Joseph Papp (1921-1991), theater producer, champion of human rights and of the First Amendment, founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival and Public Theater, changed the American cultural landscape.
Born Yussel Papirofsky in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, he discovered Shakespeare in public school and first produced a show on an aircraft carrier during World War II. After a stint at the Actors’ Lab in Hollywood, he moved to New York, where he worked as a CBS stage manager during the golden age of television. He fought Parks Commissioner Robert Moses (as well as Mayors Wagner, Lindsay, Beame and Koch) winning first the right to stage free Shakespeare in New York’s Central Park, then municipal funding to keep it going. He built the Delacorte Theater and later rebuilt the former Astor Library on Lafayette Street, transforming it into the Public Theater.
In addition to helping create an "American" style of Shakespeare, Papp pioneered colorblind casting and theater as a not-for-profit institution. He showcased playwrights David Rabe, Elizabeth Swados, Ntozake Shange, David Hare, Wallace Shawn, John Guare, and Vaclav Havel; directors Michael Bennett, Wilford Leach and James Lapine; actors Al Pacino, Colleen Dewhurst, George C. Scott, James Earl Jones, Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Sam Waterston, and Denzel Washington; and produced Hair, Sticks and Bones, for colored girls, The Normal Heart, and A Chorus Line, the longest running musical in Broadway history.
"This first biography of the late Joseph Papp will be a hard act to follow." — Booklist
"The final portrait that emerges might have been jointly painted by Goya, Whistler and Francis Bacon." — Benedict Nightingale, front-page New York Times Sunday Book Review
Playwright Tony Kushner called Papp "one of the very few heroes this tawdry, timid business has produced" and the book, a "nourishing and juicy biography."
"Helen Epstein recounts [Papp's] career in [this] definitive, meticulously researched and highly readable biography. [...] It is a tribute to Epstein’s narrative skill that the detailed account of Papp’s decline and eventual defeat by cancer [...] reads as both riveting and horrifying." — Ellen Schiff, All About Jewish Theatre
Oklahoma-born Paul Davis created 51 iconic posters for Joseph Papp, starting in 1975 with the New York Shakespeare Festival production of "Hamlet" starring Sam Waterston. "It was inspiring to work with Joe," says Davis. "We would discuss what he wanted to achieve in a production, and he trusted me to find a way to express it. And he respected the poster as its own dramatic form." The artist’s work has been exhibited in the U.S., Europe and Japan. He is a recipient of a special Drama Desk award created for his theater art. Davis was elected to the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame and the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame, and is a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome.
After writing an article in 1976 about Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival, Epstein became close to the impresario and was to become his authorized biographer, but he changed his mind. This book was researched after Papp's death in 1991 with the assistance of his widow, Gail Merrifield. Epstein ( Children of the Holocaust ) has used her personal access well to provide a thorough, candid portrait of the hard-driving director/producer who made free Shakespeare in Central Park an annual event and who built a theatrical empire at the Public Theater, where he presented such groundbreaking works as Hair , for colored girls who have considered suicide and A Chorus Line , as well as Shakespearean productions that proved his contention that the Bard could be played with a vigorous American accent. In chronicling Papp's impoverished childhood (he was born in Brooklyn in 1921, the son of Jewish immigrants), his early years with the Actors Lab in California, his membership in the Communist Party, his four marriages and his stormy relationships with his children and colleagues, Epstein vividly evokes his charm and strong social conscience. She does not scant, however, a core of coldness that led him to discard Shakespeare Festival associates in whom he had lost interest or by whom he felt threatened. Sympathetic but critical, her thoughtful biography is a fitting tribute to the man who fought to bring theater to more diverse audiences and to build it on ``the bedrock of civic responsibility.'' Photos not seen by PW.