The Group Theatre Flourishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Group Theatre, founded in 1931 as a permanent theater company, flourished during the Great Depression before folding in 1941 after the United States entered World War II.

Summary of Event

Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, and Lee Strasberg founded the Group Theatre as a permanent acting company in 1931, when the United States was in the depths of the Great Depression. Clurman had been a play reader for the Theatre Guild, where Crawford was a casting director. Lee Strasberg was an actor who had learned the Stanislavsky method Stanislavsky method Method acting at the American Laboratory Theater. [kw]Group Theatre Flourishes, The (1931-1941) [kw]Theatre Flourishes, The Group (1931-1941) Group Theatre Theater companies;Group Theatre [g]United States;1931-1941: The Group Theatre Flourishes[07760] [c]Theater;1931-1941: The Group Theatre Flourishes[07760] Clurman, Harold Crawford, Cheryl Strasberg, Lee Adler, Stella Carnovsky, Morris Green, Paul Odets, Clifford

American theater grew rapidly during the 1920’s. Eugene O’Neill had emerged after World War I as a towering theatrical figure in a country that had little high-quality indigenous drama to stage until O’Neill began writing plays. A new freedom of language and outlook affected the emerging drama.

Most of the American theater of the early century consisted of dramas by European playwrights or by such canonical playwrights as William Shakespeare. Broad Jewish comedies in Yiddish or “Yinglish,” as the dialect that combined Yiddish and English came to be called, were also popular. Earlier American playwrights such as George H. Boker, Robert Montgomery Bird, Dion Boucicault, and Clyde Fitch made little artistic impact on American theater. Their plays were mere vehicles for the stars, who dominated the theater. The star system was sufficiently entrenched that Eugene O’Neill’s father, James, could spend most of his acting life playing one character: the count in the stage version of Alexandre Dumas’s novel Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (1844-1845; The Count of Monte-Cristo, 1846).

Most plays revolved around stars of legendary proportions. Stages were filled with supporting cast members—sometimes large supporting casts—but all attention was focused essentially on one or two actors (male or female) who dominated. The Theatre Guild, Theatre Guild founded in 1918 to support living theater, bowed to the star system.

One of the Theatre Guild’s experiments during 1929 involved its Studio Program, Studio Program, Theatre Guild which was intended to produce special Sunday performances of serious dramas. Crawford, Strasberg, and Clurman were all involved in putting on the first—and only—performance of the Studio Program. The play was a Russian drama, and it brought all sorts of communist sympathizers to the theater.

After the Studio Program collapsed, Clurman dreamed of organizing an acting company unlike any in the United States. He wanted to develop a permanent—but not a repertory—company that would have its own cadre of actors, playwrights, and directors. Clurman knew that Strasberg could help in the implementation of this dream, but he knew as well that Strasberg was not a good organizer and that, despite his intelligence and talent, Strasberg could be devastatingly tactless. Clurman needed Strasberg, but he also needed a practical, down-to-earth organizer to carry on the day-to-day operation of the theater he envisioned. Crawford’s handling of the production for the Studio Program convinced Clurman that she could offer his project precisely the skills required.

During the next months, the three worked toward establishing a theater company with the express aim of scrapping the star system. Its plays, written by various playwrights associated with the company, would have fewer than ten characters, with each as equal in prominence as the playwrights could manage. Actors would play lead roles one week and smaller roles or no roles the next. The favored acting technique was the Stanislavsky method of affective acting.

Everyone associated with the group would share equally in any profits—again a blow to any vestigial thoughts the members might have about a star system. The playwrights were not to be stars either; rather, the plays were viewed as instruments for the expression of ideas and the formulation of philosophies. The playwrights received an equal share of the meager profits the Group Theatre’s plays usually generated.

By late 1930, Clurman’s dream was in the first stages of becoming a reality. He and his two fellow founders enticed many theater people to meet with them in strategy sessions. Actors including Franchot Tone, Morris Carnovsky, J. Edward Bromberg, Phoebe Brand, Dorothy Patten, and Stella Adler and her brother Luther became interested in the concept of the Group Theatre. Clurman held meetings every Friday night to draw Broadway people into his scheme. When these meetings grew too large to fit into Clurman’s room at the Hotel Meurice, they were moved to Crawford’s apartment. When the enthusiastic crowd overflowed the apartment, the Friday night sessions moved to Steinway Hall.

By June, 1931, the Group Theatre company—twenty-eight actors, along with their various spouses, children, and others—left New York for the compound Crawford had found for them at Brookfield Center, near Danbury, Connecticut, where they undertook preparation for the theater’s initial summer of operation. The first play scheduled for production was The House of Connelly (pr., pb. 1931), by Paul Green of North Carolina.

Clifford Odets was among the actors at Brookfield Center for the Group Theatre’s first summer together. He remained with the Group Theatre for most of its existence, leaving only to accept a tempting offer to write for Hollywood. Such an act meant that Odets was prostituting himself in his own eyes, but he did so to make money he could send back to Clurman to keep the financially strapped Group Theatre afloat.

The summer over, the Group Theatre returned to New York. Its members rented a ten-room apartment on West Fifty-seventh Street for fifty dollars a month, and the Group Theatre continued to operate during the winter. During its first few years, the organization presented important new plays by Group Theatre playwrights and also provided excellent experience for actors.

In 1935, Odets burst upon the dramatic scene with the January production of his Waiting for Lefty (pr., pb. 1935), Waiting for Lefty (Odets) a tour de force that was precisely right for its time. By summer, Odets had two more plays on Broadway, Till the Day I Die (pr., pb. 1935) and Awake and Sing! (pr., pb. 1935). In the autumn, his Paradise Lost (pr. 1935) was brought to Broadway, transforming an unknown actor who claimed to live on ten cents a week into a playwright who was the toast of New York.

The Group Theatre produced all Odets’s subsequent plays through Night Music (pr., pb. 1940). Its financial problems intensified when the United States entered World War II, a development that reduced the size of audiences. The Group Theatre was finally disbanded in 1941. With its disappearance, a significant chapter in the history of American drama ended.

Significance

The Group Theatre affected American drama in many ways. Even with the emergence of Eugene O’Neill as a full-fledged, high-quality American playwright, American theater was somewhat without a compass until the Group Theatre redefined the place of drama in society. Much of the drama of the 1920’s—excluding that by O’Neill—was a drama of manners. It did not seek to engage its audiences in penetrating thought along socioeconomic lines, nor, in the roaring 1920’s, could it have.

The Group Theatre productions staged in the grim years of the Great Depression, however, raised thorny social questions relating to economics, the place of the individual in society, the role of government, pacifism and conscientious objection to war, and ethnically generated social injustice. One did not come to Group Theatre productions with the expectation of laughing, of being lulled into complacency, or of being amused. Nevertheless, people came, perhaps to have their consciences tweaked, their awareness of daunting economic problems raised.

The social backdrop against which Group Theatre productions played was one of poverty, joblessness, insecurity, and social alienation. The plays the Group Theatre presented dealt with all these problems, although they played to audiences who certainly had the financial means to rise above the immediate problems that surrounded them. Theatrical audiences obviously have enough disposable income to enable them to attend plays; the theatrical audiences of the early 1930’s seemed as well to have enough social conscience to encourage and patronize the kind of drama the Group Theatre favored.

That the Group Theatre changed permanently the structure of American drama cannot be denied. By moving away from the star system and encouraging playwrights whose plays had a balance of significant roles, the philosophy of the Group Theatre opened new possibilities to playwrights, particularly to such later practitioners of the art as Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, William Inge, and Edward Albee. It is interesting to note that in a work such as Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (pr., pb. 1962), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Albee)[Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf?] for example, the play’s four characters—Martha, George, Honey, and Nick—have virtually equal dramatic stature, even if Martha’s mouth gives her a slight advantage.

The same can be said of plays such as Miller’s Death of a Salesman (pr., pb. 1949), Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba (pr., pb. 1950), and Williams’s The Glass Menagerie (pr. 1944). In Death of a Salesman, the characters Willy and Linda Loman and their two sons, Happy and Biff, are virtually dramatic equals; Lola, Doc, Marie, and Turk are almost equivalent characters in the Inge play; Amanda, Tom, Laura, and Jim are essentially equals in The Glass Menagerie.

The Group Theatre was also largely responsible for emphasizing method acting in the United States. The technique had been taught previously by such organizations as the American Laboratory Theater, but the Group Theatre made it clear that this was the most effective way to act, and its mandate to advance “the Method” in its training sessions stuck.

The countless actors produced by the Group Theatre included Franchot Tone, Stella Adler, Luther Adler, Jacob Adler, Morris Carnovsky, J. Edward Bromberg, Lee J. Cobb, Katharine Cornell, John Garfield, Frances Farmer, Luise Rainer, and Brock Pemberton. An even greater legacy, however, accrued to the next generation, to actors such as Marlon Brando, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and others whose training, often with individuals who had been part of the Group Theatre experience, emphasized method acting.

Among those who act and write plays, the work of the Group Theatre remains well known, and its impact is readily acknowledged. Although the Group Theatre existed for only a decade, it forged professional relationships and encouraged approaches to drama that were, until the company’s existence, all but unimaginable. Group Theatre Theater companies;Group Theatre

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bordman, Gerald. American Theatre: A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama, 1930-1969. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Survey of every nonmusical play produced on Broadway (and some off-Broadway productions) during the period covered. Includes synopses and other details on many Group Theatre productions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brenman-Gibson, Margaret. Clifford Odets: An American Playwright—The Years from 1906 to 1940. 1981. Reprint. New York: Applause Books, 2002. First volume of a comprehensive biography of Odets includes many entries for the Group Theatre in its index. Unusually well-documented biography goes far beyond the narrow limits of one person’s life and embraces an entire period of great change in American drama. A treasure trove for the scholar.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clurman, Harold. The Fervent Years: The Story of the Group Theatre and the Thirties. 1945. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1983. Authoritative history of the Group Theatre by one of its founders and directors. Warm narrative discusses the people who made the Group Theatre possible. One of the most important books available on the topic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cohn, Ruby. Dialogue in American Drama. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971. Examines the proletarian drama of the 1930’s, much of which was dialect drama. Relates the lyricism of such playwrights as Clifford Odets and Thornton Wilder to the use of language of later playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee. Written to be accessible to nonspecialists with a general interest in drama.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gassner, John. Dramatic Soundings: Evaluations and Retractions Culled from Thirty Years of Dramatic Criticism. New York: Crown, 1968. Collection of critic Gassner’s essays and theatrical reviews from 1935 through 1965. Includes perceptive insights into the work of the Group Theatre and its playwrights, particularly Clifford Odets, Paul Green, Philip Barry, and Maxwell Anderson. Focuses specifically on the Group Theatre, the Actors Studio, and the Theatre Guild.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Herr, Christopher J. Clifford Odets and American Political Theatre. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003. Places Odets’s works in the context of the time of social, political, and economic change in which they were written. Includes many references to his work with the Group Theatre.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Krutch, Joseph Wood. The American Drama Since 1918. Rev. ed. New York: George Braziller, 1957. Engaging overview of American drama between the world wars includes discussion of playwrights associated with the Group Theatre and the Group Theatre itself. An essential resource for anyone who wishes to understand the drama of the period in which the Group Theatre flourished.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Odets, Clifford. The Time Is Ripe: The 1940 Journal of Clifford Odets. New York: Grove Press, 1988. The Group Theatre figures centrally in this journal, which Odets kept at a time when his life was changing drastically. His marriage to Luise Rainer was deteriorating, his artistic integrity was on the line, and the Group Theatre, whose members formed his surrogate family, was dissolving. Includes many cogent references to the Group Theatre and what it meant to him.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Wendy. Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940. New York: Grove Press, 1990. History of the Group Theatre discusses the personalities of the individuals involved and the social and political context of the times. Includes a list of the plays produced by the theater.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williams, Jay. Stage Left. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974. Engaging examination of radical theater in the United States is almost an informal history of the Group Theatre. Focuses on several of the Group Theatre’s playwrights—Green, Odets, Sidney Kingsley—and addresses the shift in American society that made proletarian drama, the mainstay of the Group Theatre, possible.

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Great Depression

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Federal Theatre Project Promotes Live Theater

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