In the years before World War I, when the century was less than a dozen years old, an upheaval that would have cultural and artistic repercussions across the country was taking place in an obscure corner of New York City. The social, artistic, and political forces came together in what became known as the bohemian life in Greenwich Village. Intellectuals of all stripes came to work or live in this community, its distinct character, according to Edmund T. Delaney, a lawyer who wrote extensively about New York history, “somewhat richer than other parts of the city,” and influenced “American literature, art and thinking wholly out of proportion to their numbers.” The influence, across the gamut of culture and ideas, was made by a motley group including proponents of atheism, socialism, cubism, anarchism, free-thought, free-love, birth-control—”and women who bobbed their hair and smoked cigarettes.” As socialist journalist John Reed portrayed it:
Inglorious Miltons by the score,
And Rodins, one to every floor.
In short, those unknown men of genius
Who dwell in third-floor-rears gangrenous,
Reft of their rightful heritage
By a commercial, soulless age.
Unwept, I might add—and unsung,
Insolent, but entirely young.
To be sure, Villagers included “crackpots or phonies,” but many were sincere artists and thinkers and, in the words of W. A. Swanberg, biographer of Village resident Theodore Dreiser, “most were conscious rebels . . . [in] revolt against mildewed American concepts and properties . . . .” This side of Village life was summed up by radical author and editor Max Eastman, in the words of his biographer William L. O’Neill:
All that was self-consciously new in American culture—the “new women,” the “new morality,” the “new art”—could be found there. On one level Greenwich Village was becoming a showcase of the cultural revolution, on another it led the movement, serving as headquarters to . . . the Innocent Rebellion.
It’s perhaps illustrative of this “Innocent Rebellion” that at a New Year’s Eve party in 1917, several inebriated Village residents including John Reed, American painter John French Sloan, and Dada artist Marcel Duchamp climbed up the interior staircase of the Washington Square Arch, built a fire on its roof, hung Chinese lanterns, fired cap guns, and released balloons. Reading a statement, they declared “The Independent Republic of Greenwich Village,” a utopia committed to “socialism, sex, poetry, conversation, dawn-greeting, anything—so long as it is taboo in the Middle West.” With Europe at war since 1914, the United States having entered the conflict in April, and the political scene at home roiling and acrimonious, the Village independents wanted little to do with the “commercial, soulless age.” They wanted the freedom to create and go their own ways.
All this creative activity set the stage for an influx of artists “ready to espouse all the new causes—individual freedom, free love, socialism, avant-garde literature and futuristic painting.” Helen Deutsch and Stella Hanau, the historians of the Provincetown Players, pointed out that “with so many arts represented, drama was the natural meeting-ground, the inevitable medium of expression.” The new theater art was in the air, but wasn’t much practiced on America’s commercial stages and would therefore have been a most attractive outlet for the new ideas and artistic endeavors of the Village artists and thinkers. For example, among the participants in the Washington Square Players, which was formed in the Village but performed uptown, were journalist Reed, short-story writers Alice Brown and Susan Glaspell, lawyers Lawrence Langner and Elmer Reizenstein (later, Elmer Rice), businessman Edward Goodman, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, novelist Floyd Dell, publishers Charles and Albert Boni, and sundry others. They amalgamated with the few professional actors, scenic artists, and playwrights and began a movement that started or influenced a number of interrelated theater developments across America: the art theater, the little theater, Off-Broadway, and serious American playwriting.
In the early 1900s, the “Little Theater Movement,” a nationwide phenomenon, grew into Off-Broadway in New York City. Offering artistically significant plays in an inexpensive, non-commercial atmosphere, groups such as the Washington Square Players (1915) and Provincetown Players (1916 in New York City) staged plays Broadway ignored, in small, out-of-the-way theaters mostly in (or near) the Village. Other Village-area theaters included the Cherry Lane Theatre (1924; the oldest, continuously used Off-Broadway theater in New York), Theatre de Lys (1953; renamed the Lucille Lortel in 1981), Actors Playhouse (1956), Gate Theatre (1957), Sheridan Square Playhouse (1958), and Sullivan Street Playhouse (1960; where The Fatasticks played for 41 years). Producing troupes included Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theatre (1926), Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theater (1947), Theodore Mann and Jose Quintero’s Circle in the Square (1951), Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival (1954; now the Joseph Papp Public Theater), John Vaccaro’s Play-House of the Ridiculous (1965), and Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater (1968). (Neither Off-Broadway nor, later, Off-Off-Broadway—officially designations of Actors’ Equity based on seating capacity—were confined to Greenwich Village. Theaters and companies working in those arenas were based all over the city and some were even itinerant, but the artistic and theatrical dynamic that spawned, nurtured, and fed the movements was centered in the West and, later, East Villages.) Many troupes weren’t only experimental but amateur as well, some lasting only a few years before falling victim to financial problems or their own success as artists parlayed triumphs into jobs in commercial theater and, later, Hollywood. After World War II, however, Off-Broadway attracted critical attention. Several successes transferred to Broadway, beginning with New Stages’ presentation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Respectful Prostitute (1948).
In the 1950s, the West Village and, later, the newly designated, edgier East Village (rebranded from the northern part of the Lower East Side around 1964) became the cradle of New York’s Beat generation, with its new, raw, and mold-breaking style of poetry and writing; jazz, heard in Village night clubs and coffeehouses; challenging forms of painting and art such as Abstract Expressionism, especially “action painting” (which was an impetus for the Happening) as exemplified by Jackson Pollock, a Village resident; and the revolutionary politics preached by its denizens and frequent visitors. With untried, non-commercial, or experimental plays or productions, using then-unknown talent and shoe-string budgets, Off-Broadway became an artistic magnet. Serious attention started with Circle in the Square’s hit 1952 revival of Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke. In 1956, the Village Voice gave out the first Obie Awards to recognize accomplishments in this arena. (In 1964, the Obies began recognizing OOB plays; since 1986, the Lucille Lortel Awards, presented by the League of Off-Broadway Theatres and Producers, have also been given for excellence Off Broadway.) Such companies as the Living Theatre, New York Shakespeare Festival, Roundabout Theatre Company (1965), Chelsea Theatre Center (1965), Negro Ensemble Company (1967), and Circle Repertory (1969, as the Circle Theater Company), many of which started Off-Off-Broadway, presented original, failed commercial, or neglected plays. By the 1970s, a split developed between commercial Off-Broadway houses such as the Astor Place (1831), Orpheum (1904), Theatre de Lys, Perry Street (1975), and Minetta Lane (1984, the first new Off-Broadway theater built in New York City in 50 years), and non-profit companies like the Ridiculous Theatrical Company (1967), Jewish Repertory Theatre (1974), Hudson Guild (1974), and Pan Asian Repertory Theatre (1977) that fostered new works and U.S. productions of European and non-Western plays. Mostly, however, real experimental and avant-garde theater had moved to Off-Off-Broadway. “Off Broadway died in 1970 and no one even sent flowers,” wrote Tom Eyen, an OOB playwright, three years later.
In response to the Eisenhower years, particularly McCarthyism and the HUAC hearings; the rise of issues like the war in Vietnam, nuclear-weapons development, civil and equal rights for African Americans and women (and, later, Latinos and gays); and proliferating consumerism, the Beat impulse evolved into the angrier and more activist ’60s. In the early 1960s, the Village theater and art scene was just developing into the exciting, vibrant, and multi-cultural world that it became known as by the end of the decade. Folk and rock music also came to the Village in the early part of the decade, and bars and clubs in the Village like the Village Vanguard, the Village Gate, Googies, the Night Owl Cafe, the Fat Black Pussycat, and too many more to name became venues for singers, musicians, songwriters, and poets like Bob Dylan, Dave Von Ronk, Tim Hardin, Joan Baez, Rod McKuen, James Baldwin, and Allen Ginsberg. With this upheaval came the birth of a new alternative theater centered in the Village, inspired strongly by the writings of Antonin Artaud and the work of European dramatists: Off-Off-Broadway (a label supposedly devised by Village Voice reviewer Jerry Tallmer). Like Artaud, Vsevolod Meyerhold was a general inspiration for nearly all the avant-garde theater artists working or developing in the 1960s: his theories were just in the atmosphere of the time, especially in Greenwich Village. (It’s significant, I think, that the American editions of several seminal books of theatrical theory were published in these years: Artaud’s The Theater and its Double, 1958; Brecht on Theatre, 1964; Antonin Artaud Anthology, 1965; Peter Brook’s The Empty Space, 1968; Grotowski’s Towards a Poor Theatre, 1968; Meyerhold on Theatre, 1969.)
Before the start of the 1960s, Off-Broadway, with a few exceptions like, notably, the New York Shakespeare Festival (now the Joseph Papp Public Theater), had begun to become little more than a less-expensive Broadway, a commercial-theater venue. “The development of the Off Off theater,” wrote John Keating, a former review-writer for Cue magazine and one-time president of the Drama Desk, in a 1965 New York Times article, “is . . . explained by its adherents as . . . a revolt against the growing professionalism and decreasing experimentalism of the regular Off Broadway movement.” As the costs of Off-Broadway production rose, the impulse to experiment and innovate lessened. Off-Off-Broadway, with its minimal-to-non-existent budgets, became the anvil of experimentation. A founder of Circle Rep, Marshall Mason, insisted, “Off Off Broadway gives us freedom from economic pressures,” and Eve Adamson, director of the Jean Cocteau Repertory, observed, “I can afford to do a crazy play of Oscar Wilde. On Broadway no one can.” And the head of the Off Off Broadway Alliance (now the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York, or ART/NY) said, “We’re the laboratory where directors, actors, and playwrights can sharpen their tools.”
Among the principal venues for the new OOB theater were the churches of the Village. Theatre Genesis (1964), for example, was actually part of the cultural ministry of St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, and the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square and the Washington Square Methodist Church on West 4th Street (which would later house Grotowski’s Theatr Laboratorium in 1969) had their own cultural and theatrical programs. Observed Elenore Lester, a New York Times writer who covered the new OOB arena in the ’60s and ’70s, in these and similar parishes, “a new kind of churchgoer sees underground films, original plays by young writers or hears far-out poetry or jazz liturgies.” In addition, of course, were the two most prominent OOB venues unaffiliated with a church: Caffe Cino (1958) and Café La MaMa (1961; later, the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club). In all of these places, and many others, spectators could see experimental films, Happenings, jazz bands, political speakers, and radically innovative poets. Among the hippies and protesters who frequented the Village or lived there, there were theater people, innovative writers, and radical thinkers like Julian Beck and Judith Malina, Ralph Cook, Ellen Stewart, Joe Cino, Al Carmines, Robert Hooks, Douglas Turner Ward, Joe Chaikin, Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Lanford Wilson, Sam Shepard, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Michael Harrington, Murray Bookchin, and Paul Goodman who gravitated to the East and West Villages in the 1960s and afterward.
As this was all beginning to swirl and roil in the Village, developing into a disorderly, uproarious, and unrestrained hub of hippiedom and the counterculture, there were new kinds of theater being tried out by writers and directors—aided greatly, of course, by adventurous actors and imaginative designers and technicians—that were redefining the form, not to mention the content, of American theater. Off-Broadway had deteriorated into a place where artists went merely to get work: “The distinction between the practice of an art and the performance of a job or assigned task is lost” in the “establishment theatre,” wrote Michael Townsend Smith, OOB playwright and reviewer for the Village Voice. Finding little personal or artistic satisfaction in the established theater, whether Broadway or Off-Broadway, commercial or non-profit, the artists came to the Village to search for something they couldn’t find anywhere else. At the beginning, getting a part in an Off-Off-Broadway production wasn’t just a matter of acquiring a résumé credit, as it frequently is now, but a chance not only to be seen but to work alongside fascinating writers, directors, and designers. In Elenore Lester’s words, “Everyone is in it for love. . . . [T]hey’ll try anything if they think it’s ‘beautiful,’ ‘interesting,’ ‘real theater’ or ‘a challenge.’” Audiences, advised Lester, came for analogous reasons: “to be shook up, intellectually and emotionally.”
In 1965, a 19-year-old student who’d been traveling to Greenwich Village since his high school days when he met the Becks, hung out at Theatre Genesis, and discovered Caffe Cino, illustrated the world of Off-Off-Broadway for an Ohio campus publication. In a dialogue reminiscent of a very young man’s take on Brecht’s Messingkauf Dialogues, a cabbie offers to take a young theater-seeker “off-Broadway” and the passenger says, “I’m looking for something fresh, something alive. A theatre where writers can try things out, where there’s a possibility of affirmation. A theatre where the grand tradition of theatre, ritual theatre, is joined to the . . . .” He breaks off when he realizes that Off-Broadway’s offerings differ little from what’s playing everywhere else. The cabbie, having turned into “the spirit of . . . Joe Cino,” transports them magically to “off-off-Broadway” where “[s]omething’s always new.” The cabbie instructs the young man that the new playwrights represented there are “trying to say something” as they “attempt to get back at the roots of the theatre—spoken poetry—in the most direct manner possible.” In words that echo Antonin Artaud, the cabbie explains: “We’re trying to do something basic to get at the rituals that have always formed the core of theatre.” (In seven years, that 19-year-old, Leonardo Shapiro, would be directing and creating plays with his own company, Shaliko, in the East Village. He became part of the very world he described.) To support the new theater activity came ad hoc little troupes, often in communication with European experimenters like Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Arthur Adamov, Michel de Ghelderode, Jean Genet, Fernando Arrabal, and Harold Pinter, and directors like Peter Brook, Peter Hall, Charles Marowitz, Joan Littlewood, Roger Blin, Jean-Louis Barrault, Giorgio Strehler, and later Jerzy Grotowski and Yuri Lyubimov.
The progenitor of the Off-Off-Broadway movement was Joe Cino’s coffeehouse, opened at 31 Cornelia Street in Greenwich Village in 1958 and closed soon after Cino’s suicide in 1967. Cino, a former dancer, had originally intended it as a place for his artist friends to display their work, then poets began reading their writing there. The first theatrical offerings were established plays by writers like Tennessee Williams, William Saroyan, and Jean Giraudoux, but by 1960, playwrights began reading their scripts, and eventually staging them. The first original play performed at Caffe Cino and, perhaps, the first true Off-Off-Broadway première, was James Howard’s Flyspray in 1960. Eventually plays by Lanford Wilson, Doric Wilson, Tom Eyen, Jean-Claude van Itallie, and Robert Patrick (the most prolific Cino writer in its lifetime) were staged and the work of directors like Marshall Mason and Tom O’Horgan and actors like Al Pacino (who made his début for a paying audience in William Saroyan’s Hello Out There in 1962 or ’63) and Bernadette Peters was first seen at Joe Cino’s coffeehouse. Though Cino eventually built a small stage, the early productions at Caffe Cino were staged on the coffeehouse floor with the audience sitting very close around the playing area. Sets and props were minimal because of the lack of funds and the need for simplicity, and the lighting was the main source of atmosphere. Many of what would become the innovations and identifying characteristics of OOB theater were born at the Caffe Cino, but as much of necessity and impecuniousness as artistic choice and philosophy. The coffeehouse’s short life is far outstripped by the influence Caffe Cino had on New York and American theater, the Village, and Off-Off-Broadway. One Caffe Cino writer, Claris Nelson, called it “an island where our souls can play.” It was the first venue to become identified as a home for gay-themed plays before the Stonewall riots launched the gay rights movement in New York and elsewhere. Cino’s model, the coffeehouse theater, was copied by dozens and then scores of other small spaces around the city, centered mostly in the West and East Villages but fanning out to all the boroughs and even other cities and towns across the country. This all happened by word of mouth because if Off-Off-Broadway got very little press in its first decades, Caffe Cino got none. In 1967, Joe Cino committed suicide. Friends tried to keep the caffe going, but it couldn’t survive without Cino and in the face of new regulations for cabarets and clubs, and it closed in 1968. If Artaud was the OOB movement’s philosopher and Meyerhold its model director, Cino had been its stage manager. Almost no theater artist who worked in the ’60s, ’70s, or ’80s doesn’t owe some kind of debt to Joe Cino—if not directly, then indirectly.
La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, founded in October 1961 by Ellen Stewart, a would-be clothes designer, in an East Village basement as the Café La MaMa, was seen by many to be the successor to Caffe Cino. It’s the only one of the main Off-Off-Broadway originators that’s still producing. (Ellen Stewart died at 91 on 13 January 2011, the last of the original OOB impresarios; see my homage on ROT, “The Pushcart Theater: Ellen Stewart (1919-2011),” 4 April. It also provides a slightly more detailed history of the theater.) La MaMa moved about the East Village for many years until it purchased its own building at 74A E. 4th Street, still its headquarters (and for many years the residence, on the top floor, of Stewart). Stewart started La MaMa so her brother and his friends would have a place to create and perform their theater works. She dedicated the theater to the playwright and welcomed artists who were underrepresented, underfunded, and often misunderstood, at a time when the perception of what theatre could be was changing rapidly. For artists such as Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, Tom Eyen, Tom O’Horgan, and Philip Glass, La MaMa was an artistic refuge, especially after Caffe Cino closed. Stewart also brought international artists such as Tadeusz Kantor, Andrei Serban, Kazuo Ohno, The Tokyo Kid Brothers to the U.S. to present their work at La MaMa. In addition, La MaMa E.T.C. maintains a resident company at the theater, first The La MaMa Troupe directed by Tom O’Horgan and then The Great Jones Repertory directed by Andrei Serban and Elizabeth Swados, the current company. Other companies and artists had residencies at the La MaMa complex, too, some for several years and others for a short time until they moved out on their own; 30 companies and artists work out of La MaMa at present. The latest troupe to be offered a residency at the theater was the Belarus Free Theater, forced into exile by the totalitarian government in their home country. La MaMa may be the busiest producer of plays in New York City—or possibly the entire country—with three theaters in its main building, a large space in the Ellen Stewart Theatre (formerly the Annex), plus a rehearsal building, an art gallery, an archive, and artists’ dormitories.
Beginning in the 1950s, the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square South was devoted to social outreach through programs to help people, including the controversial and unpopular, in need. The “beatnik church” supported a radical arts ministry, making space available for art exhibitions, rehearsals, and performances, ensuring that it was a space where artists such as Claes Oldenburg, Jim Dine, and Robert Rauschenberg, unknown at that time, could experiment in their work without fear of censorship. Later, artists Red Grooms and Yoko Ono also exhibited work at the gallery. The first Happening is said to have been presented at Judson Memorial. After the church hired Al Carmines as Assistant Curate, he opened the Judson Poets' Theatre in November 1961 with The Great American Desert, a satiric Western drama by poet Joel Oppenheimer. Carmines presented experimental plays and musicals by writers such as Sam Shepherd and Lanford Wilson, and directors like Tom O'Horgan in the church's main Meeting Room. Starting in 1962, Carmines began composing and producing his own musicals, including several based on texts by Gertrude Stein, staged by the Judson Poets director Lawrence Kornfeld. In the 1980s, the church sponsored political-theater performances, such as those by Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theater. In 1977, Carmines suffered a cerebral aneurysm that disabled him with devastating headaches. He ceased his theatrical activities in 1981 and retired from the ministry in 1985, effectively ending the run of the Judson Poets' Theatre, the third (and the second-longest-lasting) of the four original OOB houses. Al Carmines died in 2005 at age 69.
Ralph Cook’s Theatre Genesis was housed in St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, an Episcopal church on Second Avenue at E. 10th Street. Cook, a fervent civil-rights activist who’d been arrested for his activities on several occasions, had been hired in 1964 by the church’s rector as the arts curate to coordinate the arts ministry at St. Mark’s and he immediately launched the theater. The plays he staged concerned the life of the street—usually in the language of the street—and were imbued with a sense of anarchy that was laced with spirituality. Cook encouraged his playwrights, often poets before he recruited them, to work improvisationally with the actors and directors, experimenting with language to explore their world and the conflicts they encountered in their lives. The artists were working through their ideas and concerns and the spectators didn’t see a reflection of something that had already happened, but watched it happen right in front of them. The performance style, while not abandoning Stanislavsky’s psychological realism, was more subjective in its interpretation, stripping everything down to the basics and, as Artaud required, refusing to indulge or condescend to the audiences. The closeness Cook fostered among his artists was intended to build a tight community and the explorations were conducted on a personal level as the artists revealed their core humanity in plays that bore witness to what was happening outside the church. Cook viewed playwrights as seers, the only ones who could penetrate the fiction of the mass media and the illusions of capitalism. The plays, often gritty and violent, were revolutionary in form as well as content, with minimal settings in a tiny space that could be configured for a half dozen different audience-performer relationships. They were regarded as works still in progress and Cook promoted the revision and reshaping of the works even as they were before an audience. Theatre Genesis produced, among others, the early plays of Sam Shepard; Charles L. Mee, Jr.; Leonard Melfi; and Adrienne Kennedy. Ralph Cook, about whom little is recorded (including his life dates) outside his activities at Theatre Genesis, left the theater in 1969 and Theatre Genesis closed a few years later.
In the ’60s, among other shifts in approach, the theater creativity in the Village was often generated by the playwright. “[W]e are not looking for plays to produce,” explained Cook, “but writers who are at that point where they need a continuing relationship with a stage and actors in order to evolve.” In the modern era, playwrights’ theaters, like Shakespeare’s or Molière’s or, before that, the world of classical Greek drama, was rare and in the United States, mostly unknown. The mainstream theater was generally an actors’ theater, though some important directors held sway on some stages. But as the Off-Off-Broadway theater developed in the Village, the playwright—not always an established dramatist as many companies gravitated to poets in particular—became the focus of the creative impulse. It became more and more common for writers to work not just with specific groups but for them, creating plays for certain actors, even certain performance spaces.
In another Village shift in the ’60s, the experimental theaters tilted toward acting ensembles, often working improvisationally, often without a formal director. These new theaters were often collectives of artists creating symbiotically, though the focus on writers also had its influence here, with, as I noted above, authors developing work with groups of which they were also members. (In ensemble-created work, the playwright often refined scripts developed by improvisation.) These groups investigated language imagery and new ways of conveying meaning through the sounds of words and other non-verbal utterances as described by Artaud. The collaborators were inventing an Artaudian grammar of symbols drawn from their everyday experiences and those of their audiences, who connected to the performances as participants in the creative event. Robert Brustein observed that “the new theater style is intimately linked to revolutionary politics. What we are witnessing is the effort of the avant-garde to translate ‘participatory democracy’ into artistic terms, demanding a new egalitarianism that gives equal rank to everyone . . . .” It was often difficult to discern who were the principal creators of such works, the writers, the actors, or the director, as they all contributed their skills during the development process and worked as equals in an artistic commune of sorts. (In some cases, the companies were actual communes, often living together in the same lofts were they created and performed.) Groups like the Living Theatre, Joe Chaikin’s Open Theatre (1963), Richard Schechner’s Performance Group (1967; the predecessor to the Wooster Group, 1975), Andre Gregory’s Manhattan Project (1968), Crystal Field and George Bartenieff’s Theater for the New City (1971), Omar Shapli’s Section 10 (1975), and others who lasted a few seasons or so, produced many of the iconic theater pieces of the decade. This was not the life style of the commercial theater of Broadway or Off-Broadway, or even the non-profit theater of Off-Broadway. Even when the troupe didn’t live together, the members had a common connection that often defined their art. Once the OOB bug caught hold, the agenda-free theaters like La MaMa or Theatre Genesis were joined by companies with a defining interest. There were black companies, Hispanic companies, Asian companies, even a French and a German troupe. There were theaters that focused on gay or lesbian plays, women writers, Jewish subjects, veteran’s issues. In the beginning of this development, the plays were sometimes strident and more issue-oriented than artistic, but by the end of the decade, some good theater and writing developed from the focus
[To cover this subject even at the superficial level I’m attempting here requires more space that I can manage in a single post. So I’m going to continue this discussion in a few days, picking up where I’ve left off above, starting with the financial aspects of Off-Off-Broadway theater in its first decade. I hope readers will come back later this week to see what else I have to say about the new theater activity that grew up in the West and East Villages of lower Manhattan in the 1960s. (I’ll also append a list of some of the sources from which I’ve drawn the quotations I’ve used in “Greenwich Village Theater in the 1960s.”)]