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Monday, January 4, 2010


“FREE for ALL – Joe Papp, The Public, and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told” by Kenneth Turan & Joseph Papp

First off, let me say you save almost 15 bucks from the cover price buying this book at Amazon (and free shipping to boot). No kickbacks or anything, just stating the facts.

The NY Times covered the history of this book. I don’t know how much Kenneth Turan “rewrote” (read “edited”) it since Joe said it would never be published; probably quite a bit to get Gail Merrifield Papp’s permission to finally go ahead. Whatever he did, I’m grateful that this book exists. It was my escape from Christmas morning onward, and that’s the least of it.

The book is an oral history and the best of that genre I’ve ever read. It might not be a page turner for everyone but it certainly was for me. Perhaps that’s due to my knowing several of the cast of characters to varying degrees. Perhaps it’s due to the admiration for Joe Papp that I had – even though he never produced one of my plays. (He did send a handsome check for the production when I was doing “Monster Time”.) Most likely it’s because this book chronicles the end of an era. It’s about Joe Papp, and he was an era unto himself. The Papp era was the last time an institutional theater in America was run by a dyed in the wool democratic socialist. It was also the last time institutional theater in America concerned itself with genuine change, for everyone – change that wasn’t grounded in pie in the sky, brain deadening, positive thinking or Washington politics.

It was amazing to me to read this book and realize how far astray “the theater” has gone since Joe Papp was around. If you don’t agree with that statement, please explain how an MBA is the “artistic director” of the Roundabout – a greed machine with only occasional bursts of art that happen in spite of safe choices made to keep their subscribers and moneyed patrons happy, feathers unruffled. Joe Papp was all about ruffling feathers.

Upon reflection provoked by reading this unforgettable book, I’ve come to the conclusion that Papp’s greatest gift to New York was the free Shakespeare in the park; and his gift to the world was his discovery of some of the finest of our actors. Make no mistake, Papp also gave rise to some important playwrights. When it came to new plays, as this book reveals, he was all about the process – as he defined it. However, I wonder if some of the playwrights who came out of this process would have gone anywhere – would have been recognized as playwrights at all – if they hadn’t connected with Joe on a visceral level.

But maybe that’s sour grapes on my part. One thing is certain, though: the Public, under Papp, was a vital place where the art of theater was preeminent. Money was a necessary evil. Imagine a producer today, let alone the greatest producer of the time, saying “I don’t want anyone to ever be able to say I did this for money.”

The historic context of Joe Papp is covered in this oral history to a good degree. However, his last years were the Reagan-Bush era. Money became society’s sole yardstick. America became a sick place weakened by greed and Wall Street and corporate fancy pants executives being held up by the NY Times and the rest of the MSM as exemplars of human behavior – while they ground the country down in search of ever greater profits and stock prices.

For a few, too-short hours over the holidaze, I was able to recall a better time. It was a time when theater was about art, and change, and challenge, as much as it was about entertainment. It was a time before universities across this country chose to cheat families of tens of thousands of dollars by promising young people a “theater education” that would give them a “career” – the great Ponzi scheme of stoking unrealistic dreams, taking tuition money without so much as an audition. It was a time before institutional theaters thought to pay their administrators well while extracting a pound of flesh from playwrights, by way of a demand for everlasting percentages of earnings. It was a time when American theater was exciting and vibrant and seething with ideas. It was a time when a truly great impresario lived and breathed for the theater. It was the time of Joe Papp.

Read this book!


  1. Papp was a character. I have been affected by crossing paths with him, if only in the lobby of the Public during a performance. The biography PAPP was a good read as well.

  2. Thanks, Kevin. I'll have to check out that book, too.

  3. Nice to be reminded of Papp again -- definitely someone whose integrity and vision shaped the theatre, at least in NYC.

  4. Hah! Good to see you on my side of the rainbow, Scott!