Theatre yesterday and today



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September 21, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler

“I disapprove of much, but I enjoy almost everything.”

So said Harold Clurman, the “author, teacher, lecturer, commentator and conversationalist,” as the New York Times wrote about him in a 1979 article published to mark a significant occasion in his life and career: the opening of an off-Broadway theatre on West 42nd Street bearing his name. Such was his influence, that when it was eventually torn down a few years later to make way for a collective of theatres that were bigger and better, the name stayed intact. Unfortunately, this past year, just before the pandemic shutdown, it was decided that all the theatres in this complex, including the Clurman, were to be changed to that of mere letters. Theatre A and B and so on… a sad state of affairs. Surely, had Clurman lived to see such a a downgrade, he would have had something stinging to say about it.

Harold Clurman (1901–1980).

For this Renaissance man was the very definition of the “artist as activist,” renowned for an intellect and curiosity that afforded him the chance to helm the original productions of such game-changing playwrights as Clifford Odets, William Inge and Tennessee Williams, with their respective plays, Awake and Sing, Bus Stop and Orpheus Descending. In 1989 documentary, lovingly produced nine years after his death, the opening lines are as fine a description of what he was all about as any: “In the history of every art form there are certain key figures who might be called “generators.” Those who do not simply produce work, but who, by their presence and enthusiasm and passion, cause important work to get done. In the American popular theatre, Harold Clurman was such a generator.”

The Group Theatre cast of Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing (1935); John Garfield (standing),

and seated from l to r: Morris Carnovsky, Art Smith, Stella Adler and Phoebe Brand.

Harold Edgar Clurman was born on September 18, 1901 on the Lower East side to Eastern European Jewish immigrants, his theatrical yearnings began as early as the age of six when he was taken by his parents to the Yiddish theatre. As the story goes, young Harold was captivated, even though he didn’t speak the language. A fine student, he attended college at Columbia, then left at its mid-point to study abroad at the University of Paris, where his roommate was another Jewish genius, the composer Aaron Copland, with whom he remained a lifelong friend. While in Europe, he was introduced to the pioneering work of the Moscow Art Theatre, and when he returned to America, he was determined to find a place in the theatre, not fully knowing what that would be.

Beginning as an actor, then as a stage manager and play reader, his passion for writers and writing led him to the director’s chair. With opportune timing, he became one of the founders of the Group Theatre, alongside Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg. In tandem, they brought their own style of revolution to the theatre of the 1930s at a time when audiences were more content to watch some frivolity in order to take their minds off the Great Depression. Yet somehow the Group forced people to sit up and take notice with works that entertained as well as informed. He once said about this specific time in his life: “My fanaticism kept it going. They call it arrogance. I call it conviction. You have to have a moral force, intuition and knowledge.”

Audiences were especially thrilled by the new breed of actors the Group brought forth — all relative newcomers to the stage. And though names such as Stella Adler, Luther Adler, Morris Carnovsky, Lee J. Cobb, Frances Farmer, John Garfield, Elia Kazan, Robert Lewis and Sanford Meisner may be unfamiliar to young people starting out in the theatre today, they were wildly influential back then. The sea change that came over the theatre in the 1940s and early 50s, gestated actors like Marlon Brando, James Dean and Paul Newman, all of whom studied under members of the Group Theatre. This entire era of actors and theatre bore the stamp of Crawford, Strasberg and Clurman, either for good or ill, depending on which biographies you read.

The youthful triumvirate of Cheryl Crawford, Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman that formed the Group Theatre. All would be involved later (in one way or another), with its progenitor, the Actors Studio.

Sadly, it was infighting that brought an end to the Group Theatre, coupled with the financial difficulties of producing more than a few plays that no one wanted to see, in spite of their daring and star power. Many of its actors fled to Hollywood to earn better salaries — and who could blame them? But nothing stopped Clurman from his personal agenda and, due to his successes with the Group, he became a much in-demand director and a favorite of a new generation of intellectual playwrights. Funnily enough, it was Clurman’s own intelligence that often got the better of him. In rehearsals, he was prone to wax rhapso