Group Theatre

(1931 - 1940)

(October 1999)

Inspired by the revolutionary theories of Russian director Konstantin Stanislavski, the Group Theatre, was composed of a collection of Theater Guild talent, who bonded to create a theater with a closer relationship to "art" than the Guild represented. Under the leadership of Harold Clurman, the group included future theatrical luminaries Cheryl Crawford, Lee Strasberg, Luther and Stella Adler, Clifford Odets, and Sanford Meisner.

Idealistic and young (the average age was somewhere around 25), the group was united by a belief that theater was too involved with a "star" system, not particularly interested in the problems of "real life", too dependent on "hit or flop" commercialism, and that the art of acting itself was too artificial and fabricated. A group of 40 people from Broadway took off for the wilds of Brookfield, Connecticut, in the spring of 1931 to study, act and plan a new theater. The only pay involved for this experiment was room and board.

With a grant of $1,000 from the Theater Guild to help with expenses, rights to Paul Green's play "The House of Connelly" (also from the Guild) and deferred contract obligations for Franchot Tone and Martin Carnovsky, the group settled into a farmhouse and began creating their version of a theater company. When they returned to Broadway in the fall, the Group produced a successful run of "The House of Connelly" with more assistance from the Theater Guild. The idealistic Group Theater seemed to have succeeded in their attempt. The early success was followed by a series of less-than-successful presentations; Paul Sifton's "1931 -", Maxwell Anderson's "Night Over Taos" and John Howard Lawson's "Success Story". In 1933, however, the Group Theater had a major success with "Men in White", a hospital drama by Sidney Kingsley.

Reflecting the concern of the growing gulf in class structure, Kingsley's more important and later entry of 1935, "Dead End" focused on life in the inner-city. Dan Duryea made his debut in this production, and the play was filmed in 1937 with Sylvia Sidney and Humphrey Bogart. By 1935, the Group Theater had developed its own voice in Clifford Odets. Originally an actor with the Group, Odets provided a number of winning scripts for the company. "Waiting for Lefty", a pro-labor, one-act piece with Elia Kazan (as an actor), was coupled with an anti- fascist "Till the Day I Die". Odets followed these the same year with "Awake and Sing", which is considered by many to be his best work. The most financially rewarding for the Group was "Golden Boy" in 1937, in which Karl Malden made his Broadway debut. Harold Clurman directed this cast, which also included Frances Farmer, Lee J. Cobb and Martin Carnovsky. Other playwrights produced by the Group Theater include Robert Ardrey, Irwin Shaw and William Saroyan. The Group Theater was disbanded in 1940 after a number of rifts and restructures had adulterated the Group's original concepts. It's true that Odets' "Clash by Night" is considered the last of the Group Theater's productions in 1941, but there were only two members of the original group involved. The Group Theater name had been dropped from all billing, and Billy Rose had taken over as producer. The behind-the- scenes politicking was a major influence in destroying the Group Theater, but another, perhaps more important, issue was one of economics. How could a project such as the Group Theater continue without a permanent home, and without an endowment or an audience who would support the bad shows along with the good? Basically, the Group Theater went the same way as Le Gallienne's Civic Repertory, and Le Gallienne had a permanent home.

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