Thomas Mann had a curt dismissal for someone who "thought he could pluck a leaf from the tree of art without paying for it with his life." No one understands in his bones the meaning of that line more than Jose Quintero.
Quintero has paid, over and over again, for being one of the greatest directors this country has known, by the way he uses the torment and complications of his productions on himself before he lays them out for his actors. His friend and colleague in the theater, Jason Robards, said, "Every production he does damn near kills him." Even his recent comments surrounding the powerful re-staging of "The Iceman Cometh," which closed at the Doolittle here after successful runs in Washington D.C. and New York, suggest someone rousing himself from a moribund state.
"Doing 'Iceman' again was one of the most frightening experiences of my life," he said. "The plunging into that play was almost more than I could bear. I'd made up my mind I wouldn't direct anymore.The tearing down of the theaters in New York had a punishing effect on me. It was only two theaters, but their destruction meant that New York was dead, dying. Its ghosts were escaping, like something out of Goya.
"Those places were holy temples. In the Morosco, 'Our Town' opened. The whole world heard. 'A Moon For the Misbegotten,' 'A Streetcar Named Desire,' 'Death of a Salesman' opened there. To see that the best works of the American repertory have not been respected by the people in the American theater meant the sense of spirituality, ritual, is going.
"The deeper the ritual, the deeper the communication. It's difficult to articulate. I ran away. My mother died in Panama. I said I wanted to go back to my beginnings. People think I'm looking for TV, but I'm a man of the theater. I'm passionately in love with the theater."
Every now and then Quintero will say "I'm a theatrical man" by way of explanation when every other attempt at self-revelation fails. He may even tilt his chin upward slightly and trail one of his slender arms, Camille-like, in a manner reminiscent of those old-time movie queens he saw as a boy in Panama City. But, with him, and given the penchant of Latins for drama, the manner doesn't seem an affectation.
"I have always been aware of life happening in the present sense," he said. "I go back and I imagine forward, but I always live in the present."
So does the theater, and that may be one of the many reasons why the bloodlines of Quintero and American drama at its height have been so deeply entangled. His recent award from the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle is only the latest of a cluster that includes two Tonys, two Drama Desk Awards, an Obie, an Outer Circle Award, an Emmy and the Eugene O'Neill Gold Medal gathered over a 35-year international career--and that's not all of them (his Order of Vasco Nunez de Balboa should no doubt expedite matters at Panamanian Customs).
Quintero was one of the principal figures in the last great chapter of American theater, the early to late-'50s in New York, when the young actors at his Circle In The Square (which he co-founded with Theodore Mann) included Jason Robards, Geraldine Page, George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst. The other seminal group was the Actors Studio which, with its more lustrous (at the time) roster of stars and heavy Method theorizing, did only three commercial productions outside of "The Three Sisters" and "Strange Interlude"--which Quintero directed.
("The Actors Studio could've been our national theater," Quintero says, in retrospect. "They could've called in any actor in America. But it was mismanaged. Lee Strasberg was fighting with Elia Kazan. They didn't know it, but they lost their whole magnificent opportunity because they couldn't straight-jacket their egos").
Quintero has never taken a course in directing. Before he started out, he was such a miserable academic failure that a chemistry professor at Los Angeles City College offered him a passing grade with the proviso that he never take a science course again (Quintero happily accepted the proposition). If he wants to, which is almost never, he can traffic in the lingo of Sense Memory and other technical specifics of acting theory. But he's not a theoretician. He doesn't come to early rehearsal with a worked out schematic in mind. The success or failure of a Quintero production ultimately depends on how much he's been able to absord the play into his own psychological makeup.
Robards, whose stature as one of our two or three top American actors has been gained considerably by working with Quintero, describes his approach: