Theatre yesterday and today



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No, not Kazan the dog. This guy:

Today marks the birthdate of Elia Kazan, probably the most influential American director of the twentieth century. Canny, charismatic and

controversial, the diverse list of plays and films he worked on run the gamut. He worked side by side with so many great writers that his influence on their work cannot be underestimated. Here's a sampling of just some of the authors with whom he collaborated in theatre and film (alphabetically, so as not to rate anyone's importance):

Robert Anderson (Tea and Sympathy)

James Baldwin (Blues for Mister Charlie)

S.N. Behrman (One Touch of Venus, Jacobowsky and the Colonel, But for Whom Charlie)

Moss Hart (Gentleman's Agreement)

William Inge (The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Splendor in the Grass)

Alan Jay Lerner (Love Life)

Archibald MacLeish (J.B.)

Arthur Miller (All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, After the Fall, Incident at Vichy)

Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront, A Face in the Crowd)

John Steinbeck (Viva Zapata!)

Kurt Weill (Love Life)

Thornton Wilder (The Skin of Our Teeth)

Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire, Camino Real, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth, Baby Doll)

I mean, come on! There is no director who even comes close to approaching such a prolific and wide-ranging set of stories.

Kazan was born in Turkey, the son of Greek immigrants. His father came to America, later sending for Kazan's mother and little brother when Kazan was just four years old. Small for his age, he was withdrawn as a child, but also very bright, graduating cum laude from Williams College, then going on to study Drama at Yale University for two years. He had success in the theatre as both an actor, and on a smaller scale as a director. When he created the title role in Clifford Odets's pro-labor drama Waiting for Lefty, Hollywood took notice and Kazan couldn't resist the lure of what the movies could do for him. Only the film roles the studios cast him in, ethnic tough guys for the most part, didn't fulfill his ambitions, which were mighty. Back in New York, he threw himself in with the Group Theatre of the early 1940s and in the spirit of its name, did whatever he could to help contribute, be it as actor or director.

When in 1942, Kazan staged Thornton Wilder's dense and complicated The Skin of our Teeth, he turned it into a visually arresting production, highly praised for the caliber of the performances he elicited from Tallulah Bankhead, Fredric March, Florence Eldridge and the twenty-two-year-old Montgomery Clift. After that, Kazan was on a tear, and practically all of the eight shows he staged show over the next seven years were hits up to, and including, 1949's Death of a Salesman. Hollywood came calling a second time, and somehow he managed to direct five films in those seven years, even winning the Academy Award for Gentleman's Agreement as Best Director. No one before him (or since) conquered both mediums with such velocity and intensity of production.