How Papp Got It Right: Theatre's Lineage-Traced through Thespis, Aeschylus, Shakespeare and Joe Papp-Is Inextricably Linked to Democracy

By Eustis, Oskar | American Theatre, January 2007 | Go to article overview

How Papp Got It Right: Theatre's Lineage-Traced through Thespis, Aeschylus, Shakespeare and Joe Papp-Is Inextricably Linked to Democracy


Eustis, Oskar, American Theatre


I want to start with a story that is the founding myth of the institution I now lead, New York City's Public Theater. It's the story of Joseph Papp's struggle with Robert Moses. Moses was the most powerful man in New York City--one of the most powerful men in the country, in fact, during the 1950s, when the New York Shakespeare Festival was founded. He was commissioner of parks and chairman of the Triborough Bridge Authority. Nothing got built, nothing public happened in this city in the way of capital projects, without going through Moses. He's more responsible for the look and shape of New York City than any other individual.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Joe Papp, at that time, was a stage manager for CBS-TV and had as his hobby--his nighttime job, his passion, his vocation--the New York Shakespeare Festival. He started it in 1954 in a church on the Lower East Side, then moved to an amphitheatre on the Lower East Side, which is still there, though it's not used now as much as it should be. Then he started moving his productions around in the back of trucks to various parks, including Central Park. Moses decided that all of those people flocking to free theatre at Shakespeare in the Park were destroying the grass and were bad for the ecology of the parks. But he didn't try to stop Joe. What he tried to do was get Joe to charge admission. He thought Joe should charge money and that that money should be split with the parks department and the parks department would then use that money to replace the grass. Joe refused.

That refusal turned into a six-month struggle. Joe had a genius for publicity, and this ended up continually on the front page of the New York Times. Moses released to the press the fact that Joe had been a member of the Communist Party. Joe was fired from his job at CBS. Now Joe was fighting for his livelihood as well as for his principles--and, eventually, he won. The courts ruled that Moses had used his power capriciously and therefore Joe was entitled to continue to perform Shakespeare in the Park for free. He also, with the help of his union, went to court and forced CBS to give him his job back. The day he got it he quit and never worked for anybody else ever again. His vocation had become the full-time job that he would pursue for the rest of this life.

The founding myth, the Ur-story of the New York Shakespeare Festival, was born.

Joe was defending the principle that art belonged to everybody. It was a simple idea. The greatest artist of the Western canon, Shakespeare, was not the property of people who had money or of people who had education or of people who were born here. Shakespeare was the property of everybody, and it was the job of those who were going to make theatre to make sure that that cultural artifact, the plays of William Shakespeare, went out and became the property of all the people. It's an extraordinarily simple idea.

His model was the New York Public Library. (This story is a little bit apocryphal, but this is a storytelling business.) Joe would say that he taught himself English by going to the Brooklyn Public Library and taking out Shakespeare. He came from a Yiddish-speaking home and his parents were immigrants. That model of the public library was an essential idea for Joe and, indeed, in 1967 when the theatre's current home on Astor Place opened, that model was immortalized in its title--the Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival. That building, the home of the old Astor Library, was also where the New York Public Library started. When the library moved uptown, the building became the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, so it went from being the Public Library to being a place where tens of thousands of immigrants found shelter, help, education, a place to sleep, a soup kitchen. So the building has a history that dovetails with what Joe decided to do with it.

After 13 years of providing Shakespeare for the people, Papp realized that there was another side to his mission: He had to take the voices of the people and make them part of the canon. …

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