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Group Therapy on Broadway : REAL LIFE DRAMA : The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940 By Wendy Smith (Alfred A. Knopf: $24.95; 448 pp.)

December 09, 1990|Josh Greenfeld | Greenfeld's new novel, "What Happened Was This" (Carroll & Graf), deals with the blacklist in the '50s

"Life isn't printed on dollar bills!" --Clifford Odets, "Awake and Sing"

"Print the legend . " --"The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"

First came the word--or rather the words of Harold Clurman, a 29-something-year-old play reader for the Theatre Guild with his own directorial ambitions. In manifesto-like lectures in concert halls and cafeterias and apartments, he messianically articulated a dream for actors:

"The individualism of self-assertion is self-destructive. . . . The individual can realize himself only by seeking his spiritual brethren and by making their common aspirations and problems the object of his active devotion. . . . If the theatre is in art . . . collective art though it be . . . it must create . . . an expression that will have . . . an identity and significance with which people, sharing the common experience, may sense their kinship and to which they can attach themselves."

Guild co-workers Lee Strasberg, a young actor and director only too ready to translate Clurman's ideological vision into workaday theater, and Cheryl Crawford, a seemingly calm, sensible, practical stage manager who also hoped someday to be a director, joined ranks alongside Clurman.

And on the rainy morning of June 8, 1931, 27 actors and actresses, their assorted spouses and children, joined the three founders in front of the Guild Theatre on West 52nd Street, boarded a caravan of old cars and drove out toward Danbury, Conn. Five miles from town they stopped at Brookfield Center, a vacated vacation resort consisting of a bleak barn, a dining hall in need of repair and enough assorted small cottages to house their motley crew. And in the next 10 weeks--with $4,800 raised from friends and sympathizers to cover their room and board--the legendary Group Theatre was launched.

Sixty years later, that first summer of the Group together as a collective unit is still recalled by its surviving members with the nostalgia of Castroites remembering the Sierra Mastre. Dreams were churning into reality. There were rehearsals for the Broadway production of "The House of Connelly," a play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Green. Classes in affective memory--instructions and exercises on how to use the resources of one's own emotional experiences as a basis for a character's actions--were taught by Strasberg ("He was God that summer," recalls Bobby Lewis). Afternoon lectures were delivered by Clurman on the need for actors to meld their lives as sensitive artists and socially conscious people into cohesive theatrical expressions: A good actor, he reiterated, was a good person serving the message of a good play.

And, of course, all was not play of the theatrical variety; there was also real play. Serious drinkers like Art Smith and Franchot Tone had huge stores of applejack under their beds; Morris Carnovsky, J. Edward Bromberg and Tony Kraber dabbled at chess; Clifford Odets chased after every actress ("He didn't understand how any woman could refuse him," according to Elia Kazan), and Clurman was slavish in his devotion to one particular woman, Stella Adler.

By summer's end, Joe Bromberg had summed up the group's mood: "None of us will ever be really satisfied anywhere else in the theater again." Nor were they.

In the next few years, the Group spent more summers in the country and had its share of Broadway successes in the city. But it never solved two essential problems. The first was an organizational one: how to function as a true collective and cooperative. Only for a very brief period did its members receive anything like monthly pay checks, and when the money supply ran low, even these paychecks were not parceled out fairly.

The second unresolved problem that plagued the Group throughout its existence was a haphazard, scattershot, undemocratic and highly arbitrary method--or rather lack of method--in finding and choosing plays. ("You don't seem to understand, Clifford," Lee Strasberg told Odets in refusing to put on "Awake and Sing." "We don't like your play.") Nor was it the Group itself that originally produced the signature work most identified with it--Odets' "Waiting for Lefty"--but rather a moonlighting group within the Group that had hooked up with another theater collective.

In fact, Wendy Smith's "Real Life Drama," which actually seems to eschew most of the drama in order to present a sober and orderly accounting of the Group's history, makes it abundantly clear that given not only the economic hardships of the period both within and without theater but also the cast of the curious characters of the Group leadership triumvirate, it was nothing short of miraculous that the Group ever managed to survive the decade.

The Cast:

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