only their goal as a group--higher rating shares and sweeps wins--is a little different from the Group’s.
Life is printed on dollar bills.
Print the legend.