Harold Clurman – Lecture On Theatre In Contemporary Society – February 15, 1961 –
At the time, Critic and director Harold Clurman was one of the most influential figures in the history of American Theatre. As one of the founders of the Group Theatre in New York in 1930. Together with the like-minded Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg, and together with 28 other young people, they formed a group that developed a groundbreaking style of theater that strongly influenced American productions. It included such elements as Stanislavski-trained actors, realism based on American stories, and political content. By building a permanent company, they expected to increase the synergy and trust among the members, who included Stella Adler, Morris Carnovsky, Phoebe Brand, Elia Kazan, Clifford Odets, and Sanford Meisner.
In the summer of 1931, the first members of the Group Theatre rehearsed for several weeks in the countryside of Nichols, Connecticut at the Pine Brook Country Club. They were preparing The House of Connelly by Paul Green, their first production, directed by Strasberg. Clurman was the scholar of the group — he knew multiple languages, read widely, and listened to a broad array of music. Strasberg dealt with acting and directing, and Crawford dealt with the business.
The first play which Clurman directed for the Group Theatre was Awake and Sing! by Clifford Odets in 1935. The play’s success led Clurman to develop his directing style. He believed that all the elements of a play—text, acting, lighting, scenery and direction—needed to work together to convey a unified message. Clurman would read the script over and over, each time focusing on a different element or character. He tried to inspire, guide and constructively critique his designers rather than dictate to them. He also used Richard Boleslavsky’s technique of identifying the “spine,” or main action, of each character, then using those to determine the spine of the play. He encouraged his actors to find “active verbs” to describe what their characters were trying to accomplish.
In this lecture, given on February 15, 1961, Clurman is critical of the commercialism that had become Broadway – how, even in 1961 plays were geared toward box office receipts rather than artistic merit. Even more interesting was the dismay over ticket prices, which had climbed upwards of $8.00 a seat for one of the must-see plays. He was still holding out hope for Off-Broadway and off-off Broadway, but the prospects were dim.
Compare that to the state of Theatre in 2023 and you may find yourself thinking “maybe this time . . . .” – but it’s a fascinating glimpse into the state of the Arts in the early 1960s, during a time when changes were brewing and Theatre was a vital element in the creative tapestry.
There are two additional Clurman lectures from the same period dealing with different aspects of Contemporary Theatre in 1961. I hope to run those in the near future.
For now . . .