Free to Be: Political Theater (Part 6)

Bread and Puppet

This is the sixth part of a seven-part series on Todd London’s recently published book An Ideal Theater: Founding Visions for a New American Art, published by Theatre Communications Group. My intention is not to “review” the book, but rather to use it as a point of inspiration, a leaping off point for thoughts about the current American theatre. My hope is that others will be inspired to do the same – to find those things in his book, or any other book for that matter, that set off mental fireworks.
My introduction to this series inspired by London’s book is here.
Read: Part 1
| Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7

This is a chapter about principles. About bedrock values that are stubbornly held in the face of powerful opposition. And perhaps, when all is said and done, that is “political theater.”

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Bread and Puppet Theater's Peter Schumann
Bread and Puppet Theater’s Peter Schumann

If you are like me, when you think about political theater in the U.S., which is the focus of Chapter 6 of Todd London’s An Ideal Theater, your mind naturally goes to Bread and Puppet Theater, The San Francisco Mime Troupe (both in this chapter), El Teatro Campesino (in a previous chapter), the Living Newspapers of the Federal Theater Project, and so forth — theaters that whose onstage work directly addresses political issues. London, however, has a broader vision of politics, and includes theaters whose work, political or not, reflect a philosophy that is in opposition to the status quo. Which is why Joseph Papp, as founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival, stands like a colossus, like one of Bread and Puppet Theater’s giant puppets, in the middle of this chapter.

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Joseph Papp
Joseph Papp

I realize that Papp was not a saint, and that his relationships with artists were often contentious, to say the least. As a street fighter battling the powers that be, he could sometimes make pugilism the default even when it perhaps wasn’t necessary. And yet, to my mind, Papp’s vision of the place of the theater in American life rivals that of another giant, Harold Clurman.

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His words sound like boxing gloves methodically thudding against a punching bag — not much style, but a lot of power. In a 1958 response to New York Herald Tribune critic Walter Kerr, who wrote an article suggesting Papp start charging admission to his shows, Papp wrote:

I am trying to build our theater on the bedrock of municipal and civic responsibility — not on the quicksands of show business economics. I am interested in a popular theater — not a theater for the few. I am interested in establishing a classical repertory company with a guaranteed annual wage for performers….In a democracy, public and private enterprise exist side by side. I believe that in a city the size of New York and in a city where most of the people have yet to see a live professional production, it is of utmost importance to have a public theater — a theater for everybody — yes, everybody: for those who can afford it and those who cannot.

Papp argued forcefully that his theater must be considered “in the category of public recreation and public education, not show business.” He asserted, repeatedly and relentlessly, that his theater was the same as the public library, where everyone had access to the great works of “enlightenment and entertainment,” free of charge. “I know that if I had to pay for books at the Williamsburg (Brooklyn) Public Library,” he said, “it is doubtful I would have read the plays of Shakespeare.” In an interview included in the book Free for All, he put it succinctly: “My ‘art,’ if you want to put it in quotes, was this idea, this feeling of accessibility. It was my life.”

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Robert Moses
Robert Moses

It would have been so easy to give in. Papp had to endure conflict with Robert Moses, the powerful politician who, as parks commissioner, did his best to drive Papp from Central Park, in 1959 insisted that unless Papp was “prepared to agree to charge admission and to enter into a regular concession agreement with the Department of Parks, we cannot give you a permit to operate in the City Park system in 1959.” Moses, who believed Papp to be a Communist based on his appearance before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee the year before (an appearance in which he took the Fifth, and which led his employer, CBS, to fire him — a firing which he fought and won), saw his unwillingness to charge admission as a political statement. He was right, of course, but the statement was a populist one.

Papp’s determined refusal to budge on this bedrock principle is a critical reminder to the leaders of today’s regional theaters whose financial desperation all too often leads them to compromise their values in order to chase foundation money. Papp saw the danger of this reliance. “In the long run, foundations are no answer to the problems of the theater and no guarantee of its freedom. To support this latter contention we [may] take the example of the Rockefeller Foundation, which rejected an appeal from the New York Shakespeare Festival on the grounds that free admission destroyed incentive. The Ford Foundation likewise turned down a request. Here it was subtly hinted and cautiously intimated that free Shakespeare smacked too much of socialism.” Again, he refused, and so did not receive the requested money.

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Papp believed in the necessity of public funding, which, like education and library funding, has recently become a political football for those who believe the U.S. should be a plutocracy. The “security and comfort” that Papp connected to being a budget line item has never really materialized, and yet his argument stands. It was an argument made as early as 1912 by Percy MacKaye in his book The Civic Theatre in Relation to the Redemption of Leisure, demonstrated by Hallie Flanagan in the Federal Theatre Project, and that continues to be called for by thought leaders such as Arlene Goldbard and Dudley Cocke. It would have been interesting had Papp, who died in 1991, been around to testify in front of Congress during the culture wars of the 1990s. Artists needed someone who could powerfully, clearly and bluntly make the case for government responsibility to support the arts.

Bread and Puppet's "Why Cheap Art?" Manifesto
Bread and Puppet’s “Why Cheap Art?” Manifesto

Papp’s strong belief in free theater is shared by Peter Schumann, founder of Bread and Puppet Theater. While perhaps a little more poetic than Papp, Bread and Puppet’s “Why Cheap Art? Manifesto” (left) echoes Papp’s commitment to access. “We want you to understand,” Schumann wrote in the essay in London’s anthology, that theater “is not the place of commerce that you think it is, where you pay and get something. Theater is different. It is more like bread, a necessity.”

We live in a culture that views art as cake, not bread; as dessert, not sustenance. Brecht called it “culinary theater.” Too many artists, arts leaders, teachers and professors have capitulated to this diminished role for the arts, shouting “Let them eat cake” while the masses go hungry for spiritual bread.

Back in 1985, when the Guthrie Theatre dismissed Romanian director Liviu Ciulei as Artistic Director, Guthrie board member Albert Speer was quoted as saying, “When you go to theater in Bucharest or Prague you are looking for some nuance or comment you can transfer to what goes on around you…In this country, you read outrageous things in the paper and see them on television, so you go to the theater for escapism.” At the time, I was living in Minneapolis, and I wrote a letter to the editor that read, in part:

George Bernard Shaw said that theater should be a “factory of thought, a prompter of conscience, an elucidator of social conduct, a temple of the ascent of man, and an armory against despair and dullness.” Ciulei attempted to achieve this ideal. However, apparently Speer objects to this ideal. His plans for the Guthrie remind me of a scene from the movie “Pinocchio,” where Pinocchio goes to his ultimate island of fantasy: where kids are allowed to play all day, don’t have to learn anything and can eat as much candy and ice cream as they want. In short, the island was the ultimate in escapism. As you probably remember, this was a wonderful place except for one thing: Everyone on the island slowly turned into an ass.

Many of the artists in London’s book — like Papp, like Schumann, like Clurman, like Flanagan, like Addams — remind us that we need not accept the role ascribed to us by people like Albert Speer. We can — and we must — forge principles that do not diminish the power of the arts with which we have been entrusted.

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We must not allow the theater to become an island for asses.