September 18, 2017: 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 W 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, no one dared attempt to steal the honor away from its namesake. A new playhouse now lays claim to being called the Harold Clurman, which is right and just. 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.
On this, Clurman’s 116th birthday, we should be reminded of his contributions to the American theatre, of which he was a vital part during the mid-twentieth century. Born in 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. And who could blame them? But 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, 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.
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 agenda, and due to his successes with the Group, became a much in demand director and a favorite of a new generation of intellectual playwrights. Funnily enough, it was Clurman’s own intellect that often got the better of him. In rehearsals, he was prone to wax rhapsodical at length on any given subject, and often sidetrack things to the point where he made playwrights and actors want to tear their hair out. But they loved him, as his passion knew no bounds. I can’t recall to whom the quote is attributed, but the best thing I ever heard said about him was “Harold Clurman should direct the first week’s rehearsal of every play, and then be sent home.”
In his prime, not only did Clurman have the Midas touch with those plays mentioned earlier, but he also steered Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy, Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet; Carson McCuller’s A Member of the Wedding; Arthur Laurents’s The Time of the Cuckoo; and two critically acclaimed plays he aided in adapting from their original French productions, Jean Giraudoux’s Tiger at the Gates and Jean Anouilh’s The Waltz of the Torreadors. Not to mention, Maxwell Anderson’s Truckline Cafe, which though only having had a short run, produced the first show that announced to the world that Marlon Brando was a force to be reckoned with. His performance brought him to the attention of the director Elia Kazan, who thought he would make the perfect Stanley Kowalski when it came time to casting A Streetcar Named Desire. The rest (as they say) is history.
In 1989, PBS’s American Masters series broadcast Harold Clurman: A Life of Theatre, which unfortunately has never been produced on DVD. I once owned a VHS tape of it, but it’s long disappeared. A Life of Theatre is the perfect subtitle. The theatre was Clurman’s life. A life well worth remembering.
As his friend Elia Kazan once said, “Harold’s greatest achievement is himself.”
If you enjoy these columns, I encourage you to purchase Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now available at Amazon.com. Please email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.