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A CurtainUp Review
Joe Papp: An American Life
by Helen Epstein
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer
I've admired both Joseph Papp and his biographer Helen Epstein for many years.
Papp's name has always ben synonymous with theatrical energy for me. I can still taste the excitement of those early seasons when people discovered that the best new plays were emerging from the stages of what was referred to simply as "the Public."" Papp meant Chorus Line, Sticks and Stones & That Championship Season and too many other good plays for an all-inclusive list. And of course, Papp meant Shakespeare---free Shakespeare in Central Park, year-round Shakespeare on Lafayette Street.
When I heard Helen Epstein was going to do Papp's biography, I knew that this wouldn't be just another show biz kiss-and-tell story for I'd read two previous books by her which had left an indelible mark on my memory. The first,Children of the Holocaust , has had a fascinating after-life of regular meetings of people like Epstein whose parents' holocaust experiences were often a highly charged emotional puzzle. Since the building on Lafayette street that houses the Papp Public Theater was once a center for HIAS. the agency that processed refugees from Nazism, the holocaust book comes to mind as a fitting prelude to her Papp biography. The second Epstein book was a group biography of classical musicians, (Music Talks, which demonstrated her ability to weave a diverse cast of people into a vivid tapestry. Since reading that book whenever I read about a musician who's studied with the music teacher Dorothy DeLay, one of Epstein's subjects, I find myself thinking "lucky you."
All this by way of telling you that Helen Epstein's biography of Joseph Papp is everything a biography should be. It is not only a rich portrait of a fascinating and complex man, but a case study of the evolution of a large theatrical organization. Written after Papp's death, it is nevertheless based on the author's fifteen year personal connection with him and his family, as well as extensive research and interviews.
Gail Merrifield Papp not only authorized the book, but on Epstein's insistence was written into the book contract as a collaborator. Clearly, Epstein, like her subject, often goes against the grain of the conventional methods of her trade. Fortunately the risks she took as a biographer, did no harm to the integrity and objectivity of the final product. I can't imagine even the curmudgeonly John Simon, who managed a mean-spirited comment about Joe Papp on the very day of his funeral, faulting Ms. Epstein for her portrait of the impresario and the institution to which he gave birth. The book's prologue includes Simon's comments, and does not shrink from other less-than-flattering aspects of Papp's private and public actions.
The biography, true to its subtitle-- An American Life--is very much a story of the son of American immigrants. The drama of Papp's not always nice private life --his Jewish boyhood in Brooklyn as Joseph Papirofsky, his emerging social conscience, his marriages and his relationship with his children. Everything is fully documented. Whether you're a Papp admirer or not, you will nonetheless feel the sting of pain that surrounded his death, and come away with an appreciation of his dedication to "real" theater. The book's end matter has a New York Shakespeare Festival Production List from 1954 to 1991 that includes the director but unfortunately not the cast. There are, however, two sections of photographs which include one of Papp directing Coleen Dewhurst in a 1963 Antony and Cleopatra. (The star and director of the new production, #35 in the marathon devoted to mounting the entire Shakespeare canon, is Vanessa Redgrave).