In 1931, a new theater ensemble was formed in New York City. The vision of Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg, Phoebe Brand, Stella Adler and the other key figures behind its formation was that of a collective, so they called themselves the Group Theatre. The Group was committed to both staging plays about the social problems confronting Depression-era America and to utilizing the innovative acting techniques of Constantin Stanislavsky that eventually became known as the Method.
Over the next nine years, the Group performed works by such prominent playwrights as William Saroyan, Irwin Shaw, Sidney Kingsley and Maxwell Anderson. Though none was a member, Clifford Odets was and it was Odets who became a sort of voice for the collective, as the Group staged seven of his plays during its existence. The Group also worked with Martha Graham and others revolutionizing modern dance, most notably Hartford-born Anna Sokolow.
The Group was committed to both staging plays about the social problems confronting Depression-era America and to utilizing the innovative acting techniques of Constantin Stanislavsky that eventually became known as the Method.
Most members of the Group spent summers together attending workshops and rehearsing plays, and they spent two of those summers in Connecticut. The first was in 1931 at a vacation resort in Brookfield five miles north of Danbury in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains. Twenty-eight members of the Group rented several buildings for sleeping quarters and a barn they used for classes and rehearsals. Though the accommodations were rustic, the grounds also included woods, a swimming pool and a small lake.
In her excellent history of the Group, Wendy Smith writes that the “hills of Connecticut were the backdrop for an exhilarating drama of collective self-discovery” and likens their summer in Brookfield to the magic of a first love affair. Young or old, experienced in the theater or not, there was a strong sense among those gathered that they were embarking on something new and exciting. Brookfield, Smith writes, was “the place where theatre and life became one.”
After considering several plays that summer, Group members selected The House of Connelly by Paul Green for their first-ever production. Green had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1927 and shared with the Group a desire for a native theater that would stage plays about social issues and everyday people. The House of Connelly is the story of an old Southern clan and the conflicts that emerge when the family experiences financial decline. It opened on Broadway on September 29, 1931 at the Martin Beck Theatre (now the Al Hirschfeld Theatre) and had a successful run of 91 performances. Among those in the cast were many who would be Group stalwarts throughout its existence, including Stella Adler, Morris Carnovsky, J. Edward Bromberg, Phoebe Brand, Franchot Tone and Clifford Odets.
1936: Pine Brook
When the Group returned to Connecticut in the summer of 1936, they settled in the Pine Brook Country Club in the Nichols section of Trumbull just north of Bridgeport. Since Brookfield, they had experienced highs such as an electrifying production of Odets’ Waiting for Lefty and the lows of disdain from influential critics and financial problems. The Group had grown and among those present at Pine Brook were some who had either achieved success in movies or soon would, including Franchot Tone, John Garfield, Sylvia Sidney, Lee J. Cobb, Will Geer and Elia Kazan.
Odets was also present, though he rented a house a few miles away near the Bridgeport town line. He was accompanied by Luise Rainer, fresh off the 1936 Academy Award for Best Actress. Rainer would win the same award in 1937 and become the first person to win for Best Actor or Actress in two consecutive years, a feat Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn and Tom Hanks have since duplicated. Odets and Rainer had recently become involved romantically and would soon be married.
Rainer was not involved in any way with the Group. In fact, Group members held her in low regard and made fun of her behind her and Odets’ back. The feeling was apparently mutual and Rainer left Connecticut and returned to Hollywood well before summer’s end, though her departure was more likely due to the turbulent nature of her relationship with Odets than to any conflicts with the rest of the Group.
The accommodations at Pine Brook were much better than at Brookfield, and nearby woods and Pinewood Lake made for a rather idyllic setting. The Group soon set about reading plays for the fall season. Before long, they settled on Johnny Johnson, a musical by Paul Green with strong anti-war themes and a memorable score by Kurt Weill. The play was about the horrors endured by everyman soldiers during World War One, and the title and name of the main character were drawn from the fact that 30,000 American soldiers who served in the war were named Johnson, 3,000 of whom were named Johnny Johnson. Both Green and Weill were present that summer at a house near Pine Brook and they worked finishing the play and music while the Group rehearsed the parts that had already been completed.
From Connecticut Johnny Johnson moved to Broadway, where it opened that fall at the 44th Street Theater before eventually moving to the Mansfield (now the Brooks Atkinson) on 47th Street. Among those in the cast were Phoebe Brand, Morris Carnovsky, John Garfield, Lee J. Cobb, Luther Adler and Elia Kazan. The production ran for 68 performances.
The Communist Issue
The beauty of the Pine Brook surroundings and the optimism of a new play could not mask tensions within the Group. Some members were displeased with what had always been a rather hierarchical structure, the theory of collectivity notwithstanding. There was also friction over the inclusion of new and returned members who were seen by some as too closely associated with Hollywood, especially when they were selected for roles over others who had been with the Group from the beginning.
Years later when he sang like a canary at hearings by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, commonly known as HUAC, Elia Kazan claimed that the Communist Party also caused disruptions by attempting to take over the Group. There is little to support this contention and even other Group members who similarly cooperated with HUAC made no such claim. As documented by HUAC with the aid of Kazan and the other cooperative witnesses, most Group members who also belonged to the Communist Party were Party members for only a year or two, including Kazan and Odets, and totaled maybe a dozen over the entire nine years of the Group’s existence.
Further undermining Kazan’s claim is the fact that the Communist Party was as uncertain as anyone else about the best strategy for the Group, and CP and non-CP Group members were in complete agreement about wanting to stage plays about social issues. Once the CP entered its Popular Front period around 1934, it sought to have such plays reach as broad an audience as possible, much as Clurman and the rest of the Group did. Whatever the opportunism the CP frequently employed, Kazan’s claim seems little more than dishonesty designed to curry favor with a government agency that, in 1952, held his suddenly very lucrative career in its hands. Former Group member Tony Kraber, one of the Communist Party members named by Kazan and a blacklistee for many years, uttered one of the most famous quips about the government witch hunt when he replied before HUAC to a question about Kazan, “Is this the Kazan that signed the contract for $500,000 the day after he gave names to this committee?”
A Recurring Problem
The biggest problem the Group faced that summer in Pine Brook, one they had grappled with all along and would never satisfactorily resolve, was how to do the kind of work they wanted to do while also sustaining their venture financially. That problem predates the Group and persists today, and figures as great as Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller have lamented it. It was a problem that raised its head especially whenever ticket sales were insufficient to continue a show for any length of time and one that contributed to the Group’s eventual demise in 1940.
That makes it difficult to judge those from the Group who “went Hollywood” harshly. John Garfield and Lee J. Cobb, for example, both said that they would have preferred to concentrate their careers in the theater, rather than in movies. However, by the time each had made it in Hollywood and returned to the stage in the late 1940’s without having to worry about making that month’s rent, the chill of government and industry repression made it as difficult politically to do the kind of theater they wanted as it had been difficult financially 10-15 years before.
Odets After the Group
The arc of the career of Odets, who could rightly be considered the Group’s brightest star, is perhaps the most dramatic illustration of this point. In a remarkable run of creativity over a relatively short time, Odets wrote nine plays including Waiting For Lefty, Golden Boy, Paradise Lost, Rocket to the Moon and Awake and Sing! He made several forays to Hollywood before staying for good and the 1991 movie Barton Fink is very loosely based on his early experience there.
After 1941, at which point he was only 35, Odets wrote only three more plays that were ever staged, all middling at best. His Hollywood screenplays were also generally middling except for the fine, largely overlooked None But the Lonely Heart (1944), which he also directed. He also contributed to the script of Sweet Smell of Success (1957), a blisteringly cynical story of a ruthless New York gossip columnist, played by Burt Lancaster, and his equally ruthless flunky, played by Tony Curtis. Like Kazan, Odets avoided the blacklist by naming some of his former friends as Communists before HUAC. And like Kazan, he was shunned by those former friends as well as by many others until his death in 1963.
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Others from the Group stood firm against the tyranny of those who sat atop the Dream Factory even as doing so destroyed their careers and their lives. Two of note are Frances Farmer and John Garfield. Though Farmer certainly had her share of personal problems, she more than anything ran into an impenetrable wall of sexism as she attempted to forge a career both on stage and in movies. She had come up against sexism in the Group, especially in the person of Odets, with whom she was briefly involved and who treated her abominably.
Farmer fled Hollywood in 1937 after several films and some initial success. Her first love was theater and she had longed to join the Group since high school. Swept to Hollywood at 21 by an improbable series of events, she broke her contract with Paramount because she was unable to abide the totalitarianism of the studio system and what she regarded as vacuous parts in equally vacuous movies.
She travelled East and appeared in Connecticut in productions of The Petrified Forest and At Mrs. Beam’s at the Westport Country Playhouse. Odets and Clurman had seen at least one of her movies and, in search of someone to cast as the female lead in Odets’ new play, they travelled to Westport to see her in The Petrified Forest. Impressed, they immediately offered her the part and she eagerly agreed to star as Lorna Moon in Golden Boy.
Farmer soon became involved romantically with Odets while his wife Rainer was away on an extended trip, an affair in which he pursued and then unceremoniously dumped her just before Rainer’s return. Farmer was idealistic about the Group venture and radical politics in general and thus may very well have believed that Odets' attention was an expression of a closer affinity between the two than existed between he and Rainer, especially given the miserable state of his marriage. But she was, as she documents in her autobiography Will There Really Be a Morning?, also appalled and conflicted by Odets’ constant abusing of her acting abilities and humanity.
Whatever her hopes for the relationship, Farmer was devastated when Odets abruptly broke things off -- by telegram, no less. All the worse, she was dropped from the cast when the Group took Golden Boy for an extended run in London, replaced by an aspiring actress named Lillian Emerson who was also an heiress to the Bromo-Seltzer fortune and who bankrolled the London production in exchange for the part of Lorna Moon.
Farmer soon returned to Hollywood, depressed and drinking heavily. She stood up for herself as best she could, demanding better parts, fairer contracts, a healthy work environment and some say over her work. She had visions of doing Ibsen’s Nora; her bosses had visions of making her the next pin-up.
Alone, cut off from any kind of support network, Farmer was no match for the studio moguls or gossip columnists like Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper (reactionaries both) who prided themselves on their power to break careers. She was arrested several times after relatively minor drinking-related incidents, suspended, imprisoned and eventually forcibly institutionalized as her career and life spiraled down rapidly in the 1940’s. The horrors she endured from then until her death in 1970 at age 56 including, by a number of accounts, an involuntary lobotomy, have been documented in Will There Really Be a Morning? as well as in the 1981 movie Frances.
Garfield, the tough guy with a heart of gold who maintained his unbreakable loyalty to his friends to the day he died, tried to help. Especially loyal to friends under siege, he pushed successfully for Farmer to co-star with him in Flowing Gold. It was a mostly forgettable film except for the dynamism of the two extraordinarily talented young stars -- Farmer, the original Lorna Moon, and Garfield, the actor who more than any other was born to play Joe Bonaparte.
Garfield was not yet a big enough star, however, to intervene with the studios on Farmer’s behalf in any serious way had that even been a possibility. Besides which, he was heading toward shark-infested waters himself, though not before he made some of the most memorable films of that or any era.
He was a noir-ish star before noir and when the real thing hit Hollywood big-time after the war, Garfield did most of his best work. Sick of studio constraints much as Farmer was, he formed Enterprise Productions in 1946 and worked with prominent Hollywood left-wingers Abraham Polonsky, Robert Rossen, James Wong Howe, Canada Lee, Lloyd Gough and Anne Revere on two great films, Body and Soul (1947) and Force of Evil (1948). He returned to Warner Brothers one last time for The Breaking Point (1950), a magnificent film buried under the rubble of the Red Scare that may very well be the greatest forgotten Hollywood movie ever made.
By 1951, Garfield was being hammered by reactionaries from all directions. He knew more than a few Communists, had likely perjured himself in a first go-round with HUAC by denying that he did, and the red hunters were demanding that he name them. It was all a public ritual, of course; HUAC already knew every entertainment figure who belonged to the Party, past and present, and the real purpose of the hearings was to intimidate dissidents.
Facing the same career abyss that led Odets and Kazan to sing, Garfield refused to rat out his friends. He returned to the Broadway stage in Peer Gynt and then, irony of ironies, a 1952 revival of Golden Boy, finally playing the part of Joe Bonaparte he had coveted 15 years earlier and been passed over for. It was an unsuccessful production that closed after three weeks. It was also Garfield’s last acting job. He died six weeks after the play closed, literally of a broken heart, with HUAC bearing down ever harder. He was 39.
Morris Carnovsky, the Actors Studio and the Group’s Legacy
For each sad tale, however, there are any number of Group stories like that of the ever-resilient Morris Carnovsky. A Communist for many years who was named before HUAC by Kazan and numerous others, Carnovsky endured years on the blacklist before reviving his stage career in the late 1950’s. He became a regular on Broadway and returned to Connecticut often at the American Shakespeare Theater in Stratford in productions of Antigone (as Creon), The Three Sisters (as Chebutikin), King Lear (three times, each time as Lear), Hamlet (twice, once as Claudius and once as Polonius), Romeo and Juliet (as Capulet), Measure for Measure, The Taming of the Shrew, King John, The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, The Merry Wives of Windsor and The Tempest, among others.
Carnovsky and his fellow Group alumnus and wife Phoebe Brand settled in Easton, Connecticut not far from where it all began for the Group decades before. He died there in 1992, four days before what would have been his 95th birthday. Brand lived to the ripe old age of 96 and died in 2004.
Similarly, Group veterans Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg were leading figures for many years in the Actors Studio. Their efforts live on in the careers of many including some who achieved monumental success on stage and/or screen like Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro, on down to Julia Roberts and even newer actors, writers and directors.
So though the heady dreams that took shape in the hills of Connecticut in the summer of 1931, like most first loves, didn’t last, the Group Theater for nine years did sometimes memorable work in as raucous a decade as the United States has experienced. Along the way, they changed American theater and forged a legacy that is felt to this day.
I cannot recommend Wendy Smith's book about the Group enough: Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940 (Knopf, 1990)