Joe Papp and Shakespeare in the Park

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 103

Joe Papp was responsible for some of modern American theater's most iconic institutions: New York City's free Shakespeare in the Park. The Public Theater. The whole idea of "Off-Broadway." We spoke with Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan about Papp's life and works, from his hardscabble childhood, through the frightening era of Joe McCarthy, to the founding of Shakespeare in the Park and The Public.

Published in 2009, Turan's epic oral history of the early years of the New York Shakespeare Festival and The Public Theater is called Free for All: Joe Papp, the Public, and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told. To create that book, he spent untold hours with Joe Papp and also talked with New York politicians, Broadway producers, and seemingly everyone else who helped Papp make Shakespeare in the Park a reality, including performers like James Earl Jones, George C. Scott, Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Colleen Dewhurst, Tommy Lee Jones, and a Staten Island car-wash employee who would go on to play Romeo under the stage name of Martin Sheen. Turan is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Listen on iTunes, Google Play, SoundCloud, Spotify, Stitcher, or NPR One. 

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published August 7, 2018. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, "This Green Plot Shall Be Our Stage," was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Lauren Cascio and Nick Bozzone at Formosa Commercials recording studio in Santa Monica, California.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: On the evening of June 18, 1962, the pathbreaking force of nature behind the New York Shakespeare Festival finally, as always, got what he wanted.

[CLIP of 1962 theater opening:]

NEWBOLD MORRIS: Joseph Papp has come to the end of a long road. He wanted a home for the presentation of Shakespeare's plays.

WITMORE: That’s the president of the New York City Council, Newbold Morris, speaking at the opening of the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.

[CLIP (continued):]

MORRIS: And here it is, Joe. Make yourself to home. Joe Papp. [APPLAUSE]

WITMORE: Eight years of scraping and fighting against poverty, against bureaucrats, against the Red Scare, to perform Shakespeare for free for the people of New York. You could say it was a dream come true for Joe Papp, but if you actually asked Joe Papp, he’d say that was wrong.

[CLIP from interview:]

JOE PAPP: Well, people say that, you know, and I've never been a dreamer. I've never really dreamed about things. I just did things on a day-to-day basis and had certain things I wanted to achieve. And it's never been a dream.

WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director.

In 2009, Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan published an epic oral history of the early years of the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Public Theater that he titled Free for All: Joe Papp, the Public, and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told. To create that book, he spent untold hours with Joe Papp and also talked with New York politicians, Broadway producers, and seemingly everyone else who helped Papp make Shakespeare in the Park a reality, including performers like James Earl Jones, George C. Scott, Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Colleen Dewhurst, Tommy Lee Jones, and a Staten Island car-wash employee who would go on to play Romeo under the stage name of Martin Sheen.

Their stories are woven together into a thrilling record of one of the 20th century’s most important monuments to Shakespeare. We invited Kenneth Turan to come into the studio recently to talk about what he learned, focusing mostly on Papp’s early years, which are now largely lost to history. We call our podcast "This Green Plot Shall Be Our Stage." Kenneth Turan is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: I knew Papp grew up poor, but I had no idea just how poor he was before I read your book, or his family. What was his childhood like?

KENNETH TURAN: Well, it was really, really, you know, deep poverty. I mean the kind of poverty where they would move in the middle of the night, because they couldn’t pay the rent. They had bare light bulbs. He remembered going to friends’ apartments when he was in school and seeing lampshades, and he’d never seen them before.

BOGAEV: He talked about putting cardboard in his shoes.

TURAN: Yeah, yeah. I mean this was really deep, deep poverty, and I think it formed him. He never... One of the people I talked to said to me once, "When you fight your way out of the ghetto, you’re never sure you’re out." And he was talking about Joe, and I think it was very true, that sense of being poor and having a responsibility to speak to and for the other people who were poor, I think that never left him.

BOGAEV: It does mark you and it makes his whole career, really, his vision of bringing free Shakespeare to the masses, it puts it in a whole different light. I know in your book that Papp told you that Shakespeare opened up whole educational areas for him and that he began to think about his life in larger terms. What did he mean by that?

TURAN: Well, I mean... There was a woman named Eulalie Spence, who was a teacher of his in high school, who really was the first person who was able to really show Joe, you know. This is really the introduction to Shakespeare that took, that he remembered, that he was happy about, and he just got it. And I think, he never really thought, you know... When you’re poor, I think you don’t really, your horizons are really limited. You think about just surviving and the fact that there are other aspects of your life that you could be thinking about, involving yourself in it, enlarging... you don’t go there. And I think Shakespeare showed him this other world that he could be part of.

BOGAEV: Right, it wasn’t shut out to him, as if you had to be entitled to get Shakespeare. It sounds like he heard it, like he heard the melody of the line.

TURAN: Yeah, I believe that’s true. I mean, something just clicked for him and he got it, and he said, "You know, I get this." And the fact that he got something like this, that obviously he was part of a long tradition and part of a higher culture, he felt at home in it. He felt, "Yes, this was for me."

BOGAEV: And he said to you, I think, in that same conversation that he saw theater as an important poetic and political force.

TURAN: Yes, I think he always felt... Joe was a, I call him, a "boy Communist." Joe went to all these rallies when he was a kid. He was very politically passionate, again because he was so poor and he didn’t think it was right. And one of the things that I remember, as we’re talking about this, his father was a Yiddish speaker, and Joe would come back from these rallies all, you know, fired up and talk about what they were doing. And his father would look at him and say, "Jossele, gornisht helfn," "Joey, it's not going to help." And I think, with theater, he saw a way that it could help and that never left him.

BOGAEV: So you’re saying you see this direct link from Shakespeare to his vision and to his politics.

TURAN: Yeah, I think so, because Shakespeare is what started it all off.

BOGAEV: Well, before he started in theater, though, he enlisted in the Navy, and he ran entertainment there and Bob Fosse, of all people, was in his troupe. It’s like Zelig.

TURAN: I know. I mean when he told me Bob Fosse was in his troupe, I said "Yeah, right, sure, Joe. I’ll check it out," but I mean, I’m not convinced. And it turns out, yes, I got in touch with Bob Fosse, and he says, "Yes, of course, come talk to me." I remember it vividly. They were on, like, the same ship together, you know, and it was just wild.

BOGAEV: So, they put on shows.

TURAN: They put on shows, yeah.

BOGAEV: So then, after the service, he went to the Actors’ Lab on the GI Bill and one of the people that you spoke to for the book, Phoebe Brand, said that Papp’s Shakespeare aesthetic comes from the lab. And even from that far back, I thought of him as a method acting and an Actors Studio guy, but we’re talking now the ‘40s, where the seeds of this training came from. What was his training as an actor?

TURAN: Well, the Actors’ Lab was something, again, that believed in the political impact of theater, believed that theater had a relevance and was a way to kind of mobilize and galvanize and educate people. And it was out in Los Angeles, and  Joe just ended up here and he checked it out and he just connected to it.

BOGAEV: It sounds like he ate it up.

TURAN: Yeah. It’s amazing in his life that he would somehow come upon things that fed him and he recognized them immediately. It’s not only that he came upon them, he said, "Okay, this is going to work for me."

BOGAEV: That’s maybe kind of the definition of genius, right? Every opportunity you make, you...

TURAN: He knew this was for him.

BOGAEV: Okay, so the first place that Joseph Papp staged Shakespeare is in the Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in the early 1950s, and he got involved with this group called the Oval Players. And he told you that he looked around at this kind of really crummy performance space that they had and he kept thinking, "Oh, this would make a great place to do Shakespeare." So, why did he think a rundown church would be great for Shakespeare?

TURAN: Well, I think two things. First of all, I mean, it had a space. But also, you know, it was available. Joe was always practical. I mean, I think he actually got that space once the Oval Players kind of disbanded, and Joe realized the space was kind of available and Joe was an opportunist. When he saw opportunities, he grabbed them. He went and talked to the kindly old padre who ran the church, and the guy said "Sure." And also he loved the idea, the guy at the ministry said to him, “Well, you know, of course, you’ll have to pay for heat.” And that was the moment when Joe realized he wasn’t going to have to pay rent. All he had to pay for is heat.

BOGAEV: I'm sure he didn't let on. He didn’t offer to pay for more, that’s for sure.

TURAN: No, but I mean, you know, he had no money.

BOGAEV: And Papp also was asking him for the heavy chairs in the church.

TURAN: He wanted better seating and he ended up, while he and his friends... I mean, he worked for CBS at the time. He was a floor manager for TV programs. It was a very high-powered job, like a stage manager, and he had friends there and he enlisted them and they would do several things. I mean, there was equipment that CBS, when the TV was booming, they would take over, like, theaters and there were things in there that they didn’t need and they just would store them and they were never going to use them. And Joe would, you know, kind of liberate some of that stuff.

But also, there is this great story that he tells in enormous detail about, there was a theater, I think, up in the Bronx, a movie theater that was going out of business.

BOGAEV: Right, and they had those movie theater chairs that are all attached to each other in a row.

TURAN: They were very heavy. I mean, he somehow got the chairs off the floor and you know, they were bolted together, they were hard to move. I mean, it’s not just Joe. Several people remember these chairs, you know. So, Joe was not imagining this. This was like an enormous labor of work, but Joe found people. I mean, he had a quality that drew people to him. You have to, being a producer, be able to carry people with a vision, people to help you, people who contribute, people to work without being paid. This is a real gift, and Joe had that in spades.

BOGAEV: This is an age before "off Broadway" and it seems, I mean reading your book, you get this wonderful sense that Papp really created this concept of off Broadway.

TURAN: He was a key player. I mean, he wasn’t alone, but he was a key player. And it’s just created out of necessity. That’s where his people came from, that’s where, you know... In the movie business, people work on people’s short films for free. Creative people want to work. And in the theater, they needed space, and there were spaces off Broadway and so people started to use them. And in the book, Arthur Gelb talks about Brooks Atkinson, the great theater critic, and he said he was the first person to review off-Broadway plays. You know, when they started, no one went down there. Critics thought theater was Broadway. If it’s not Broadway, it doesn’t exist. And Joe helped to change that.

BOGAEV: Yeah, there’s something else that you get, reading from the book, that I guess I knew, too, but when you hear all the voices of these actors talking, what they owe to Joseph Papp, I realize that Papp discovered all of these actors. I mean it starts with George C. Scott, Colleen Dewhurst, and James Earl Jones talks about it. Tell us about George C. Scott, because he was really kind of this knockabout actor at the time.

TURAN: I know, it was funny. I mean again, it’s a great story when Joe tells it. He was up for a part and George C. Scott had been just like an itinerant actor. He never had any great success. And that was a Shakespearean part that he was up for, and Joe says, "You know, it was between him and another guy," you know, and Joe said "I couldn’t really decide." He says, "This other guy has never been heard from since." Joe says, "You don’t have to be right every time. You just need a percentage."

BOGAEV: And it was a close call.

TURAN: Yeah, he said it was a close call.

BOGAEV: I really want to know who this other guy is. [LAUGH]

TURAN: You know, George C. Scott remembers this so vividly. I mean he was nervous the first audition. He didn’t do well. He asked if he could come again. Joe reluctantly said yes, and George C. Scott said he stayed up all night. Like, he was like sleeping in, you know, someone’s friend’s house in the Village, and he stayed up all night with someone else who was staying in the house, running lines. You know, again when I talked to him, he was decades past, but he remembered it so vividly. Clearly, for George C. Scott, this was a turning point in what turned out to be a spectacular career.

BOGAEV: People who saw his Richard said it was like nothing else.

TURAN: Oh, my God. I heard about a lot of projects that, you know, I never got to see. And the one at the top of my list that I wish I could have seen was George C. Scott in Richard III. I mean the best story is... When the Shakespeare Festival used to do stuff for kids, they had this, the Heckscher playhouse that they were performing in at the time, and it was just an auditorium filled with rowdy high-school kids. If you’ve ever been on a high-school theater trip, you know what kids are like. You know, noise, and they were rolling bottles down the aisle, and they were yelling and screaming, and the teachers had disappeared. And George C. Scott walked out on this little stage, and everyone got quiet. You know, he was just so commanding, from just the moment he walked on stage.

BOGAEV: Well, he also discovered, as I said, Colleen Dewhurst, and she’s really funny talking about that. Papp apparently called her and said he wanted her for Juliet, and she said something like "Have you seen me?" [LAUGH]

TURAN: "I haven't been able to play Juliet since I was 12," or something.

BOGAEV: Right, maybe not even then. She’s so tall.

TURAN: She said, "You never know. You always hear about the call that’s going to change your life and you think, God knows what it’s going to be." And it turned out it was this call from Joe Papp that changed her life.

BOGAEV: Right, it all followed. Speaking of Romeo and Juliet, there’s a great story in the book about Papp’s first production in 1955. The story is that he burned through eight different Romeos before opening.

TURAN: Well, I think what happened there was just not that... you know, Joe wasn’t paying people anything, and you know, actors would get, like, jobs, you know.

BOGAEV: Actual jobs that pay actual money.

TURAN: So, they would say, "You know, Joe, I love what you’re doing, but I’m leaving, you know." And it was just the luck of the draw, the bad luck of the draw, that so many people left, and you know, it had nothing to do with anything except economics. He just couldn’t afford people, and if they got other jobs, they would have to take them.

BOGAEV: Well, in addition to essentially helping to create off-Broadway theater, Joseph Papp also seemed bent on creating a new kind of approach to Shakespearean performance, and a lot of people in the book talk about that. So, what were the characteristics of Papp’s modern school of Shakespeare?

TURAN: I mean, I guess what he was reacting against was the notion that American actors would somehow have to sound British.

[CLIP of Raúl Juliá in King Lear:]

                                                Why brand they us
With "base," with "baseness," "bastardy," "base," "base,"
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth within a dull, stale, tired bed
Go to th' creating a whole tribe of fops

TURAN: And Joe felt well, no, you don’t have to do it that way. You can just have actors acting as if they were acting in other plays.

[CLIP of Meryl Streep in The Taming of the Shrew:]

How now, dame, whence grows this insolence?

Her silence flouts me, and I'll be revenged!

What, in my sight?—Bianca, get thee in.

What, will you not suffer me? Nay, now I see
She is your treasure, she must have a husband,
I must dance barefoot on her wedding day
And, for your love to her, lead apes in hell.


Talk not to me.

TURAN: At the time, it doesn't sound very revolutionary now, but at the time, apparently, this was not the way it was done, but people were very happy that, you know...

BOGAEV: Well, the actors were ecstatic. I mean, James Earl Jones talks about it. This was the first chance he ever had to be comfortable in a Shakespeare role.

TURAN: Exactly.

[CLIP of James Earl Jones in King Lear:]

Dry up in her the organs of increase,
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honor her. If she must teem,
Create her child of spleen, that it may live
And be a thwart disnatured torment to her.
Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth,
With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks,
Turn all her mother's pains and benefits
To laughter and contempt, that she may feel
How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is
To have a thankless child.—Away, away!

Now, gods that we adore, whereof comes this?

BOGAEV: But I think it was more than that, though, or it sounds like that from a lot of the people you talk to, because Papp was working with these actors who had studied method acting in the Actors Studio. And someone, I can't remember who it was, but they were very funny talking about this in your book, and they said, "In the '50s, if you didn't get into Actors Studio, you bought a gun, it was as simple as that." [LAUGH]. There was nowhere else to go, nothing else to do. But method acting is not about being musical and rhythmical within a line. So, how did Papp get around that? How did he create this kind of method Shakespeare?

TURAN: I think he felt the plays spoke for themselves, and that if actors just took a deep breath and just read the plays and didn't worry too much about what style they were doing it in, that the play would triumph, and that the play would take them over. He said, you know, this is... "Let's just do the play."

BOGAEV: And this is modern American Shakespeare theater. Well, Papp moved to the East River Park Amphitheater from the church in 1956. Tell us about that. Had he wanted to perform Shakespeare outdoors? Was that why he moved? Was this a vision that he worked towards, or did he just stumble on this great space there?

TURAN: I think it's the latter. I mean, again, Joe was a big walker. He talks about how he liked to walk around the city. He grew up in the Lower East Side. And so he was always walking around and he kind of stumbled on this place, which I think was built, I think it's an WPA project dating from the '30s. I think it was near these big projects, the ILGWU, the Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union projects, and it was there. And, again, as with the church, he just saw the space, and he said, you know, I can put on a play here.

BOGAEV: Well, everyone that you talked to about that era talks about what a dangerous neighborhood it was then. I mean, I lived there in the '80s and it was dangerous then. It sounds like it was, as you say, it was hard up against these housing projects.

TURAN: Yeah, yeah. No, it was, you know, there were gangs, and it was a tough neighborhood, and, you know, always when new people show up in a neighborhood, you know, there's always friction. "Who are these people? Are these outsiders?" No one is happy to see people coming from the outside. But, you know, Joe, who grew up in neighborhoods like this, I mean, it was like he was confronting himself, do you know what I mean?

BOGAEV: Exactly, yeah, he felt at home there.

TURAN: Yeah, you know, he just kind of nipped this stuff in the bud, and went, you know, they saw that he was as tough as they were. Initially, it was just a truce. But I think, as they started watching, some of the kids got involved. They started to help out, they started to see the hard work involved, and they were good with it.

BOGAEV: And Roscoe Lee Brown has this wonderful story in the book about gang members coming to see Romeo and Juliet and just how involved they got in the performance.

TURAN: Yeah, no, I mean, it reminded me of the old Yiddish theater, when people would, you know, would yell out at the stage, you know.

BOGAEV: Or Shakespeare's time, when people would yell at him.

TURAN: "Lear, don't do it," you know, like that. So, it really... I think it did Joe's heart good to see how people in the neighborhood would respond to the plays.

BOGAEV: Right, I think the story he tells is, it's Romeo and Juliet, and they're like, "Don't do it, Romeo, don't do it, she ain't dead."

TURAN: [LAUGH] I know, I know. People were responding to the plays, as Joe always felt they would.

BOGAEV: So, they were in the East River Amphitheater and somewhere in that period before they moved to Central Park, Papp twisted the arm of a Times critic, Arthur Gelb, who we were talking about earlier. And he got him to show up to see a show and the critic, Arthur Gelb, shows up, he sees this first act of Taming of the Shrew and loves it, but then it began to rain.

TURAN: Yeah, you know, even from the beginning, the storm clouds were there. I mean, the rain wasn't a surprise, but, you know, people were there, so the play went on and it started to just pour rain, and people... It had been hard to get Arthur Gelb down there. Joe had to kind of camp down at the New York Times offices and say, "I want you to see the play, I want you to see the play," and finally nothing else was going on and Gelb agreed to come down.

And he says, you know, "It's pouring rain," and he was so excited by what he’d seen that in the middle of the rain storm, he just goes on stage when the play is finally cancelled, and he says to Joe, “Joe, this is really great. I want to come back and see a whole production and give it a full scale review.” And Joe said, "This is it, we're out of money, you know. We can't do it anymore unless we get more money."

BOGAEV: So, was that true, were they out of money, or was he saying that to get him to...?

TURAN: As far as I know, it's true. I don't know, as far as I know, it's true. I've never heard that it was kind of a...

BOGAEV: A play.

TURAN: It wasn't a play. They were really out of money, they really lived hand to mouth. I mean this was not like they had, you know, wealthy parents that they could tap. So, Arthur Gelb, you know, wrote this notice. I think he said, the headline on it was, "Rained Out," about how impressed he'd been by what he had seen, but he hadn't seen the whole thing, and then he said, you know, unfortunately, there's never going to be... unless 750 dollars is raised, there's not going to be any more performances. And, you know, the New York Times has a kind of power. It reaches people. Newspapers do that. And the producer of My Fair Lady, who'd grown up on the Lower East Side, called Arthur Gelb and said, "I'm going to write them a check. Where do I send it?" you know.

BOGAEV: And that saved the day.

TURAN: It saved the troupe. You know, a lot of fortuitous things happened for Joe. Again, you know, they say, it's like fortune favors the prepared. Joe was on top of things and when something good happened, he could capitalize on it.

BOGAEV: So, moving on after their troupe was saved and the East River Amphitheater, eventually they got to Central Park.

[CLIP of interview with Joe Papp:]

JOE PAPP: Why don't we charge admission? It is considered important for the life of the city, the educational life. I felt even a quarter would be too much.

BOGAEV: And the first time that they ever performed there, as the story goes anyway, Papp snuck into the park and the deputy mayor had lent him a City of New York sanitation truck, like a platform trailer truck, that he used to haul a wooden folding stage that ended up being the first Shakespeare in the Park stage.

TURAN: Yeah, I mean Joe had started.. I think, initially Central Park was just another neighborhood for Joe.

[CLIP of megaphone announcement:]

ANNOUNCER: The New York Shakespeare Festival Mobile Theater will present A Midsummer Night's Dream, tonight, in your neighborhood, 8:00 pm, admission is free.

TURAN: Joe had had this truck and then they had gone around to the five boroughs to parks, to different spaces, and put on Shakespeare.

BOGAEV: So, he was kind of circling New York with this traveling troupe.

TURAN: Yeah, it was a traveling Shakespeare troupe, then he ended up in Central Park. I don't know that this was a goal of his.

BOGAEV: Well, we have to talk about some of the wild things that happened on stage during Shakespeare in the Park and one of your sources in the book talks about the night that Juliet's dress caught fire. What happened there?

TURAN: Yeah, no, this was an actress named Bryarly Lee.

[CLIP of Bryarly Lee in Romeo and Juliet:]

I would not for the world they saw thee here.
By whose direction found'st thou out this place?

By love, that first did prompt me

TURAN: She tended to be, everyone says, a very intense actress, very into her parts.

[CLIP (continued):]

Thou knowest the mask of night is on my face

TURAN: And a torch fell off, and it caught the tail end of her dress, the trail of her dress, and it was starting to catch fire, and the only person who... This was during the death scene...

BOGAEV: So, Romeo's lying there, dead?

TURAN: Romeo's lying there, dead, and he's also, unfortunately, the only person who's actually seeing that this is happening, the angle is such that no one else was seeing it. And the story is that, he finally said, "I have to do something," you know, and she was so into the part that she had no idea this was going on. So, he leaps up and puts out the fire, and then goes back to being dead.

BOGAEV: [LAUGH] That's so great. I wish I had seen some of these things. Christopher Walken talks about these terrific moments that you'd be in the middle of a soliloquy and a dog would walk across the stage.

TURAN: Yeah, I mean, it was just, there's something very vivid, something very real about the experience, and actors speak with... You know, it was always a lot of logistical problems and things that had to be overcome, but everyone thinks of it with great fondness.

[CLIP of interview with Raúl Juliá:]

RAÚL JULIÁ: I love it! I love it when they boo and hiss like that. I love it when they boo and hiss Petruchio. Because this means that Petruchio is making them feel something. The feeling in the park is that you're playing with and for your family. You are putting on a play for these 2,000 relatives that came to see you. And here I am putting on a play for you, and, okay, you dig it, you don't dig it, we'll argue. You want to argue, we'll argue, fine. If you want to boo me, great, and I might boo you back. But it's all done within a context of love.

BOGAEV: Well, around this time, Papp was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. So why was McCarthy after Joe Papp as director of Shakespeare in the Park?

TURAN: Well, he worked for CBS, and the feeling of the Un-American Activities people was that the media was being infiltrated by Communists. And, again, it was one of these things, you know. Joe was called to testify. He refused to testify, and he told me that it was a major headline in the New York newspapers. And again, it's one of these things that you think, "Well, how could something like this be a headline?" But I actually went and found the paper, and it was the banner headline of one of the afternoon papers—Telegram and Sun or the Journal American, it was this huge headline about "CBS stage manager takes the Fifth," and it was very, very serious times for Joe.

BOGAEV: Yeah, how worried was he about it?

TURAN: He was terribly worried. Again, there was every reason to be terribly worried. I mean a lot of people had lost their jobs. People had gone to Europe, because they couldn't find work in the United States. People had gone to prison. We now know that it had a quote-end-quote "happy ending," but, I mean, at the time, there was no telling what would happen, and Joe really thought that this would be the end of Shakespeare in the Park and all of his plans, you know, really, really fearful about the future.

BOGAEV: And also Robert Moses kind of jumped on this Red Scare bandwagon, in a way. Robert Moses, who was the first New York City Parks Commissioner at the time and he's also the man known as the master builder of mid-20th-century New York City and its boroughs, and he was controversial for favoring the highways over public transit and practically helped give rise to suburbs like Long Island. So, master builder of New York, builder of Lincoln Center, and the UN building, and the Triborough Bridge. That Robert Moses came out against Joe Papp, when Papp was trying to build a permanent home for Shakespeare in Central Park. So, what was his beef with him?

TURAN: At that point, he wasn't really trying to build a permanent home, he just was wanting to perform there. And Robert Moses, for reasons that are unclear, really was upset that Joe didn't want to charge admission.

[CLIP of Robert F. Wagner, Jr., Mayor of New York:]

MAYOR WAGNER: I had lunch with Commissioner Moses, and we discussed, among other things, the question of free Shakespeare in Central Park. And Mr. Moses informed me that he has had difficulty over the past few years in the controlling of the people there, the lack of chairs, sanitary facilities, and so forth.

BOGAEV: There was also an unsigned letter being circulated about Papp that he was a Communist and that kind of hung together with his reputation, his political reputation, and also this vision that he had to offer Shakespeare for free, that rang of Communism.

TURAN: Yeah, I'm not sure it was so much that for Moses. He had a deputy, a man named Stuart Constable, who was the Red Scare person, and he was the person who felt...

BOGAEV: The attack dog.

TURAN: Yeah. And he was a person who felt that, you know, that Joe was a Communist, and that this was a bad thing. But he did feel that Joe should charge, and Joe refused to charge, and this became a huge thing. It led to a lawsuit and finally, much to everyone's surprise, especially Joe Papp’s surprise, because, you know, Robert Moses was like the most powerful man in New York... And as Joe said, you know, it wasn't like Joe felt "Well, I can handle this guy." Joe did not feel this at all. He was driven by his principles, driven by his beliefs, and he said, "I have to have it this way, come what may." Yeah.

BOGAEV: And he ended up being able to offer free Shakespeare in the Park and it ended up being a permanent place. Even though, as you say, really I misspoke before, he wasn't out to found a permanent theater. In fact, you wrote that he thought that having a permanent space in Central Park would force him to jump through all kinds of hoops for whomever the park commissioner is.

TURAN: Exactly, this was not something he was looking forward to. But again, as with everything we've been talking about, Joe recognized opportunity.

BOGAEV: I want to move on now and talk about the Public Theater, and so many amazing productions and things happened there, but these early years, especially, were wild. So, Papp formed the Public Theater at Astor Place in lower Manhattan in 1966. And then the next year, they produced Hamlet with another young actor, Martin Sheen. He was working at a car wash to make ends meet.

TURAN: Yeah, no, and Martin Sheen tells a great story about how he was coming into the car wash. And at one point, one of the managers says, "You ever do any acting?" And he says, "Yeah, why?" He says, "Well, someone's been calling, asking for Martin Sheen." And he had been working under his real name, which was Estevez. You know what I mean, he'd just taken a stage name, but he never thought that his stage name would ever come into play at the car wash, you know. But Joe had tracked him down at the car wash and had asked for him and the car wash guys had no idea who he was.

BOGAEV: [LAUGH] So, among other controversies about this Hamlet production, which goes by many names, The Naked Hamlet, The Hamlet Happening, I think is one of them, Martin Sheen decided to do Hamlet with a Puerto Rican accent.

[CLIP of MARTIN SHEEN in interview:]

MARTIN SHEEN: [With accent:] "To be or not to be, that is the question. / Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings..." Very funny, the audience is hysterical. But then when I got into things later on in this piece, when I talk about, "Who would bear the whips and scorns of time, / Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely..."

INTERVIEWER: An added dimension, then, of course.

SHEEN: Hoo yeah, because who were the doormen in New York? Who was washing the dishes? Who was cleaning up the garbage?

BOGAEV: Why did Papp cast young Martin Sheen? What did he see in him? Because Sheen says, "I didn't know Hamlet, I didn't know Shakespeare from anything. I didn't know how the play ended."

TURAN: Well, I think Joe... One of the ideas of The Naked Hamlet was to take the play apart, to kind of blow it up and see what you could do with the pieces, as they kind of came raining down, and I think he liked the idea of someone who had no preconceptions about the play. He didn't want anyone to come in who had all these ideas, who'd done Hamlet a million times, and had his own ideas about how, you know, it should be, and who might be offended by this blowing up. Some people liked it, some people didn't like it, but, you know, Joe liked to experiment. Joe would get these ideas and he would follow through.

BOGAEV: And it really does show just how thoroughly he was willing to wreak havoc on Shakespeare.

TURAN: He did it out of love, but he'd just get these ideas, and he would think, well, let's see what happens if we take it to these extremes. You know, it was done out of real love for the material and passion for the material.

BOGAEV: Well, Papp produced so many Shakespeare plays, but he also put on so many other plays as well. So, in the end, after all the people that you talked with, and conversations that you had with him and about his vision for Shakespeare and theater in America, how do you see his contribution to American Shakespeare theater? What's his legacy?

TURAN: Well, in some ways, he helped really put it on the map with Shakespeare in the Park, and with the American way of doing Shakespeare, and with getting all these great actors to do it. He just made it a major... People wanted to do Shakespeare in the Park, you know. He made it part of the world of America's top actors. He made it something they wanted to do, and I think that's been of enormous value. So many people, I mean, who maybe... Well, like George C. Scott, who knows if they ever would have done Shakespeare, except for Joe? This was something wonderful.

BOGAEV: Well, it's just been such a pleasure to talk with you.

TURAN: Thank you, this has been a real treat. It's always a pleasure to talk about Joe. He did so much, you know. He just did so much.


WITMORE: Kenneth Turan has been a film critic at the Los Angeles Times since 1991. His oral history of Joe Papp and his creation of the New York Shakespeare Festival and Public Theater is called Free for All: Joe Papp, the Public, and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told. It was published by Anchor Books, a division of Random House, in 2009. He was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

"This Green Plot Shall Be Our Stage" was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Lauren Cascio and Nick Bozzone at Formosa Commercials recording studio in Santa Monica, California.

There's something I'd like to ask you to do. It's something I ask on every episode of Shakespeare Unlimited and I'd like to explain why. A lot of the podcasting platforms decide which podcast to recommend by looking at which ones have the most reviews and ratings by their listeners. So, if you like Shakespeare Unlimited and you'd like to tell others how good it is, please rate and review the podcast and come see us on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Thank you so much for your help.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I'm Folger Director Michael Witmore.