Volume 75, Number 50 | May 3 - 9 2006

A Harold Clurman Festival of the Arts, May 5 to May 12, celebrates the fervent critic, director, author, co-founder of the Group Theater.

For Harold Clurman, theater’s man of passion

By JERRY TALLMER

My, how the man could talk.

He could also write.

Here is how, in a thrilling, seminal 1945 book called “The Fervent Years,” Harold Clurman, who in the summer of 1931 had talked the Group Theater into existence, described the opening night of January 5, 1935, at the old Civic Repertory Theatre on 14th Street, of a play by a struggling young actor/writer (well, they were all struggling) named Clifford Odets:
 

The first scene of “[Waiting for] Lefty” had not played two minutes when a shock of delighted recognition struck the audience like a tidal wave. Deep laughter, hot assent, a kind of joyous fervor seemed to sweep the audience toward the stage. The actors no longer performed, they were being carried along as if by an exultancy of communication such as I had never witnessed in the theater before. Audience and actors had become one …
 
When the audience at the end of the play responded to the militant question from the stage: “Well, what’s the answer?” with a spontaneous roar of “Strike! Strike!” it was something more than a tribute to the play’s effectiveness, more even than a testimony of the audience’s hunger for constructive social action. It was the birth cry of the thirties. Our youth had found its voice.
 
Harold Clurman himself was a youthful 34-year-old “full of beans and enthusiasm” on that historic night. Here is how Tom Oppenheim, Harold Clurman’s spiritual grandson, remembers the latter-day no less full-of-beans storied director, writer, teacher, lecturer, drama critic, Group Theater co-founder, conscience of the American stage who was Harold Clurman, elder statesman, in a black homburg, flashing an ebony cane, the bright little ribbon of the French legion d’honneur in his left lapel:

“In the ’70s, when this studio was at the City Center, Harold would come in to teach a class at midnight. Christopher Plummer and Roy Scheider remember this. Harold would hold forth in class until 2 a.m., and then they’d all go to the Stage Delicatessen and Harold would keep talking to 4 in the morning.”

And talk and talk and talk, with fire, and passion, and lucidity, and anger, and idealism (“an idealist — another word for a schmuck”), and inspiration, and gestures, and shouting, and pounding on the table. If you have any doubt about it, or need a reminder, get yourself a copy of an American Masters PBS documentary made about a year before Clurman’s death in 1980.

 Tom Oppenheim, son of Ellen Adler, grandson of Stella Adler — Stella who in the Group years was married to Harold Clurman — is now artistic director of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting. It is there, at that Studio, up a slow elevator in a venerable building at 31 West 27th Street — they’re looking for a new one — that a four-day inaugural Harold Clurman Festival of the Arts will take over the premises from Friday, May 5, through Monday, May 8.

 The big day is the last one, the Monday, when at 7 p.m. four American playwrights of some consequence — John Guare, Israel Horovitz, Horton Foote, Edward Albee — with George C. White as moderator, are to discuss “Harold Clurman’s affect on playwrights.” And then, at 8:30 p.m., the first Harold Clurman Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented to Edward Albee by actress Marian Seldes.

To whom, parenthetically, Harold Clurman was, she says, “a giant, because you could just take any area of his expertise, whether his association with the Group Theater, or by his writing as critic and reviewer, or as director, or, in my case, as a great friend … ”

Events of the Festival on preceding days include the following:

“Harold Cluman’s Life of Passion,” by and with Ronald Rand, Friday, May 5, 6:30 p.m.

Zoe Caldwell, Roy Scheider, Lois Smith, Elaine Stritch, and Howard Kissel in a symposium on Clurman’s affect on theater and art, Friday, May 5, 8:15 p.m.

Nobel laureate Derek Walcott and others in a Poetry Series, Saturday, May 6, 12:30 and 4:45 p.m.

David Amram playing music he wrote with Elia Kazan, Saturday, May 6, 1:45 p.m.

“Calacas,” a play by Robert Sublett developed at the Stella Adler Studio, Saturday, May 6, 8 p.m.

“Dorothy Parker Gets the Last Word,” a play by Ellen M. Violett, enacted by Marian Seldes, Sunday, May 7, 2 p.m., followed by a discussion of it by the playwright and others, at 4:15 p.m.

Presentation of the Harold Clurman Spirit Award to author and TV host Steven Scheuer, Sunday, May 7, 5:45 p.m.

I don’t know if David Amram, who worked with Kazan on at least two movies, “The Arrangement” and “Splendor in the Grass,” is old enough to have seen “Waiting for Lefty” — he would have been 5 then — but the playgoer who writes this story was indeed taken to see “Waiting for Lefty” in his infancy. And remembers, vividly, the ballsy little guy who came running down the aisle yelling: “They just found Lefty … behind the car barns with a bullet in his head!” The actor’s name, said the program, was Elia Kazan.

The same playgoer also strongly remembers in that production a pale young performer in the role of the white-jacketed Dr. Benjamin who’d just had his future cut from under him by an act of anti-Semitism. His name — the actor’s name — was Odets.

You do not forget things like that.

Indeed, one will not soon forget, 71 years after its original opening under the direction of Harold Clurman at the Belasco Theater on West 44th Street, the stunning new opening of Odets’s “Awake and Sing!” at that very same Belasco Theater in April 2006 under the direction, now, of Bartlett Sher.

“Life is a struggle, it’s a theater, all life is a work of art,” said the Harold Clurman who, with Lee Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford, founded the Group in 1931. “Theater must say something. It must relate to society … Life is a losing game, and you may as well enjoy it,” he joyously, mordantly, passionately declared.

“These words,” Stella Adler, who is now also gone, tells us in the American Masters documentary, “poured out of him like dynamite on the innocents before him.”

Those words still do. Like dynamite.

The Harold Clurman Festival takes place May 5 through May 8 at the Stella Adler studio of Acting, 31 West 27th Street. Festival passes are available by calling (212) 689-0087, ext. 27.

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