Bio seeks forces behind Papp's blows

September 13, 1994|By Richard Christiansen | Richard Christiansen,Chicago Tribune

When he was 14, Joseph Papp recalled many years later, he was badly beaten up, because he was Jewish, by a tough Irish kid named Whitey; and though Papp's father was standing nearby, he did nothing to defend his son, so fearsome was Whitey's attack.

That ego-shaking incident, according to Helen Epstein's big new biography, was the formative boyhood event of Papp's life. He learned two lessons, he said: "If you want to make an impact, you hit first, hard, and without any kind of feeling. Hit hard. That gives you an immense psychological advantage." Secondly, "I couldn't depend on anyone else to defend me: I had to learn to do it on my own. . . . "

At least one other key incident helped mold the guidelines of Papp's astounding career as an impresario of the arts in %J America. As a boy soprano soloist, he had traveled from Brooklyn with his father to the prosperous Ocean Parkway neighborhood in New York so that he could sing in a synagogue there. At the door, they were stopped by an usher who asked to see their admission tickets, a request for payment that the young soloist so angrily denied that the usher finally gave in and let the senior Papp in to hear his son sing, for free.

Throughout his life (1921-1991), Joe Papp never forgot the lessons he learned. When he founded the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1954, its core concept was that its performances would be free to the largest, broadest possible public.

He fought a monumental battle in the 1950s with the mighty Robert Moses, New York City parks commissioner, over the free admissions policy for the summer Shakespeare programming in Central Park.

Papp became a colossus without peer in the arena of the United States' not-for-profit arts. In his time, the New York Shakespeare Festival went from an annual budget near zero to $13.5 million; and it was consistently among the top-funded theaters in the country.

Papp himself went from an obscure CBS television stage manager accused of espousing communism to a force whose influence was felt from Broadway to every not-for-profit theater in the United States. Younger artistic directors, such as Robert Falls of Goodman Theatre, considered him a role model for his championing of contemporary drama, a vigorous American acting style, multicultural casting and social action.

He suffered some defeats, including his failed seasons at Lincoln Center in New York; but his producing record, which embraced dozens of Broadway and off-Broadway hits, also contained six Tony Awards and three Pulitzer Prizes, climaxing with the phenomenal success of "A Chorus Line."

In the process of becoming a ubiquitous and dominant personality, Joe Papp also acquired a reputation among former colleagues and contemporary critics as a raging egomaniac, eager to grab the glory for himself, and for whom the title of "Joseph Papp Presents" on a production was all important.

Indeed, Ms. Epstein suggests, one of the reasons Papp fired Bernard Gersten, his loyal, longtime friend and second-in-command, in 1958 was that Gersten had managed to spring a huge surprise birthday party for Papp without Papp knowing about it. As Mike Nichols, master of ceremonies for the party, said, "Joe doesn't do all this for money, he does it for sheer love of naked power."

Papp's critics get their turn to speak out in Ms. Epstein's book, but on the whole hers is a sympathetic study, the first of several Papp biographies to come. Though not exactly authorized, it was written with the help of his widow, Gail Merrifield Papp, who proposed the biography to Ms. Epstein and who, in Ms. Epstein's words, worked with her "as a consultant, primary resource, researcher, and all-purpose assistant."

Ms. Epstein, a Papp family friend and author of "Children of the Holocaust," also had unrestricted access to Papp's personal papers and the voluminous archive of the New York Shakespeare Festival, which contains everything from the very earliest scrapbooks to oral history interviews and Papp's daily appointment calendar.

The archive's documents are both fascinating and invaluable in charting Papp's ascendancy. The chapter on the Moses-Papp confrontation, for example, is greatly enriched by extensive quotation from the memos, letters and public statements issued by both sides as they engaged in their tug-of-war for power.

The biography's account of Papp's last months, spent trying to regather his strength and manage an orderly line of succession to his one-man rule of the Shakespeare Festival, is the book's most poignant segment: " 'My mind is teeming with ideas,' he had told Merrifield. . . . And, 'Do you love me?' And some time after that, 'Am I going to die?' "

A few minutes later, he was gone.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: Joe Papp: An American Life

Author: Helen Epstein

Publisher: Little, Brown

Length, price: 544 pages, $24.95

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