THE BOOK SHELF: Historical Peeks at the Group Theatre and Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, Vocals for Beautiful, Gent's Guide and More

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20 Jul 2014

This month's column discusses Helen Krich Chinoy's new book about The Group Theatre; Jeffrey Sweet's 50th anniversary celebration of The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center; a bookful of monologues by Eric Bogosian; and vocal selection folios of A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and Ahrens and Flaherty's Rocky.

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The Theatre Guild, established in 1919 by a band of visionaries keen on elevating the level of drama on the American stage, did just that by developing a clutch of American playwrights over the course of the 1920s. They also, as it happened, unwittingly developed an insurgence in the ranks. Two bit-part players (Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman) and an assistant stage manager (Cheryl Crawford) wanted a theatre in which the acting company itself played an integral part in the creation of the work, ideally with scripts developed and written by members of the company.

After a lot of talking — and with partial backing from the Guild — the trio selected a group of 27 actors and took them to Connecticut for the summer of 1931. (These were the pre-air conditioning days, when all but the biggest Broadway hits were dark during the summer.) They lived collectively and returned in September with their first production, Paul Green's The House of Connolly. (The Guild elders, once they saw a runthrough, demanded changes; when the Group triumvirate refused, the Guild withdrew half of the promised $10,000 financing. Crawford struggled to find the rest, with a full thousand coming from a sympathetic Guild playwright: Eugene O'Neill.)

Two dozen plays followed through 1940, with Sidney Kingsley's Pulitzer-winning Men in White and two by ingrown-playwright Clifford Odets (Awake and Sing! and Golden Boy) among the biggest successes. The Group disbanded after only a decade — conflicting egos, politics, the oncoming war and its own commercial success weakened the socialistic underpinnings — but it has continued to have an outsized influence on stage and screen acting. Crawford and two original Group actors — Robert Lewis and Elia Kazan — founded the Actor's Studio in 1947, later joined by Strasberg. Meanwhile, Stella Adler — another original Group member (and Clurman's wife), who felt that the Studio method subverted Stanislavsky's teachings — started her own studio of acting in 1949.

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The Group's story is intensively told in "The Group Theatre: Passion, Politics, and Performance in the Depression Era" by Helen Krich Chinoy, edited by Don B. Wilmeth and Milly S. Barranger [Palgrave Macmillan]. Chinoy, who died in 2010, was a longtime academic, spending 30 years on the faculty at Smith College; her books include "Actors on Acting" and "Women in American Theatre." She dedicated much of her attention — over many decades — to The Group, interviewing many of the participants for her 1976 book "Reunion: A Self-Portrait of The Group Theatre." The new volume — an expansion of the former — was left unrealized when the author developed Alzheimer's, and has been finished by her editors.

This is a comprehensive and informative look at The Group. It is also dense, if you know what I mean; Chinoy is meticulous, but this is not exactly breezy reading. People interested in The Group Theatre are presumably going to find a great deal of information that will enhance their understanding of this important movement and the dynamic personalities involved, and I gladly recommend this new book to them.



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