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My Life with Joe Papp at the Public Theater

by Gail Merrifield Papp
Book Review by Wendy Caster

In Gail Merrifield Papp's memoir, Public/Private: My Life with Joe Papp at the Public Theater, she provides a somewhat-chronological, somewhat-personal, somewhat-historical, somewhat-odd array of anecdotes about herself, her husband Joseph Papp, their marriage, and the Public Theater. The book is entertaining, full of great pictures, and well-written, and it will be great fun for anyone already interested in the phenomena that were Joe Papp and the Public.

As you likely already know, Joe Papp was the creator of the New York Shakespeare Festival, providing free outdoor Shakespeare in Central Park, and the Public Theater, originally established to showcase American playwrights, including David Rabe and Miguel Piñero. Both theatre companies experienced mission creep, with Shakespeare in the Park dipping into Brecht-Weill, Gilbert and Sullivan, and Chekhov, and the Public branching out to such non-American playwrights as Caryl Churchill and David Hare. The expansion suited both companies well. As if that were not enough, Papp also took on running the Lincoln Center Theater as part of the Shakespeare Festival for a few years, including a production of Trelawny of The "Wells" that introduced Meryl Streep and Mandy Patinkin to Broadway. And as if that were not enough, Papp attempted to produce a series of new shows on Broadway. Only one show actually happened; it was called The Leaf People, and I can attest that it was terrible.

Papp's hits as producer included A Chorus Line, Hair, Sticks and Bones, Short Eyes, for colored girls who have considered suicide, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and The Normal Heart. He was responsible for some 350 productions. People who acted for him include pretty much everyone, including Colleen Dewhurst, George C. Scott, Julie Harris, Zoe Caldwell, Linda Hunt, Andre Braugher, Kevin Kline, James Earl Jones, Jerry Stiller, Stockard Channing, Kelly Bishop, Joan Allen, and Wallace Shawn. In the world of theatre, he made hundreds of friends and dozens of enemies.

In many ways, the theatre world was just not ready for Joe Papp. For example, from Public/Private (page 212):

[In] an article called "The Stages of Joseph Papp" by the seasoned cultural critic Stanley Kauffmann, published in the 1974-1975 winter issue of The American Scholar, ... Mr. Kauffmann had written, evidently in honest perplexity, that "Papp is the only person who has made a considerable mark in the theater–in any American or European theater that I have seen or read about–without extraordinary talent, without exemplary taste, without an esthetic imperative, without intellectual distinction." Baffled that a person from Joe's poor working-class background could have achieved what he achieved, Mr. Kauffmann then suggested that a large part of Joe's "considerable mark" must therefore have been due to "luck."

This impressive display of classism is a perfect example of how prejudice blinds people to what's right in front of them. First of all, as shown again and again in Public/Private, Joe Papp was brilliant. Did he have an "esthetic imperative"? Maybe, maybe not. But he had a human imperative with a burning desire to share theatre with people who could not afford to buy tickets; he wanted to change the world. As for his taste, that is certainly in the eye of the beholder, and there is no doubt he produced some terrible work. But the most galling of Kaufmann's criticisms is that Papp lacked extraordinary talent. He had the talent to get people to follow him. He had the talent to deal with bureaucracy and win. He had the talent to work hard, physically, emotionally, and intellectually, for a seeming 30 hours a day. He had the talent to turn his dreams into reality. He had the talent of making things happen.

Throughout his life, Joe Papp's reputation went up and down and sideways. When he died in 1991, obituaries and personal testimonies made much mention of his faults and failures, but they also called him "the most powerful and influential man in the American theater, dominating his world through the force of his own dazzling paradoxical personality" (American Theatre); "incredibly benevolent on the one hand and evil on the other" (playwright Albert Innaurato); and "one of the most influential producers in the history of the American theater" (The New York Times). Scenic designer Santo Loquasto said, "Joe was so much the scrappy street kid, which I found charming. At the same time, I saw whole directing careers made and destroyed in two years." Actor Sam Waterston described Papp perfectly: "He was like the kind of person you read about in the early days of Hollywood."

Gail Merrifield Papp mostly, and unsurprisingly, takes Joe Papp's side in his many arguments and controversies. She adores and respects him both as husband and as boss. In fact, it is only her acknowledgment of his faults that keeps Public/Private out of hagiographic territory. She admires him so much that she takes a back seat in her own memoir. And it makes sense; although she had her own interesting backstory, her life took off when she met Joe Papp. She clearly would have had a strong career in theatre on her own, and she had an important role at the Public finding new playwrights and plays, but with her husband, she lived in the center of a hurricane.

An interesting characteristic of aging is that things you've experienced personally become history. I worked as a substitute usher at the Public in the mid 1970s, and I remember a fair amount of what Gail Merrifield Papp writes about. But I remember some of it differently.

For example, associate producer and right-hand-man Bernard Gersten produced a surprise party for Joe Papp's 57th birthday at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. The celebrity-packed audience included theatre stars, movie stars, and four past and present New York City mayors. The party featured scenes from past and present Public productions. Gersten even arranged for the current cast of A Chorus Line to be rushed over after a performance to do the finale all over again.

But the party caused a rift between Gersten and Joe Papp. Papp became angry that so much had happened–and so much money had been spent–behind his back. And it didn't help that John Guare wrote an extremely funny but definitely biting skit about the Public that did not present Gail Merrifield Papp in a good light. (If I remember correctly, at one point she was depicted curled up in an office chair sucking her thumb.) Joe Papp was said to be furious about the insult to his wife. That party was the beginning of the end of Papp and Gersten's long and incredibly successful relationship.

Here's what Ms. Papp wrote about the evening in this memoir (page 152):

After Joe recovered from his initial shock, he was hugely impressed by Bernie's miraculous coup as the producer of the surprise event and thanked everyone who participated in it. Bernie made a happy comment about the good feeling his spectacular effort had generated: "Why wait until a person is dead to celebrate them?" It wasn't until we were home after the event that Joe realized I had never been told about the party beforehand and had been impressed at the last minute into Bernie's well-intentioned hoax.

A few days after the surprise birthday party, Joe told me that he thought Bernie should become an independent producer on his own.

While one can infer some subtle snark in there, her version of the tale is so sanitized that I began to doubt my memory. I therefore referred to Free for All: Joe Papp, The Public, and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told, a fabulous oral history based on interviews with Joe Papp, Bernard Gerstein, George C. Scott, Meryl Streep, Mike Nichols, Kevin Kline, James Earl Jones, David Rabe, Jerry Stiller, Tommy Lee Jones, Wallace Shawn, dozens of others, and Gail Merrifield Papp herself. The book supports my memory in terms of Joe Papp's eventual anger at Gersten and the controversy around the skit. While it certainly makes sense that Ms. Papp doesn't want to revisit that unpleasant event and its fallout, this is not the only case of her omitting or smoothing over difficult times in Public/Private.

Interestingly, Ms. Papp is also modest about her importance to the Public. For example, although she discusses her role in shepherding The Normal Heart into existence as a stageable play, she certainly doesn't hint that her contribution was anything like (the famously crabby) Larry Kramer describes in Free for All:

Working with [Gail Merrifield Papp] was for me one of the most moving, creative, fertile, productive, challenging, positive experiences of my entire life. ... A good editor doesn't tell you what to do; he or she has the ability to bring out of you, pull out of you, your very best. And Gail never, ever told me what to do, but somehow, in our interaction in our meetings, she made me so aware of yet further possibilities within the script that I couldn't wait to get home to dramatize them ... It was an awesome experience.

Overall, Public/Private is what it is: a memory piece, emotionally based, that does a better job of sharing feelings about things than depicting the things themselves. It remains worth reading for its immediacy, character sketches, and great anecdotes. It also features a wonderful array of pictures (black-and-white and color), an index, a bibliography, and long lists of the people who acted, wrote, directed, and designed at Joe Papp's Public Theater. Perhaps most importantly, Gail Merrifield Papp is a top-notch writer with a unique and entertaining way with words.

Public/Private: My Life with Joe Papp at the Public Theater
By Gail Merrifield Papp
392 pages
Publication Date: October 17, 2023
ISBN: 978-1493074860
Hardcover / Kindle Edition / Audible Audiobook