The Impresario

GARRY WILLS

November 06, 1991|By GARRY WILLS

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- In 1957 when I first went to New York with no money in my pocket, the first play I saw there was, of necessity, free -- ''Two Gentlemen of Verona,'' put on by a 36-year-old impresario who did little but put on free Shakespeare in those days.

Joseph Papp later became famous for blockbuster productions such as ''Hair'' and ''A Chorus Line,'' but he always kept his devotion to Shakespeare and to offering him free, every last one of the authentic plays. In future years I would see other Papp productions, including plays I am unlikely to find anywhere else, like the rarely performed ''King John.''

Mr. Papp was a swaggering New Yorker who spoke only Yiddish till he reached school age, but who fell in love with the rolling language and theatricality of Shakespeare. He was a good show in himself -- refusing to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee, fighting with the powerful park commissioner Robert Moses to keep his outdoor Shakespeare free, turning down National Endowment for the Arts money when that agency enacted repressive guidelines.

I saw him in his abrasive and grandiose mode one night in Washington. A group of people opposed to the Vietnam war had gathered to present the Congress with a petition for redress of legal grievance -- telling the Congress either to declare war or to cut off funds for an undeclared war.

We were debating how to present the petition. Some said our group should sit before the House chamber, refusing to leave until the House had acted on our petition. Mr. Papp and others said that would be futile -- the Capitol police would just come in and cart us away. Mr. Papp had nothing against theater, he told us, but futile gestures are bad theater.

He made the argument while an attendant scurried around him, bringing him messages, fetching him coffee. He looked like a caricature of a movie mogul. We all knew he had several shows running in New York, as usual, and that he liked to brood on each as if it were his sole concern. What we did not know is that he was scheduled to receive a major award from Gov. Nelson Rockefeller the next night, and could not accept it if he was locked up in the pokey of the District of Columbia. He never told us that. We read it later in the papers.

When, the next day, we were told by the Capitol police to leave the access way to the House chamber, Mr. Papp stayed with the rest of us. All that restless energy of his was caged during the night and he was arraigned later the next day, long after his award had been given in absentia. He was a bigger big shot than he had ever dreamed of being when he ran around the city streets as an immigrant's kid scrounging pennies, but he had not forgotten the basic values his parents taught him then.

New York theater lost a giant last week -- Broadway houses turned out their lights for a moment to signal that. But we all lost something. He was not just a great man of the theater. He was a great man.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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