Harold Clurman discusses the theatre and his book "The Fervent Years"
BROADCAST: Mar. 20, 1978 | DURATION: 00:57:45
Being both a theatre critic and a theatre director prompted Harold Clurman to write his book, "The Fervent Years: The Group Theatre and the 30's". Clurman hopes that with every play a viewer sees, he or she then takes that material and ponders the message. Clurman explained that plays were a way to communicate truth about life.
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Studs Terkel The program you're about to hear took place 12 years ago in 1978 with the late Harold Clurman, distinguished American director and theater critic. [pause in recording] One of the most exciting men of the theater is Harold Clurman. When I say theater, I mean American theater, and I think of a certain moment. I think of Clurman, who is now the very perceptive drama critic of "The Nation" magazine and has been the author of some really exciting books about periods in American history and the American theater, "The Fervent Years", dealing with the '30s of this -- during our conversation we'll hear something. A new book on Ibsen. Everybody can be famous.
Studs Terkel "All People Are Famous", remember that and "Lies Like Truth", dealing with theater. This conversation takes place when we're hearing is immediately before his lecture at the St. Nicholas Theatre, which will have occurred by the time this broadcast is heard. So in a moment, the reflections of Harold Clurman on American theater and by the very nature of his interests, American life. In a moment after this message. [pause in recording]
Studs Terkel In hearing that voice, Mr. Clurman, Ethel Waters, "His Eye is on the Sparrow", one of the most beautiful curtains I think of any theater, any play I've heard. She sings this in Carson McCullers' adaptation of her play, "Member of the Wedding" that you directed. What thought comes to your mind?
Harold Clurman Well, a number of thoughts. One of them is how beautiful that actress Julie Harris was, was she was -- appeared in that play before she was a star, and how excellent and admirable actress she's become, and how she's lived up to all her ideals of scrupulous work and inspiration in the theater. I think of poor Brandon DeWilde who had never been an actor before, who was a perfect actor at the age of seven, and who died unfortunately prematurely at the age of 30 in an automobile accident, and about Ethel Waters who didn't have much faith in the play at the beginning, but who was astonished to find that the play was a great success, because it seemed to be a play about -- without much plot, and a number of people, and myself included, were very doubtful of its success. I remember telling the producer, Robert Whitehead, when he asked me to direct it, that I didn't think it was going to be a hit, and he said, "But do you like it?" I said, "Very much." He said, "That case, why not do it?" And I said, "You're right. I've given you the wrong answer, which is the right answer." And it was a play I say that no one wanted to do. One of the directors who had been offered to direct it, Joshua Logan, said, "It has to be completely rewritten." And so the producer didn't want to do it. Didn't want to [hammer?] to read it. They brought it to me, and the agent said, "Well, what do you think has to be done with it?" I said, "Nothing. It has to be produced." She thought, "Boy, this man doesn't understand anything about the theater." Because it didn't follow the norms of dramatic construction which were usual, but with the exception of two scenes which we took out later, and one new line, the play was as written and it was an enormous success that played over the country and in Europe and so forth.
Studs Terkel And it occurs to me that you were the natural person to direct it, because what does it deal with that, what did Carson McCullers deal with, three people, sensitive who were outsiders. The old Black woman Bernice, Ethel Waters; a girl growing up, a tomboy figure, Frankie Adams, not certain who she is, wants to be a member of the wedding, her brother getting married, and this little bright little kid played by -- John Henry, played by Brandon DeWilde, all three sensitive yet outsiders. And yet isn't this what always attracted you, these very sensitive people outside the establishment. Something to
Harold Clurman I remember the, Carson McCullers, the first time I ever met her, I had never met her before, but I had to first speak to her about the play, and asked me, "What do you think this play is about?" I said, "It's about togetherness. It's about the people reaching out to be part of something greater than themselves, which is a basic fundamental human instinct. It's a feeling about, I have to be a member of a wedding, which means I have to be a member of the world. And I have to be, the world has to be part of me, and I have to be part of the world." So she immediately stuck out her hand, congratulated me on having understood the play, but that by the way idea is fundamental to the play but it's also fundamental to me, because my whole idea has always been that the group, and through the group, through a community, through people of like-minded people loving each other, thinking together, and working together is the only way for a family, a community or a nation to exist.
Studs Terkel Because as you say that, you said the group, a feeling of working together, naturally we think of the theater of the '30s, the one to me the theater that present exhilaration and hope and excitement, the Group Theatre, which you were one of the key figures, one of the co-directors of it. We think of that '30s, the Depression and of course Odets, your playwright, one of, and that group. I suppose that's still with you very strongly, and I'm [not you think of?] that, I think of today as well.
Harold Clurman I, I, that's the fundamental, my fundamental [little?] belief, I believe in communities. I believe in working together with other people, I believe in helping other people as a means of growing oneself. The more one is interested in the world outside oneself, the more one grows oneself. The individual cannot grow except through contact with the outside world. The whole idea, the whole aspiration of life, the whole meaning of religion, the whole meaning of art is the reaching out towards the greater, the greater part of the of the universe, namely everything that is outside of oneself. One is very small unless one joins to some extent to the measure of one's capacity that sense of the of the outside world.
Harold Clurman I have anoth-- the other is a further memoir, all people are -- There is a further memoir, but it's a memoir that extends beyond the theater, because I've known many novelists, painters, musicians, politicians, all sorts of people all over the world.
Studs Terkel -- We'll come to the other matter, too, and your travels in Europe and your friendship with Aaron Copeland and, but mostly we're talking about the word "fervent." Maybe the operative word, "fervent."
Studs Terkel I know they are. I remember hearing you talk at Northwestern University, and your talk, you were so ebullient and full of passion. I remember your shirttail came out, but the kids, the audience was enthralled, because mostly what you did is you exhilarated them.
Harold Clurman Yes.
Harold Clurman Yeah, I'll tell you a joke about that. The man, one of the men in the field of stage design, Boris Aronson, who did "Fiddler On The Roof" and many Broadway shows, got his, some of his best productions that he ever did at these early part of his career with a group theatre, and has remained a close friend, and he used to -- he didn't speak English very well, he still doesn't speak English well, he's been in the United States most of his life, but he still has a Russian accent, and he once heard me speak at the group, and he said, "If father, if Harold hadn't been a theater man, he'd have been 'Father DeWine,'" mean the, the revivalist.
Harold Clurman Because I speak about the theater as if I were a revivalist speaking about morality and God knows and human love and so forth, because that's what the theater means to me, it's an expression of the deepest feelings of men and the community you can have and share together.
Harold Clurman That is what it should be. People always say, "Why don't you talk about entertainment?" I said, "What's more entertaining that is exhilarating, engaging than the love of the community, the love of people, and the ideas communicated to you by the playwright and by the actors to the audience?" That's entertainment! That's the greatest form of entertainment! So the distinction between entertainment as something trivial and theater as something noble and serious is a silly one.
Studs Terkel Yeah, I'm thinking, we can improvise this conversation, there is no, there are no notes here, I was thinking, as you say theater exhilarates and ennobles, [unintelligible], there's a review you wrote once in "The Nation" some years ago, and it was about Lear. You saw "King Lear" and you said something -- a tremendous tragedy exhilarates you. It does not depress, but exhilarates.
Harold Clurman Yes, no theater should depress you. That's -- but every -- certain kinds of audience think that anything that's a little sad, so to speak, which has tears in it is depressing. But what tragedy does is to say, life is difficult, but there are men, and all men should be of that type, who rise above it, that who's who struggle, and even if they fail, the struggle itself which is a struggle to make things better than they are, is an exhilarating thing that men, despite all the pain that is attendant upon the experience, want to go on living and want to overcome their difficulties, overcome if not for themselves, for others. And that's an exhilarating fact. If there hadn't been people who made sacrifices, beginning with certain religious teachers who suffered for them, we wouldn't be the people we are today.
Harold Clurman Elevation by struggle! The elevation by struggle against adversity, against impediments of hypocrisy and bigotry and pressures of all kinds, of all kinds of -- against natural causes. Against bad [weathers?] events, all sorts of things because life is a constantly frustrating our immediate desires, and yet the struggle to overcome these things is what man, makes man a very noble creature.
Harold Clurman Yes, and I often say that I'm very amused by the people saying that it was a period of depression. Of course they're talking about the economics, and that was true. I said I find that the depression is almost right now, rather than then, because true, the people are losing money and not getting jobs and so forth. But they were fighting it with a certain kind of happy sense that they might overcome it, and to a large extent they did overcome, they overcame many things which were in the way. And now I find this a sort of dead level of complacency or indifference or pessimism or bitterness or cynicism, all of which I find depressing, except I'm not depressed because I don't share in any of those vices.
Studs Terkel Thinking about then and now, the '30s and now, in one of the plays you directed, your -- the playwright of Group Theatre, when you and your colleagues, just who came out of this [and actor?] was Clifford Odets.
Harold Clurman That's
Harold Clurman Well, I used to say that was the keynote, the motto of the Group Theatre, "Life is not printed on dollar bills," because at that time as you remember as well as I do that there are men who, when they lost five million dollars and reduced to $100,000 would commit suicide. And I didn't think that it's the loss of money should make you that that desperate. It's unpleasant, it's very painful, but as long as you have health and your brains and your love for people, you should always go on feeling that you have everything.
Studs Terkel I must tell you this horror story, this comic story. Frank Livermore, the great speculator, killed himself in the Sherry-Netherlands hotel washroom. Before he died, he had had millions and millions, and a friend of his said, "Well, don't feel depre-- you still got ten million." He said, "I'm talking about money."
Harold Clurman Yes, I say, that was the kind of thing that went on, I said, "Life shouldn't be printed on dollar bills." And I said, "These people who were so rich were miserable and unfortunate people, if they --" even before, because if they were the kind of people that were so vulnerable as to break down into, into and despair and suicide because they lost a few million dollars, or all million dollars or all their money, then they had no faith in life and basically no faith in themselves. Whereas I remember once being terribly in debt. Twenty thousand dollars I owed to the government alone, and some to a crowd of people. And my lawyer, who didn't seem to find any [means?] of helping me out of the trouble, said, "What are you going to do?" And I, and there were several lawyers there, because they were concerned, they liked me, they were concerned about my bad, my bad finances, about the economic situation, and they said, "What are you going to do?" and I said, "Gentlemen, I want to assure you that if you hear of a suicide, that -- if you hear my death, it won't be by suicide." And they all laughed, and I went out thinking, "Gee, I'm in trouble, but I don't feel badly. I'll overcome the trouble, I'll be all right. I'll be prosperous again if, in and when I -- prosperous I hope I'm just as I'm just as happy as I am now without prosperity."
Harold Clurman The Group Theatre was a theater that said we must affirm life. We must be believers in life, which means belief is in people, believe in, believe in ourselves, and we must -- I always said there are two things that -- I believe first of all that the one thing that's absolutely true, you know there are very many things you can say that are absolutely true, but the one thing I believe to be absolutely true and forever true, as long as forever can be thought of as a concept, that men and women wish to live. Of course, there are people with a death wish and all that sort of thing. But if it weren't true that we didn't wish to live, humanity would be wiped out completely, because we've had Black Deaths, we've had times of terrible earthquake, natural causes, but people -- and people have gone to concentration camps and all this, they were absolutely destroyed by the concentration camp, they came out with the desire to live, and did live. And I say that everything that helps that feeling of wanting to live and [concurring life on?] is good, everything that diminishes it is evil. That's my whole morality in a nutshell.
Studs Terkel And as you say this, I think of you now as the drama critic of "The Nation", and your comments on theater. How, how -- this is a general question of course, you can take off in how you -- your thoughts about American theater today and the idea of affirmation of life. You find something cockeyed?
Harold Clurman Yes, I find that there's been a great loss of faith in life, and that's expressed sometimes very ably expressed with a considerable amount of talent especially by the English playwrights today. They write very clever plays, but their plays are full of negation. One play that's very typical is a play called "Butley", which was very successful on Broadway, it was well-acted, it was well-written, and it was about a college teacher. And he teaches English, but he doesn't believe much of the teaching of poetry, he teaches Eliot, and he doubts whether that's very useful. He doesn't like his wife, he doesn't like his child, he doesn't like his mistress. That's also in, by the way, in a play by -- called "Inadmissible Evidence" by John Osborne. There's a constant tense -- or there's a play that, also by "Butley", which was very successful, got a prize, called "Otherwise
Harold Clurman Yeah, well I found -- everybody thought was marvelous. I was the only one who negated it, who gave it a bad notice. Not in the sense of denying the author was talented and wrote well, but the idea of a man being wise because he cut himself off from any contact and feeling and just plays "Parsifal" as like a dose is just as bad as thinking a drug to just play "Parsifal" all the time, and not care about his wife, not care about his infidelities, not care about his fail-- his brother's troubles, don't care about the men he made unhappy. If that was an example of wisdom I'd have none of such wisdom, and I thought it was very indicative that they all thought it was lovely and beautiful and was rather nice that they were retreating from the world. I think one should retreat from certain aspects of the world,
Studs Terkel Mr. Clurman? You know why I walked out on "Otherwise Engaged"? Just for the reasons you just described so, so well, that he didn't give a damn about anything, anybody, and I suddenly realized I didn't give a damn about him.
Harold Clurman He was supposed to be a publisher. I wouldn't want to be a writer to submit books if he doesn't, he shouldn't give a damn about literature except to make a living. And I don't care about his being a publisher.
Studs Terkel Funny as you mention this, about he didn't care about the world, cut himself off and that was it, and that middle-class audience seeing this thought, "Oh, it was great." The last -- one of the last productions Group Theatre did was "Thunder Rock" by Robert Ardrey.
Studs Terkel It was the last, but Ardrey's anthropology is somewhat different from his dramaturgy, because that's about someone, the lighthouse keeper, who walked away from it, was drawn back into it by circumstance.
Harold Clurman Yes. That was a play that gave great hope to the English, because the play was about people who had despaired and who had despaired of the life that, sunk in a boat [had drowned?] and despaired that life would ever be any better.
Studs Terkel Says lighthouse keeper, [may just great, lies?] has a log. He lives by himself, he cut himself off from the world. It's the beginning of World War II, and he comes across a log of a ship a hundred years ago founded off Fire Island. But these figures come back to haunt him. They ran away, and they say to him, "You must -- we ran away, and were wrong. You must go back into the world."
Harold Clurman Yes, and that and that was very, it was not a success of America. It wasn't very well understood in New York, but it was an enormous success in England, and the reason was it was right at the beginning of the war, when all England was depressed, and here was a play was saying, "Don't be depressed, this won't last forever. There's hope. The future may be much better than it has been in the past, and must never give up hope, one must always strive to make a better world."
Harold Clurman I don't mean hope to say that tomorrow I'll be richer, or tomorrow I'll have a better job. I mean the preservation and the noblest -- I would say noblest, I would say the most active part of oneself is in present action. I am hopeful, by of course I speak to you right now. There's nothing else I'm doing. I don't know if I'll live as I get out through the door, but it's hopeful that I think it's worthwhile talking to you and communicating my ideas. That's hope. The very fact -- having breakfast is a hopeful act with a simple reason why you have breakfast, it's no use living. Your having that is an affirmation of your expectation that the next moment will also be good, and you're preparing yourself for the next moment. And I am preparing myself, not only preparing myself for this lecture I'm going to give tonight, which I hope I reach and I sustain and live through, but I'm also hoping in fact that I'm priming myself
Studs Terkel with That's beautiful. Yeah, I [understood?] -- as you're talking there's a review of yours in the March 4th issue of "The Nation", it's a -- I think a very profound exciting one, about the role of a critic. What is a critic? Because you're not only a director and anthologist and writer of good books, but an excellent critic. He said the word critic is not to be a wise guy, but is a -- a critic's value is not -- I'm quoting Harold Clurman, "A critic's value is not in a summary opinion, but in the quality of his insights and in his capacity to" -- here's the point -- "to stimulate the possibility of further speculation."
Harold Clurman Yes.
Harold Clurman To excite them to think about what they've seen, and to think even further and to question or to go beyond the momentary amusement which is of course the first satisfaction, the indispensable satisfaction. But to think more about what they've seen, to question it, to challenge it, to elaborate on it. To argue with, for example, in the "Otherwise Engaged", well not, people laughed, I must have laughed somewhat too, they said it was well written and appreciated the excellent writing. I appreciated this, and there were nice performances, I loved all of that. But I said, "But what's going on here?" The people are taking this as just, "Oh, it's funny, therefore I laugh." But there are times we laugh at things which are cruel, and we have to say that I shouldn't have laughed, or if I did it was only the little cruel part of me which exists in all of us, that was laughing and to make, to stimulate them, because then every play becomes a statement, even a light comedy becomes a statement, and it's not a statement about the theatre, it's a statement about life, because if theater has nothing to do with life, we don't need it. The theater is there to stimulate our experience of life, to increase it, to make it richer, to, to make it more than even we understood it, because most people don't understand their own experience, and it's the artist, whether it be artist in the theater or a novelist or poet or whatever, actually enriches our experience as we understand more about ourselves through having read Tolstoy, let's say, or through having read Emerson's essays, or to have read Walt Whitman's poems. I mean, the idea of America, the America, the glorious America, is really was created to some extent for the middle of the 9th -- in the middle of the 19th century by Whitman, and he was celebrating America. He was saying what America would look forward to, what its ideals are, why it was, transcended the values even of Europe and through that we get to say, we -- the people of the time who read him, who could appreciate him, just as said, we were living in a great country, with a great opportunity to do what Europe never did. And all of that I think it was not just good poetry or nice literature as decorations to life, because the arts are not decorations their life, they're the flower of life! We live to create art, we live to create art not only through books and music, we live to create art through conversation, through comradeship, through friendship! All our acts should be a work of art. Everything we do should be in conceived as art. That is what I think of as art as being the very essence of what we're here for, when you talk, and you talk to so many people, you're trying to arouse in them the best of their thinking, or argue with them whether you don't agree with them, and through the argument possibly in the disagreement come to a further truth beyond that truth which you expressed and he expressed, and at least the audience will judge you both, and they will gather something. That's what life is all about. It's a constant cooperation, without which we couldn't live one day. If the whole world weren't around, I couldn't get out of this building. If the elevator were stopped, I couldn't get out of that building. The taxi wouldn't take me, I couldn't, I couldn't go to where I'm going. Everything is cooperation, we're all cooperated, we're all independent. None of us is completely individual
Harold Clurman Interdependent. None of us is I say independent, we're all interdependent, and none of us can live one hour without the cooperation of many people. First of all, we're not even responsible for ourselves. There are two people at least who created us, and really many more.
Studs Terkel You know, as you say this of course so passionately, thank God, even though I'm an atheist, thank God passionately and fervently and eloquently. It's precisely why "Otherwise Engaged" was a bore. It's presented the opposite of what you're talking about.
Harold Clurman Exactly. It was, and if it said, "Look, this is why people are coming to, and it's a horrible example," that would have been okay. But it was presented as if this man was wise and we all like to be here. We'd all like to shut the world out and pay for no attention anybody, not to your wife, not to your children, not to anything at all. He seems hardly to be disturbed. The only time he seems a little disturbed, a tiny disturbed, when his wife tells him that he's pre-- she's pregnant and she doesn't know who the father is. That disturbs him just a little bit, but probably to his ego more than to anything else.
Studs Terkel And yet, as we think of playwrights, and even I know that Harold Pinter directed that. That's also one of the reasons for it being a "cause celebre" in London, I'm not kidding myself, remember that so well, we think of someone else. And here again you have interesting thoughts. Samuel Beckett. The first reaction is Beckett is pessimistic. I don't feel he is.
Harold Clurman That's true. You -- what you're saying is absolutely true. What he is, he's deeply religious. The whole idea of the, of his most famous play, "Waiting for Godot", is these two people who are derelicts or bums, tramps, who are waiting for somebody they call Godot, and he doesn't appear. And then finally at the end of the play they always promise that he will appear, come tomorrow, come tomorrow, come tomorrow. He never appears. And finally one of them says, "We really -- we haven't found Godot, Godot hasn't come to us, but we know we're better than most people because we're waiting." What does that mean? We're looking for a solution for the misery of our lives. And we're waiting for somehow, some messiah possibly, some redeemer, to -- to answer us with a with a faith, with a belief that would make our -- would justify the suffering. But though he hasn't come yet, maybe will never come, we have the aspiration, and that aspiration is a religious aspiration, because in another, later play, Beckett has a line where the woman is walking around miserably, which is, it's called "Footfalls", and she's always walking, and she wants the sound of her walking to be heard. And finally her mother says, "Why are you so [un?] nervous? Isn't this your" -- oh, yes, I have that in the book -- article. "Isn't the motion sufficient?" Then she says, "The motion alone is not sufficient," which means living day by day without any idea, without any feeling, it's, it is all meaningful, is not enough. We are looking for more. We're looking for God., if you believed in God, or for something which is called by any other name is the equivalent of our idea of God, which is a unifying principle which can give us faith.
Studs Terkel That's very funny. I was just pointing to this particular view of yours, of this reflection of yours, I should say in the March 4th issue of "The Nation" which you speak of seeing a re-evaluating "Footfalls", the Beckett play. You thought you had misinterpreted the first time.
Harold Clurman Yes.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Harold Clurman So in other words, there myself as a director I was telling -- actually, there as a critic, I was telling the audience to do what I as a critic has done. I seen the play, I'd made an evaluation, it was pretty good, then I said, "But I didn't see ENOUGH. I should've seen MORE, and I am now correcting myself. Very few critics correct themselves. They don't know much to begin with, and they know, and they never try to find out more after, unless somebody tells them. Of course, "Godot" was completely disregarded by most of the viewers when it first came, it was considered very unimportant, and as the reputation grew, the critics began to say, "Well, maybe we made a mistake."
Studs Terkel But in the matter of "Footfalls", you describe it, the very fact that it seems repetitious. She wants to hear -- the motion is not enough, the daughter says, she wants to hear the footfall, and as you write this, you say what Beckett implies, the world's motion or our daily action, here's part of your credo again. It's not enough for him. Its REALITY is only a faint footfall, a bleak awareness of his presence or existence, but he yearns indeed, and you italicize, "needs more than this to lend substance to his being. He wants as confirmation for that mystery of faith, which the vagrants in 'Godot' are waiting. And here again the interdependence, BANKing on some BODY or some other idea.
Studs Terkel We come to Harold Clurman and his credo. Let's take a slight pause for a moment and resume this conversation. I'd like to, more thoughts of a man I admired for so long, and do admire now, Harold Clurman, and perhaps about his new book, his new book on Ibsen, for that and in a moment. [pause in recording] Resuming the conversation with Harold Clurman, this is after his lecture at the St. Nicholas Theatre. I want to ask you about contemporary theatre again, the way you touched on it, but you have a book, a collection of [essays?] called "Lies Like Truth".
Harold Clurman That's right. It comes from two statements, that title. People said it's a very peculiar title. I said, "Well, Picasso said art was a lie that tells the truth." And Shakespeare has one of the characters, Macbeth I think says something to the effect "Those witches speak lies that are like truth." In other words, those fantastics remarks and Sibylline things that they utter are exactly what happens, so they are telling lies like truth, and the theater is that way. It's a fiction, it's not true, it's the imagination. It's a story. Sometimes a cock-and-bull story. but the point is to tell you something that is true and valuable to you. That's what I think that all art is, and especially the theater, which is most fictitious, everything -- the scenery is fake, so to speak, with the actors are performing parts which are not themselves, etc., etc., but they are communicating a truth about life, we hope.
Harold Clurman Yes, it's a later book of criticism and of later stuff, has similar lies like truth in it, but I also took a quotation from Voltaire who said the theater was a divine pastime. It's wittier than that, but that's the essence of it.
Studs Terkel Now I was thinking, "Lies Like Truth", how that which is seemingly fictitious highlights the truth and gives us as you would say, the insight we need. When Hamlet advises the players, you know, about art to mirror nature, imitating na-- often I find when something hits me, it reminds me, it came because of a play that I saw, or a piece of music that I heard.
Harold Clurman SUPPOSING there was no love in the world. Or, I would -- no, that wouldn't be possible, but supposing a man had -- or a woman had never experienced love, really expressed it, a fellow would be -- it would be meaningless. Or "Tristan and Isolde" would be a lot of noise. Or of course they wouldn't say, "What's about?" In other words, you always have to have you in your a part of the experience which the author is expressing, which the playwright is expressing, otherwise you wouldn't understand
Studs Terkel So when someone says to you and you've heard this so often, I know, "Oh, Mr. Clurman, that's a message play. I don't want any messages in my plays," that person doesn't know what he's talking about.
Harold Clurman Well you see, that most of the playwrights, what we call a vision of some kind, like Beckett, are already mature playwrights, and now we have to look at the young playwrights, and there is a danger always in saying, "This man has, he's going to be a great playwright if he's under 40." So I look with a great -- how shall I say -- sympathy to the works of Sam Shepherd, who had a -- new playwrights I find awkward but excellent in many respects called the "Curse of the Starving Classes" [sic - "Curse of the Starving Class"]. I'm not sure its press reception was favorable in New York but I liked it, even though it was spots I liked. David Mamet especially in "American Buffalo", a play really about a number of things, about friendship as well as others. He's very talented, but I don't like to say he's an, coming playwright. He's already the great playwright. That's a lot of that talk, publicity talk, and the critics should be ashamed themselves to act as if they were writing publicity for various people, and that people have to be trumpeted into the theater itself to say, "This man is the new wonder of the world, go to see him," as if he were some kind of a freak. No, it's sufficient this Mamet and several others, Shepard, I might mention others too, are -- show talent, show sensitivity, show sensibility and that they want to write for the theater and we should welcome them and listen to them and criticize them, and find fault with them, NOT TO DESTROY THEM, but to say this is, that man may be stammering, but he's stammering with something back of it which is a word for encouraging. I would -- I despise really, I despise -- I don't use such strong words very often because I'm basically a very gentle person, but I DESPISE the attitude that you must only see hits. I despise that you must always think that nothing is worthy of you, so this is the greatest thing ever! This is all comes from selling I don't know, toothbrushes or something, or chewing gum. It has nothing to do with the reality of a [place?] of art which is like a personality. I don't say I can't talk to that man because he's not the greatest man, he's not -- he's no Einstein. So I can't talk him. I can talk to everybody and get something good out of almost anybody. And if they show some sympathy or compassion, some moments of intelligence, some wit, some humor, some love of life, some electricity, I'm [WORKING?], I don't want to wait for Plato and Aristotle. There are too few of them in the world to make a world. So that they're [unintelligible], they're dead. And I'm more interested in the contact with the immediate person. I don't want to go to a [place? play?] that said, "This show is gonna run for 40 years." I don't give a damn how much money the producer is going to make, [unintelligible], and so I would encourage plainly playgoing on anything that shows even a GLEAM of some [unintelligible]. The idea that we have to have masterpieces of great men all around us, is insufferable, because if we had only great men around us, we couldn't live a day either, because we -- the world would be devastated in two minutes.
Studs Terkel I suppose the thing that's so endearing and exciting about Harold Clurman is this very fervor he's written about and writes about and lives, but also that intelligence that's there. Back a moment ago you were talking about hip plays, if it isn't a hit commercially it doesn't matter. Boom. I suppose the need -- you've seen great repertory theaters different parts of the world, the Berliner Ensemble, the Moscow theater, or for that matter perhaps here too. The rep -- or the Group Theatre for that matter, I suppose this is one of the great lacks, isn't it?
Harold Clurman Yes, we like that. But I am always trying to encourage the creation of such theater here in Chicago. I think it's deplorable by the way, that Chicago has so little big theater. By big I don't mean a big playhouse, but you have a wonderful orchestra here with a wonderful conductor, conductors
Harold Clurman So that I think that you should have at least three very good theaters with major actors with major plays being played here. And when I see that only, the only play I see advertised is "A Chorus Line", which is a very nice show indeed from New York, I say there's something wrong somewhere, and Chicagoans should have more pride and back, and seek to create such theaters. There's the population -- in Germany, any theater, any place which, any town over 25000 people has its own good theater, good, independent theater, which stars its own productions, and has its own little orchestras, own ballet company, and they're good, and when they are very -- achieve very good reputations, and they go out to the bigger cities later on. That's true, that's true all over major parts, parts and of Europe, and London, which is the closest to us, you [gotta?] say in both the language and other respects, has three state-subsidized theaters, just as London itself, besides the state-subsidized theaters outside, and we're moving slowly toward, in that direction. After all, we have subsidy by state and city and federal subsidy. It's very small, but still you have -- when the Group Theatre goes on, there was no such thing. So we're moving slowly, but I think we should move fast, and my message to Chicago is to get busy and have a pride in having its own theaters.
Studs Terkel Civic
Harold Clurman Is necessary for this town, and not to say we have the tallest buildings, but we have also an excellent first-rate orchestra, etc., but we have wonderful feelings and the theater is the most living art because it's the art of presence, of the part of the community, which of the actors, facing another part of the community which is the audience.
Harold Clurman It's an art of presence, that is the physical presence of the artist, mainly the actors. The physical presence, and that is not replaceable by television, and I'm not against television of course, or radio or any form, if there were "feelies," that you could feel the screen, feel the flesh of the actors, it would not represent the actual presence at the moment of your seeing there something being created.
Studs Terkel The art of presence. Hallie Flanagan, of course whom you knew who directed, who was the head of the Federal Theatre Project was destroyed by the troglodytes back on the '30s, she spoke of traveling theatres [to be?] at a group of actors, many actors were employed by the government, in a small town in the South and, they did a Shakes-- this, these people never saw flesh-and-blood actors, and they were so moved, it was "Twelfth Night", it was a comedy, "Twelfth Night" -- I think it was "Twelfth Night" and the actors were disappointed because the audience didn't applaud, didn't react. They came back to see the people later on, and some of the townspeople said, "We didn't want to disturb the actors." They were so moved, and they realized
Harold Clurman Yes, it is. When "Waiting for Lefty" was first done in New York, it was well-received by everybody, I mean conservative critics as well as others, liked it enormously, because it responded to the ache of the time, the unemployment situation and the difficulty with unions, etc., etc. A different kind of difficulty -- a different kind of difficulty than the present kind of difficulties with unions. Then was a difficulty of establishing [in the house?], the difficulty of not letting the [unintelligible]. The play was played in 60 different small cities outside where they had never seen a play, and it practically galvanized the cities, it was actually terrific what happened.
Studs Terkel I must tell you a "Waiting for Lefty" story. We had a theater, it was sort of a junior version of the Group Theatre, called the Chicago Repertory Group, and I was in "Waiting for Lefty" in the [sketch?]. It was the first time I was ever on the stage, I played the role of Joe, who says, "Where's all the furniture, honey?" You directed it, did you not?
Studs Terkel And so, there's a guy, a fink in the play, and he runs off the stage and this guy exposed him. "That's my own lousy brother." We did this in a union hall during a taxicab driver strike in Chicago. We should point out the play, the set of the play is a union hall. And so the audience becomes the union hall, so it's [unintelligible]. So, as this actor who plays the role of the fink is running off the stage, some of the members of the audience, taxicab drivers, started HITTING HIM! And slugging the actor! "Why, you fink!" And I'm on the stage, I holler, "NO NO, he's an actor! He's just an act-- leave him alone! He's an actor!" The guy took a battering. So there's the reality and theater.
Harold Clurman Yes, that's true. So, so it's a, it's a living art. It's the art of presence, and beca-- Thornton Wilder, by the way. I haven't got the exact quote with me, but I quote him [easily?] said it was the greatest of all arts because of that, because the community was in together with itself. That is to say that, or as I said, the thing you quoted once in the last time you presided over a speech of mine, the theater is a means by which society realizes itself, meaning makes itself real to itself. Real. You've
Harold Clurman Of course it was, because they were part of their [religions?] as such as they were at the time, Greeks had a philosophy, and the plays reaffirmed and beautified and explained and thrilled the audience with the beauty and the wisdom of their religion, and what was the medieval theater and the morality plays? A reaffirmation of Christian faith, sometimes still farces and comedies in which the Devil was made into a funny character, an absurd character. Yes, and they had as much effect as the churches themselves. In fact, the church began to be envious of the theatre, because the theatre seemed to attract more communicants and make better Christians than the preachments of the players of the clergy. I hope I'm not blaspheming, but this is a historical
Studs Terkel On the contrary, it's highly religious you're saying. I'm talking about you now, I'm thinking about you, earlier you mentioned something about, before we went on the air about something's gone wrong, as though there were a break in continuity, as un-- case of the young, we know this applies in politics and history is a break, there's nothing happened. Your forthcoming book on Ibsen. So many will say, "Ibsen". They would say, "Old-fashioned."
Harold Clurman That's what I'm trying to show that his -- that Ibsen's -- that they don't understand Ibsen, they don't know some of his best plays. I keep on saying, he's somebody -- "You know Ibsen's play?" "Yes," they said, "I do." I said, "What's 'The Pretenders'?" "What? He wrote a play called 'The Pretenders'?" Which by the way is being done in Minneapolis in the first play of the season, I said, "Well, that's -- do you know what 'The Master Builder' really means? Or what 'John Gabriel Borkman,' who the -- the central character of who which is a businessman, do you know what it really means?" And I find that they're talking nonsense, they're talking from hearsay, and they're talking from bad productions. Do you know that Ibsen always questioned himself, was never quite sure he was right? He wrote one play in contradiction to another? That if he said you always have to maintain the truth and [made it so if you go to another play?] which said maybe the truth isn't always a good thing to proclaim, that he was a [command?] constantly in doubt, that he was sure that he was a great leader, and then he wrote a play and saying "Maybe I'm not pure enough to be a leader, and you have to be a purer person to be a leader than so forth," in other words one has to make up people's ideas about plays, I spoke the other day and said that few people who didn't understand Shakespeare, they'd see hundred Shakespeare's plays, they don't understand them, and the woman who said, "Well, what do you think about 'King Lear'?" I said, "I know what you think about it, and it's wrong! Before they should say, before before that's spoken, and I said, "You think 'King Lear' is about how bad children are to their parents." She's "That's right." "Well, it's wrong," I said, "Because if that were so, it's a very bad play because after two acts you know that's the truth. What the play is about, is that power inheres in love and not in in a in a crown. That's why at the end of the play when he finds out his mistake and realizes the only one who really loved him was Cordelia, he says, 'We'll forget about the courts and we'll forget about the palaces,' but when he, when King Lear gives away his power, his real estate so to speak, his crown, then he has nothing, because he never built an ego which was based on true love, only on the on the expression of hypocritical expression of love, and that's only in love and through the love of people for one another that one can have power, which is also what ultimately Ibsen is saying. And by the way, people say, "Oh, 'Doll's House,' yes, we know. It's about women's liberation." No, I said, it's not about women's, it's about man's liberation, because the whole point of the play is [and it comes? Edna comes?], that the last line of the play is the man's, not the woman's. The woman slams the door and she doesn't know what's going to happen, because she doesn't come [sort of I'm?] a liberated woman, she [comes? goes?] "I'm a bewildered woman. I don't know what I'm doing, what it's all about, I gotta learn," and the [birth man says?] "She spoke about a miracle, what is the miracle?" The miracle is when he will be understanding enough to be like her, be free, so that they really have a true relationship, and then they will both be free, because as long as women aren't free, man can't be free. That's what the play is about, not what they think. And so everything, that's what a critic is for, to say "You see? You told -- you know the story, don't you? But you don't understand the play. You know the story, you can tell exactly what happens in the play. This man [shoos soon?], this guy gets married, this was a -- that's not the play, because there are only 35, six plots into all of dramatic literature. THIRTY-SIX PLOTS in all of dramatic literature, but there are hundreds of thoughts in dramatic literature, there are variations and the insights into effect, like the story about the man who -- "Rashomon", you know, tells an event in six different interpretations of the same thing. So Ibsen has to be revived with new idea! For example, I'm sure they'll make a mistake up, I am almost sure they'll make a mistake up in Yale, when they have Mr. Ibsen's "Wild Duck", because there's a man who tells the truth and he's very determined and he's always played like a leader and a prophet, he should be [made? painted?] almost funny, because he's, calls himself, they forget he calls himself a neurotic, and he is a neurotic, and what is interesting about it, that he's naive, he thinks, "Oh, that's a person, that cook is really nice person"
Studs Terkel Gregor.
Harold Clurman Yeah yeah, he's, Gregor's -- Gregor instead of saying he's a nice person about [Ekdal?], he's a fool, he's like, he's so fanatically in love with the idea that the truth will redeem people, that he's not able to judge anybody, so he's silly in a way!
Harold Clurman He was playing the clown, WHO IS ALSO SERIOUS! Who is also, he can't stop himself, and what does Ib-- what does Ibsen do? He was saying, "I'm like that! I'm capable of saying I know the truth and -- but I think maybe I'm silly because people aren't as good as I think they are, and if I tell them the truth just [shatter?] their lives," and so he comes to a, the conclusion that my dear friend Mark Twain came to, he said that, "The truth is like gold, very valuable. You have to be sparing in its use."
Harold Clurman Doubting himself and contradicting himself! And you know what happened? What he is, what Ibsen is, and that's the end of my book, it comes -- Ibsen, you see, up through the 19th century, about the middle of the century, people believed genuinely or hypocritically in God, but even if they believed in hypocritically in God because all those barons all believed in churches and [jog? job?], they still had a [sinking? sneaky?] feeling that there was some truth to the old moralities even though they were doing everything and they always justified everything in terms of God. You know, everybody went to war in terms of God, right? But there was that thing. But there came a period when it was all right to doubt God, but what are you going to put in its stead? Because people need faith. And Ibsen is the person who understood that the old morality of the people who professed God, that especially in Norway's Protestant community, who professed God, who professed the values of bourgeois society. They were very -- they were very vulnerable in moral sense that they were very many of them scapegraces, that they had wrong ideas, that they were destroying people. So he wanted to liberate them. But he knew that if he liberated them at a certain point, they would become free, but without responsibility. And the point of the lady of the sea, when the girl says, that's the opposite of that doll's house with them, the woman says I want to go off with this man who was my first lover and I was engaged to, and she says, I must go off, I must go off, and the husband who is a doctor says, "No, you shouldn't, so forth," and finally says, she really does want, all right, go, and then she says, "I don't have to go now. I'm free. But I have responsibility," and so Ibsen was pointing that out, but he was, the man was saying the old [religions?] were vulnerable, they were faulty, of falsified and the new religions, so to speak, the things that came, the religions of science, the religions of, many religions which we have now. The world's proliferating in doubtful religions, let's say, that's not true. And he was in the half-house between those -- the old religion and the religion to come, and denying the religion in the middle, which is the religion of most middle-class societies, which is wavering now and is absolutely in despair, and that's why we have theater of despair, because they no longer can believe in the old with any firmness, because science seems to deny it, and they can no longer believe that science [alone?], so they are looking forward, and he was the man, the harbinger of some future development.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Harold Clurman That Ibsen was waiting for Godot. That's why I point it out. But no one says that about Ibsen. They all go back, and say, "Oh, we know, we know," -- it's like everything everybody knows, they don't know the Bible, they don't know Christ, they don't know anythings they all know, they are mouthing, something that you have really not thought for yourself, is nothing you know, you just hand it over. A book? This is you know, you learn the lessons being repeated and so forth. If you haven't had any experience that corresponds to it, it's now meaningless! And if you haven't recreated it in yourself, it's meaningless! All education has to be resumed every day anew! Afresh! We are never completely educated, and if we lived a thousand years, we'd still have much to learn, much to investigate, and much to be extremely curious about.
Studs Terkel You know, Bertrand Russell once was talking to Whitehead -- no, it was to Huxley, Julian Huxley, and Huxley was explaining something to Russell, one of the few things he didn't know, and Russell, "Isn't it marvelous for someone to be as intelligent as you are?" says Bertrand Russell to
Harold Clurman That's because it takes a long for us to be -- you know, my favorite joke which is my own creation is that I say most people are latent human beings, and to -- latent human beings, and to become a human being takes an awful lot of effort and determination through throughout a long life, because you know you can die long before you're buried, so
Harold Clurman Everything is prehistory. We all must consider everything, every day of our lives as prehistory, with a wonderful background of several million years, but just at the beginning, not at the end as some people seem [to believe?] is the end. Every hundred years the people think it's, we're at the end. You know, every hundred years every thinks the end. The last one, good Lord, we've done enough to destroy ourselves many times over. And nature did things to destroy us, the Black Death in the eighteenth century I think
Studs Terkel Well, you know as the hour goes so quickly, one last word comes to my mind, a thought, and that's everything we're talking about: possibilities. You're saying about the human species, theater and life, dealing with the realm, in the realm of possibilities, that experiences and thoughts not yet tapped.
Harold Clurman Always as Sholem Aleichem said, "Two possibilities, the one [present? positive?] and one negative. But there's always a third, which is neither positive or negative, still another one." So there is always -- and the fact that there are possibilities in the negative are things to encourage us to fight for the positive, so that the possibilities are in the making. They are, we are the possibilities, to make ourselves a possibility for a better man and for a better world and a better time and so forth, and MORE FUN! WHAT I'M FOR IS MORE FUN! Listen, I'm talking about is ALL FUN! It has nothing to do with solemnity and sadness and tears. It has to do with the JOY OF LIFE< which is constant even in the struggles, and it's -- I found especially in the struggles, I had a HELL OF A TIME in the Group Theatre, and I lost twenty thousand dollars. I didn't lose $20,000, in debt, and I came out carrying, said this was one of the most happiest periods of my life! I don't -- I'm not sure I have ever had a much happier period, and now I'm quite an affluent man, should anybody want to think that they have to make a contribution to my [exchequer?] because I've been such an idealist.
Studs Terkel That was Harold Clurman, the late director, film critic. And in a moment, a word about tomorrow's program after this break. [pause in recording] Our program for tomorrow is Columbus Day. Will be our annual celebratory program of that event. Until then, take it easy, but take it.