Group Theatre (New York)
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The Group Theatre was a New York City theatre collective formed in 1931 by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg. It was intended as a base for the kind of theatre they and their colleagues believed in—a forceful, naturalistic and highly disciplined artistry. They were pioneers of what would become an "American acting technique", derived from the teachings of Konstantin Stanislavski, but pushed beyond them as well. The company included actors, directors, playwrights, and producers. The name "Group" came from the idea of the actors as a pure ensemble; there were to be no "stars".
The New York-based Group Theatre had no connection with the identically-named London-based Group Theatre founded in 1932.
In the ten years of its existence, the Group Theatre produced works by many important American playwrights, most notably Clifford Odets and Irwin Shaw. Its most successful production was the 1937-38 Broadway hit Golden Boy, starring Luther Adler and Frances Farmer.
The Group included Elia Kazan, Harold Clurman, Harry Morgan (billed as Harry Bratsburg), Stella Adler (a founding member), Robert Lewis, John Garfield (billed as Jules Garfield), Canada Lee, Franchot Tone, Frances Farmer, Phoebe Brand, Ruth Nelson, Will Geer, Howard Da Silva, John Randolph, Joseph Bromberg, Michael Gordon, Oscar Saul, Paul Green, Clifford Odets, Paul Strand, Morris Carnovsky, Sanford Meisner, Marc Blitzstein, Anna Sokolow, Lee J. Cobb, Roman Bohnen, Jay Adler, Luther Adler, Robert Ardrey, Don Richardson and many others.
The company's first production was Paul Green's The House of Connelly on September 23, 1931, at the Martin Beck Theatre. It was an immediate critical success and was recognized for the special ensemble performances which the Group would further develop. Playwright Green, however, was not happy with the more hopeful, upbeat ending that the Group had imposed on his brooding work. The Group's production of John Howard Lawson's Success Story, which chronicled the rise of a youthful idealist who sacrifices his principles as he rises to the top of the advertising business, won generally favorable reviews for its script, and enthusiastic praise for Luther Adler's starring performance. Later, during the first full season (1933–34), Men in White, written by Sidney Kingsley and directed by Lee Strasberg, became the Group's first financial success and also won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The Group took on novelist Dawn Powell's dark comedy Big Night, rehearsed it for close to six months and asked for extensive revisions from the playwright. The result was a critical and box-office disaster that ran a scant nine performances. Harold Clurman, who took over the production late in the rehearsal period, later admitted the Group's role in the fiasco. "The play should have been done in four swift weeks — or not at all. We worried it and harried our actors with it for months."
On the night of January 5, 1935, some members of the Group participated in a benefit performance for the New Theatre Magazine (Oscar Saul, editor). Written by Clifford Odets and directed by Odets and Sanford Meisner, the performance of Odets' one-act play Waiting for Lefty, at the Civic Repertory Theatre in New York City, became a theatrical legend. The play reflects a kind of street poetry that brought great acclaim to the Group, and to Odets as the new voice of social drama in the 'thirties. Odets became the playwright most strongly identified with the Group, and its productions of Awake and Sing! and Paradise Lost, both directed in 1935 by Harold Clurman, proved to be excellent vehicles for the Group's Stanislavskian aesthetic. The following year they produced the Paul Green-Kurt Weill anti-war musical Johnny Johnson, directed by Strasberg.
Elia Kazan directed Robert Ardrey's plays Casey Jones and Thunder Rock in 1938 and 1939-40 for the Group Theatre. Oscar Saul wrote "Flight," "Revolt of the Beavers", and "Medicine Show," among others.
The Group gathered at different summer locations to rehearse and train intensively for six of its ten years in existence. They spent the summer of 1936 at Pine Brook Country Club, located on a natural lake in the countryside of Nichols, Connecticut. Other summer venues included Brookfield Center, Connecticut (1931); Dover Furnace in Dutchess County, New York (1932); Green Mansions in Warrensburg, New York in 1933; a large house in Ellenville, New York (1934); and Lake Grove in Smithtown, New York in 1939.
Demise and later influence
Despite its success and sweeping impact on the American theater landscape for many years to come, by 1940, impending war, the lure of fame and fortune in Hollywood, the lack of institutional funding and the friction of interpersonal relationships within the Group eventually led to its demise. In the spring of 1941, Elia Kazan and Bobby Lewis accompanied Harold Clurman as he turned the key on the Group offices for the last time.
After the war, in 1947, Robert Lewis, Elia Kazan, and Cheryl Crawford founded the Actors Studio, where the techniques inspired by Stanislavski and developed in the Group Theatre were refined. Under the leadership of Lee Strasberg, who later joined the Actors Studio and became its director in 1951, what is now referred to as The Method emerged as a lasting force in modern drama.
Institutionally, the Group influenced the Chelsea Theater Center, a later theater in New York (1960s and 1970s), born of idealism and destroyed by lack of funding and friction between its co-directors. Hal Prince invokes the Group in his foreword to the book, Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theater.
In the 1950s, many of the former members were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Those who appeared as friendly witnesses, such as Elia Kazan, Clifford Odets, and Lee J. Cobb, avoided the fate of their colleagues who refused to name Communist Party members and, as a result, were blacklisted. Elia Kazan would later state he abandoned his Communist views in part because of an agenda to transform the Group Theater into a company devoted to promoting "Marxist Ideology." Odets would share similar concerns after experiencing pressure from the party to change the direction of his writing.
The Group Theatre is described in Robert Lewis' Slings And Arrows, Theater in My Life, Harold Clurman's The Fervent Years, and Wendy Smith's authoritative history Real Life Drama.
- Clurman, Harold (1983). The Fervent Years: the Group Theatre and the Thirties. New York: Da Capo Press.
- Clurman, p. 138
- Wesleyan Cinema Archives: The Elia Kazan Collection. Wesleyan University
- Images of America, Trumbull Historical Society, 1997, p. 123
- The Cambridge Guide to American Theatre, Don Wilmeth, p. 21
- Clurman, p. 36
- Smith, Wendy. Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940 New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990, p. 84;
- Smith, p. 139
- Smith, p. 180
- Smith, p. 364