Papp was born Josef Yosl Papirofsky in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York. He was the second of four children born to Samuel Papirofsky, a trunk maker from Poland, and Yetta Miritch, a seamstress from Lithuania. His parents were poor Jewish immigrants, and he was raised during the Great Depression. As an enterprising youth, he shined shoes, sold penny pretzels, shoveled snow, and plucked chickens, working at many odd jobs to add to the family’s resources. While attending Brooklyn’s Eastern District High School, he served as editor of the student newspaper, led the debate team, sang in the glee club, and performed in school plays, while working nights at a laundry. He acknowledged the influence of his high school English teacher Miss McKay, who read from Julius Caesar, and the social climate of the 1930s (Papp was a communist from the age of fifteen to his early thirties) in having contributed to his desire to create a free Shakespeare theater. He graduated from high school in 1938. Plans for college never materialized.
In 1942 Papp enlisted in the U.S. Navy, where he was first assigned to an aircraft carrier with the mission of depth-bombing German submarines. In 1945 he was assigned to Special Services, an entertainment unit that flew from island to island in the Pacific performing for the troops. Following his discharge from the service with the rank of chief petty officer, he was an actor and managing director of the Actors’ Laboratory Theater in Hollywood, where he learned the politics of nonprofit theater. In 1950, after the school had been closed under pressure from the House Un-American Activities Committee, Papp toured as an assistant stage manager with the National Company production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Returning to New York City in 1952, he was a director of the Equity Library Theater, and from 1952 to 1960 a stage manager for CBS television’s live drama anthology Studio One and the celebrity game show I’ve Got a Secret. When called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1958, he invoked the Fifth Amendment and was fired by CBS, but he was reinstated after an arbitration ruling.
While working at CBS in 1953 Papp organized the Elizabethan Workshop, later renamed the Shakespeare Workshop, in a church on Manhattan’s Lower East Side with a group of enthusiastic actors who had a passion for the English classics. In 1954 he was granted a provisional charter for a nonprofit theater, one that would encourage and cultivate interest in the works of Shakespeare and the Elizabethans; the proposal included building a theater styled after an Elizabethan playhouse. In 1955 he produced Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, Romeo and Juliet, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Cymbeline. He moved outdoors to the East River Park amphitheater in 1956 with productions of Julius Caesar and The Taming of the Shrew. In 1957 he debuted his Mobile Theater with a presentation of Romeo and Juliet, mounted on a thirty-five-foot platform trailer truck. The Mobile Theater traveled from one New York City park to another; and when the truck broke down on the shores of Turtle Pond in Central Park, he left it there, staging Romeo and Juliet, Two Gentleman of Verona, and Macbeth that same season. Thus began the tradition of free Shakespeare in Central Park.
That fall Macbeth was transferred indoors to the Heckscher Theater, at 104th Street and Fifth Avenue, which became the indoor home of the Shakespeare Workshop through 1964, as Papp continued to alternate his stages according to the season. In the summer of 1964 a new and specially built Mobile Theater toured New York City’s five boroughs, presenting A Midsummer Night’s Dream in thirty-nine parks and playgrounds. A Spanish-language Mobile Theater extended his free theater outreach to yet another audience with a tour of La zapatera prodigiosa (The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife) and El retablillo de don Cristóbal (Puppet Theater of Don Cristóbal), two plays by Federico García Lorca. As a producer, much of Papp’s time was spent fundraising from foundations, private individuals, and city officials. And long before anyone was using expressions like “multiculturalism” or “nontraditional casting,” he was sending multicultural productions on summertime tours of the New York City neighborhoods.
In 1957 Papp received his first Obie Award “for bringing Shakespeare back to life in a small Eastside playhouse with virtually no budget.” In 1958 he received a Tony Award for distinguished service to the theater. In 1959 Papp feuded successfully with the New York City parks commissioner Robert Moses, who wanted to put an end to free admission to performances in the park. In 1962, with the granting of a permanent charter, the Shakespeare Workshop officially changed its name to the New York Shakespeare Festival (NYSF), whereupon Papp left CBS to devote full time to his enterprise.
In 1962 the NYSF moved into the Delacorte Theater, a permanent open-air amphitheater at the same site on Turtle Pond, opening with The Merchant of Venice with George C. Scott in the role of Shylock. During the same season Papp directed King Lear, and in 1963 Antony and Cleopatra, starring Colleen Dewhurst, and Twelfth Night. He continued to direct on occasion: Twelfth Night (1958, 1963, 1969), Hamlet (1964, 1967, 1968, 1983), David Rabe’s In the Boom Boom Room (1973), Thomas Babe’s Buried Inside Extra (1983), and Measure for Measure (1985). He also directed the CBS television productions of The Merchant of Venice (1962), Antony and Cleopatra (1963), and Hamlet (1964).
In 1967 Papp acquired and renovated the landmark Astor Place Library at 425 Lafayette Street, turning the site into the year-round headquarters for the New York Shakespeare Public Theater—with offices, rehearsal facilities, and a six-theater complex space for the presentation of winter repertory programs of contemporary plays. The first theater to open was the Anspacher, ushering in the 1967 season with a production of the rock musical Hair. As the initial offering in a subscription series, the show signaled Papp’s commitment to new playwrights and contemporary plays of social significance. The second offering was a modern-dress version of Hamlet, an experimental theater piece with rock interludes, which Papp directed. Though both productions met with cries of indignation, Papp announced that he was not interested in middle-class Broadway audiences, but in youthful audiences concerned with contemporary issues.
Charles Gordone’s No Place to Be Somebody premiered at the Public Theater in 1969 and won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1970, bringing recognition to the NYSF and to a minority playwright. In 1973 a Pulitzer was awarded to Jason Miller’s That Championship Season, produced at the Public Theater in 1972. And after nearly two seasons of superior productions, critics concluded that the New York Shakespeare Festival had become the most powerful and artistically the most promising theater of the day.
In 1972 That Championship Season (which also won that year’s Tony for most promising playwright) was transferred to Broadway to join productions that had been launched by the NYSF in 1971: Two Gentlemen of Verona (which won a Tony for best musical) and Sticks and Bones (which won a Tony for best play). When Much Ado About Nothing opened in November 1972, Papp boasted four commercial ventures on the Great White Way. Although he never produced a show directly for Broadway, seventeen NYSF plays were transferred, including For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide when the Rainbow Is Enuf (1975), The Pirates of Penzance (1981), The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1985), Cuba and His Teddy Bear (1986), and Serious Money (1988). A Chorus Line (1975) ran for fifteen years, providing a regular subsidy and long-term relief from financial stress.
In 1973 Papp broadened his institutional base, taking over the management of the prestigious Lincoln Center Theater, comprising the Vivian Beaumont and the Forum (later renamed the Mitzi E. Newhouse) theaters, where his policy of presenting new works by American playwrights alienated repertory theater subscribers. He opened his first season with David Rabe’s In the Boom Boom Room (1973) but was forced to turn to the classics and box-office stars midway through the second season. Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1975) with Liv Ullmann was the first such production to sell out. Plagued with a never-ending struggle to cover the annual deficit, he left in 1977 to devote himself to the development of new plays and television productions at the Public Theater.
In 1982 he introduced the Festival Latino de Nueva York; in 1983 he initiated an exchange with London’s Royal Court Theatre; and in 1986 he developed the short-lived Belasco Project to present Shakespeare on Broadway for schoolchildren. In 1987 he inaugurated the Shakespeare Marathon, a celebration of his lifelong passion for the Bard, with a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Anspacher. The goal of the marathon was to mount productions of all the plays of Shakespeare within a time frame that Papp expected to be six years; he did not live to see the project to the end. He appointed JoAnne Akalaitis to succeed him, shortly before losing a four-year battle with prostate cancer on 31 October 1991. He died at his home in Greenwich Village and was buried on Staten Island, New York, at Baron Hirsch Cemetery, one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the Northeast. The New York Shakespeare Public Theater was rededicated to Papp on 23 April 1992 (the date believed to be Shakespeare’s birthday) and renamed the Joseph Papp Public Theater.
Among his many awards, Papp received a Special Tony in 1976 for distinguished achievement in the theater; Equity’s Paul Robeson Award in 1977; and in 1988, as first recipient, the William Shakespeare Award for Classical Theater from the Folger Shakespeare Library. In 1990 he was awarded a Tony for his courageous stand against censorship, after he turned down $323,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts by refusing to sign an obscenity clause issued in the wake of the controversial Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition, which had been funded by the NEA.
Described as a man of boundless energy, Papp was known for his volatile temper, his occasional intimidation of playwrights, and bullying of directors, but praised as a hands-on powerhouse of a producer and play-doctor; a dynamic force in the renaissance of New York theater; and one of the most influential and productive men in contemporary American theater. He was married four times and had five children. His first three marriages ended in divorce. His first marriage was to Betty Ball in 1941; the couple had one daughter. His second marriage was to Sylvia Ostroff, with whom he had one son. His third was to Peggy Bennion (1951), with whom he had one daughter and one son (who died of AIDS in 1991). In 1976 he married Gail Merrifield, who survived him at his death. Papp also had one daughter with Irene Ball, whom he met while in the service.
In his forty years of service to the nonprofit NYSF, Papp distinguished himself as a producer, director, theatrical innovator, scholar, advocate of controversy, and champion of the arts. He was one of the most important forces in the theater of his day. During his lifetime, he produced some 450 plays and directed more than 40. Under the auspices of the Public Theater, he nurtured minority playwrights such as Adrienne Kennedy, Alice Childress, Charles Gordone, Ntozake Shange, Derek Walcott, Aishah Rahman, and David Henry Hwang as well as others among theater’s greatest contemporary playwrights, including Vaclav Havel, David Mamet, David Rabe, Caryl Churchill, John Guare, Sam Shepard, David Hare, and Larry Kramer. Papp’s productions provided opportunities for fledgling actors, among them George C. Scott, Colleen Dewhurst, James Earl Jones, Al Pacino, Kevin Kline, Raul Julia, Meryl Streep, and William Hurt; and featured New York’s first female Hamlet (Diane Venora, 1984) in modern times, under his direction.
The entire New York Shakespeare Festival Newsclippings Collection (thirty-two reels of microfilm) was donated after Papp’s death to the Billy Rose Theatre Collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center. Helen Epstein’s official biography, Joe Papp: An American Life (1994), provides details to journalistic literature, such as the annotated bibliographies: Barbara Lee Horn, Joseph Papp: A Bio-Bibliography (1992), and Brenda Coven and Christine E. King, Joseph Papp and the New York Shakespeare Festival: An Annotated Bibliography (1988). Stuart W. Little, Enter Joseph Papp: In Search of a New American Theater (1974), examines Papp’s many roles, as producer, director, fund-raiser, and public champion of the arts; and the principles that enabled the festival to become a success. An obituary is in the New York Times (1 Nov. 1991).
Barbara Lee Horn
"Papp, Joseph." The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 23, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/papp-joseph-0
"Papp, Joseph." The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives. . Retrieved September 23, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/papp-joseph-0
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