The Books: Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America 1931-1940, by Wendy Smith

Daily Book Excerpt: Theatre

Next book on the acting/theatre shelf is Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America 1931-1940, by Wendy Smith


The Group Theatre

I suppose it is clear what my theatrical background is. I am always shocked when I run into actors who have never heard of the Group Theatre. Don’t you know the history of your own profession? Talk to the most illiterate aspiring ballerina on the planet and she’ll be able to tell you about Anna Pavlova and Margot Fonteyn, I’ll tell you that.

Although many of the original Group Theatre members ended up either writing memoirs or acting books which drew heavily on their Group experiences in the 30s, Wendy Smith’s book is the first one to put it all in the same place. A history of the Group Theatre, it is, of course, a history of the time as well, the upheavals of the Great Depression, the strikes, the marches, the political activity, not to mention the theatre scene at the time, and how the Group Theatre was a revolution. At the time that Wendy Smith wrote the book, enough of the participants were still alive that they were there to be interviewed, which gives the book an immediacy it might otherwise lack. The book is full of personal anecdotes about the summer workshops, and the Stanislavski intensives, and the personality clashes of that vibrant and opinionated group of people – not to mention all of the different romances and the challenges of living a communal life when one is an adult. The Group really was that: a Group.

Although many eventually were drawn to the money Hollywood offered, they never forgot their roots, and John Garfield and Franchot Tone were always sending money back to help support Group productions. It was essential that the Group survive. After all, that was the kind of theatre they loved, that was what filled their spirits, souls. But … a man’s gotta eat, right? That commerce vs. art struggle (always paramount, for any artist) was especially so during that decade of breadlines, Socialist activism, and the obvious collapse of Capitalism. The Group began with many ideals, and, amazingly, kept those ideals until financial realities forced it to fold. But “commerce vs. art”, and the triumph of the dollar over the dignity of the individual, was an obsession for the Group (as well as for a lot of people at that time) – certainly Odets, whose plays developed by the Group often focused on the struggle of the individual to have a life of dignity, to not have its worth be printed on dollar bills.

The Group Theatre was formed by Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg, and Cheryl Crawford. They were already working professionals, but found a certain spirit lacking in the theatrical community of the day. There was a lot going on, there was the hugely successful Theatre Guild, and big stars, but it seemed that actors just went from job to job, without a sense of continuity, or community. Clurman and Strasberg had also been hugely impacted by a visit from the Moscow Art Theatre, as well as certain workshops held by Moscow Art Theatre people. What a way to work! What would it be like to develop a “group” of actors who all had the same process, who all worked the same way? Wouldn’t it be easier to work? Wouldn’t having a common vocabulary make things smoother? (Obviously, the answer is NO, but that was the general idea.) Clurman started holding late-night talks for actors, producers, writers – about the State of Theatre Today. He was hoping to inspire interest in his ideas, and also look for kindred spirits who might want to form this new kind of theatre ensemble with him. A hearty and enthusiastic group started to coalesce. Strasberg was in charge of the teaching aspect of it, running workshops on Stanislavski’s “System”. Cheryl Crawford was the business brains behind the whole thing. The Group began to look for new work, new plays that could somehow speak to the world in which they lived. It was 1930, 1931, remember. Tough tough times. They wanted plays that would reflect that.

It took some time for the Group to realize that they had a genius playwright (Odets) right in their midst! They resisted him at first, brushing him off, “Yeah, yeah, whatever … you’re a playwright … of course you are.” That was basically the response.

The first big hit that the Group had was a play called Men in White, a surprise hit, but which made a lot possible for them. It brought money into the coffers. Although many of them were Socialists (which meant something different back then, not the current right-wing Idiot’s definition), they still needed, you know, MONEY to make stuff happen. However, it just so happened that right around the time that the Group was starting to make a success for itself on Broadway, the world exploded in various revolutions and political upheaval, and it was impossible to stay out of the fray. There were union organization marches, and strikes across the land. The Spanish Civil War, in some respects, can be seen as the most important event of the 20th century, at least in terms of its long-term impact and what it actually meant. A lot of this would not become clear until much later, but the Spanish Civil War divided the world and then, divided it AGAIN, as the participants argued over what it all meant. (See George Orwell and many others). The Group, formed in a time of great strife and struggle, found itself inexorably drawn into politics. This was something that the three leaders tried to stay out of, for the most part, but the ensemble started to act with a mind of its own. (They were an ensemble, after all, right? Shouldn’t the ensemble have an equal say in how things were run?) The political landscape of the early to mid 1930s revealed the inherent flaws in the Group’s system, one of the things that would sink it: Can an ensemble run itself as a Group, or does it need a strong leader? Shouldn’t everyone have a say? Isn’t that what “the Group” actually means? Strasberg, whose autocratic tendencies were already well-known, had a real problem with that. And Clurman did at times as well, although his relationship to star actress Stella Adler kept him in the crossfires often. Whose side are you on, bub?

The resistance to Odets’ work ended with the production of Waiting for Lefty, which wasn’t even a Group production, originally, although it was done with all Group ensemble members. It had been written as a piece of propaganda specifically to be performed at a benefit for the League of Workers Theatres to aid New Theatre. Clurman/Strasberg/Crawford weren’t even involved in it. It was written by Clifford Odets. He also directed it, along with Sanford Meisner. Elia Kazan, who had been hanging around the fringes of the Group trying to make it useful, played one of the leads. The rest of the cast was made up of Group regulars. Ruth Nelson played the wife with the famous “grapefruit” monologue, Morris Carnovsky played the corrupt union boss, Phoebe Brand and John Garfield played young lovers. The play itself is a montage of different “situations”, all meant to pull on the audience’s heartstrings, and also get them to join the side of the righteous. See how bad things are? See that we need to fight poverty? We need to fight corruption. We need to go on strike, that’s how bad things are.

Despite the ham-fisted propaganda of Waiting for Lefty, what remains today is the startling beauty of the language, its roughness, its humanity, its aching reality. You can read some of it here. It cannot be removed from the 1930s. It’s almost Law and Order-like, in its ripped-from-the-headlines plot-lines. It’s a montage. There are no leads. You get snippets and fragments of situations, and then, at the end, everyone decides to go onstrike. It ends with the news that “Lefty” has been murdered, and chaos erupts, with the entire cast shouting, “STRIKE STRIKE STRIKE STRIKE.”

That’s the end of the play. You know, a passionate and kind of naive but well-meaning piece of agitprop. That was why Odets wrote it. He had no idea what would happen when the thing was actually performed.

Nobody did.

Nobody was prepared for what would happen when Waiting for Lefty was first performed on the evening of January 6, 1935, just one of the “acts” on the bill for the night.

This night changed the course of American theatre. It paved the way for Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams.

Wendy Smith, in her magnificent book, tells us what happened on that night (oh, for a time machine).


Elia Kazan down center in the final moment of “Waiting for Lefty”

Excerpt from Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America 1931-1940, by Wendy Smith

Lefty was one of several works scheduled as part of an evening organized by the League of Workers Theatres to aid New Theatre. The benefit staff assigned it no particular importance: the mimeographed one-sheet program simply said, “Waiting for Lefty, presented by the cast of Gold Eagle Guy,” with no mention of either author or individual actors. The stage manager, Robert Riley, who booked the entertainment and decided the order of appearance, believed that Anna Sokolow’s troupe of dancers was more important than a new play by an unknown actor/writer, and he announced that they would appear last. Odets was furious, arguing vehemently that his play deserved the favored final spot. Riley gave in, only to encounter a new problem. The Group hadn’t warned him that the show required lighting cues; he had to work them out hastily with the electrician during the intermissions between the other acts. When the lights went up on the bare stage, with Morris Carnovsky as the corrupt union leader directly addressing the audience as if they were his rebellious membership, no one expected anything except another casual piece of agitprop thrown together for a good cause.

Within moments everyone in the theatre knew better. As the actors began to speak Odets’ stingingly authentic language – so radically different from either the affected patter of the Broadway show-shops or the wooden sloganeering of agitprop – audience members found themselves swept up in a drama they seemed to know intimately, from deep inside themselves, even though they’d never heard a word of it before.

They gasped when Ruth Nelson as the angry wife said, “Sure, I see it in the papers, how good orange juice is for kids … Betty never saw a grapefruit. I took her to the store last week and she pointed to a stack of grapefruits. ‘What’s that,’ she said.” They cheered when Tony Kraber, playing the scientist who refuses to develop poison gas, punches his evil boss (Carnovsky again) in the nose. They murmured sadly when the young lovers Phoebe Brand and Julie Garfield were forced by poverty to part. They jeered at Russell Collins as a company guy and applauded when Gadget Kazan exposed him as “my own lousy brother!” They laughed sympathetically at Bill Challee as a desperate young actor too ignorant to know what a manifesto is and took Paula Miller to their hearts as the tough producer’s secretary who gives him a dollar to buy some food and a copy of The Communist Manifesto, telling him, “Come out in the light, Comrade.” When Luther Adler, playing a young doctor fired because he is a Jew, closed his scene with the communist salute, more than one person answered him from the auditorium with a clenched fist thrust in the air. It was beyond politics. They used the CP salute as Odets defined it in Lefty’s last scene: “the good old uppercut to the chin,” a rejection of all the forces that hurt people and kept them down, a commitment to fight for a better life.

To Kazan, seated in the auditorium waiting for his cue, the response was “like a roar from sixteen-inchers broadside, audience to players, a way of shouting, ‘More! More! More! Go on! Go on! Go on!’” Swept up by the passion they had aroused, the actors were no longer acting. “They were being carried along as if by an exultancy of communication such as I have never witnessed in the theatre before,” wrote [Harold] Clurman. The twenty-eight-year-old playwright was awed by the emotional conflagration he’d ignited. “You saw theatre in its truest essence,” Odets remembered years later. “Suddenly the proscenium arch of the theatre vanished and the audience and actors were at one with each other.”

As the play mounted to its climax, the intensity of feeling on and offstage became almost unbearable. When Bobby Lewis dashed in with the news that Lefty has been murdered, no one needed to take an exercise to find the appropriate anger – the actors exploded with it, the audience seethed with it. They exulted as Joe Bromberg, playing the union rebel Agate Keller, tore himself loose from the hired gunmen and declared their independence: “HELLO AMERICA! HELLO. WE’RE STORMBIRDS OF THE WORKING-CLASS … And when we die they’ll know what we did to make a new world!”

“Well, what’s the answer?” Bromberg demanded. In the audience, as planned, Odets, Herbie Ratner, and Lewis Leverett began shouting “Strike!” “LOUDER!” Bromberg yelled – and, one by one, from all over the auditorium, individual voices called out, “Strike!” Suddenly the entire audience, some 1,400 people, rose and roared, “Strike! Strike!” The actors froze, stunned by the spontaneous demonstration. The militant cries gave way to cheers and applause so thunderous the cast was kept onstage for forty-five minutes to receive the crowd’s inflamed tribute. “When they couldn’t applaud anymore, they stomped their feet,” said Ruth Nelson. “All I could think was, ‘My God, they’re going to break the balcony down!’ It was terrible, it was so beautiful.” The actors were all weeping. When Clurman persuaded Odets to take a bow, the audience stormed the stage and embraced the man who had voiced their hopes and fears and deepest aspirations. “That was the dream all of us in the Group Theatre had,” said Kazan, “to be embraced that way by a theatreful of people.”

“The audience wouldn’t leave,” said Cheryl Crawford. “I was afraid they were going to tear the seats out and throw them on the stage.” When the astounded stage manager finally rang down the curtain, they remained out front, talking and arguing about the events in a play taht seemed as real to them as their own lives. Actors and playwright were overwhelmed and a little frightened by the near-religious communion they had just shared. Odets retreated to a backstage bathroom; his excitement was so intense he threw up, then burst into tears. The dressing room was hushed as the actors removed their makeup. They emerged onto 14th Street to find clusters of people still gathered outside, laughing, crying, hugging each other, clapping their hands. “There was almost a sense of pure madness about it,” Morris Carnovsky felt.

No one wanted to go home. Sleep was out of the question. Most of the Group went to an all-night restaurant – no one can remember now which one – and tried to eat. Odets sat alone: pale, withdrawn, not talking at all. Everyone was too dazed to have much to say. It was dawn before they could bring themselves to separate, to admit that the miracle was over.

There had never been a night like it in the American theatre. The Group became a vessel into which were poured the rage, frustration, desperation, and finally exultation, not just of an angry young man named Clifford Odets, but of every single person at the Civic Rep who longed for an end to personal and political depression, who needed someone to tell them they could stand up and change their lives. The Group had experienced the “unity of background, of feeling, of thought, of need” Clurman had said was the basis for a true theatre: during his inspiring talks at Brookfield, at the thrilling final run-through of Connelly, in some of the best performances of Success Story. Never before had they shared it with an entire theatre full of people, never before had it seemed as though the lines they spoke hadn’t been written but rather emerged from a collective heart and soul. Theatre and life merged, as Clurman had promised they could.

Waiting for Lefty changed people’s ideas of what theatre was. More than an evening’s entertainment, more even than a serious examination of the contemporary scene by a thoughtful writer, theatre at its best could be a living embodiment of communal values and aspirations. Theatre mattered, art had meaning, culture wasn’t the property of an affluent, educated few but an expression of the joys and sorrows of the human condition as they could be understood and shared by everyone. In a fragmented society of wounded individuals, theatre could bring people together and make them whole. After such a revelation, there was no going back for the Group. They would seek the communion created by Lefty in everything they did. Sometimes they found it, sometimes they didn’t, but they could no longer be satisfied by anything less.

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2 Responses to The Books: Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America 1931-1940, by Wendy Smith

  1. Desirae says:

    What an amazing story – and an amazing picture!

  2. sheila says:

    Desirae – isn’t it just an incredible event? God, wish I had been there!

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