The Life of the Neighborhood Playhouse on Grand Street The Life of the Neighborhood Playhouse on Grand Street

By John P. Harrington

Syracuse University Press, 2007

A Review

This book has so many parts that I need to begin on a personal level. For me it was a long read because each paragraph is full of so many parts—dates, names, quotations, and statements of ideals. It was an exciting read. Heroes of my youth jump out at me, living and breathing. Men and women like G.B. Shaw, Ethyl Barrymore, Ruth Draper, Blanche Talmud and Ellen Terry (who performed there in her sixties) are alive here. Martha Graham and Anna Sokoloff, with whom I studied briefly, are cited as children participating in classes. Alexander Woollcott and Clayton Hamilton are cited as supportive critics, Sholom Asch when he was a comparative unknown, and Lord Dunsany for his provocative A Night at an Inn. There is Michio Ito, whose work the Playhouse produced and who introduced the use of masks in his production. They presented the Isadora Duncan dancers and works of Edna St. Vincent Millay and Eugene O’Neill. John Galsworthy spoke at the opening of his play The Mob. And Joseph Wood Krutch, one of my professors when I studied at Colombia, together with Brooks Atkinson, detail the “ideal” of the Playhouse and the reasons for its closing with keen and sympathetic insight.

In the construction of the Playhouse itself Harrington gives details that leap out at me. The citing of the plaster cyclorama (“for lighting effects”) as innovative in design, the same plaster “cyc” that was so instrumental in the development of Nikolais’s Theater of Sound, Light and Motion some forty years later, and the complex electrical switchboard that we found to be so unwieldy in the 1950s, all sent me soaring. The lighting is particularly cited in Clayton Hamilton’s review of Lord Dunsany’s The Queen’s Enemies (1917), which is most unusual for the time. And it is sad to note that for its recent incarnation as the Abrams Center this historic “cyc” was demolished.

I noted the Saturday performances for children (for a very small sum: 5 cents in 1916, 10 cents in 1948) was introduced early on, a Settlement tradition that survives today.

That the first production was a “Biblical Dance Drama” seemed somehow prophetical to me (the Dance Drama part in any event). Dance seems always to have been a part of the Playhouse programs. This integration of dance and drama seems to have persisted throughout the existence of the Playhouse. (The description of the décor led me to think that they must have used that Linnebach projector we found in the dock fifty years later!)

Then in the middle of something else comes a sentence, “Robert Edmond Jones . . . geometric designs . . . and lighting without footlights.” In 1915 Edmond Jones closed the Playhouse’s footlight troughs (which Nikolais reopened in 1949). In 1919 they presented twelve lectures on staging, lighting and theatre aesthetics. Later on (1921) we are told of Adam and Eve appearing in flesh colored tights.

There is the constant reference to ideological conflict. “High art” and ethnic content, local participation and professional actors, audiences from the “streets” and from “up-town,” advance the immigrant and please the intelligentsia.

Each season’s productions are detailed. Each one has some personal tidbit that is enthralling. In 1921 Eugene O’Neil struggles to produce two plays, one uptown and one at the Playhouse, while his dead mother is on a train from California accompanied by his older brother who is drunk and holed up with prostitutes.

Then the Playhouse took a year’s hiatus.

It reopened in the fall of 1923 with renewed vigor but with the same adversarial missions. High art presenting “radical” ideas was pitted against the need to feed the spirits of its ethnic, immigrant neighbors. For those whose interest lies in theatre history (as well as in aesthetic wrangling), this season’s records are of keen value—civic theatre, art theatre, and on and on. An ongoing offering was the Grand Street Follies, which by then included parody of current esthetes and other delicious items.

The Playhouse produced a classical Hindu drama, The Little Clay Pot, to good acclaim while it satisfied an ethnic aim by relating to the Asian population. Harrington includes an interesting description, almost a transcription, of the production. It was at this juncture that economics again reared its head, and subsequent choices in production did not help and were of little ethnic interest, although they did evoke the notice of uptown critics.

But then came The Dybbuk!! This was the play that was still legend in 1948 when Nikolais and I first came to Henry Street. It satisfied all missions. The uptown critics praised it. The theme was ethnic. But it did occupy the Playhouse to the exclusion of other events. They decided to forego “experimental theatre” and go to “repertory” in order to continue offering it. The Playhouse was supporting a permanent professional company. It was costly, and to support the company they had to bring in “customers.”

Here the Playhouse seems to present the format with which we are familiar—a professional company with a school whose students would fill out the casts. This model proved only a stopgap, because of its location (it is said), because subscriptions were too few to cover costs, because it had no endowment. And then…

In reality, the professional company it had spawned outgrew the bounds of the Settlement ideal. The principals involved all left 466 Grand Street: the Neighborhood Playhouse (which was the professional acting arm) moved to another theatre (including the principal donors). The Playhouse again reverted to its settlement house base, showing community “doings.”

As a footnote: Martha Graham used the Playhouse in the thirties to film her works. And in 1948 Helen Hall again envisioned a professional dance school, engaging Alwin Nikolais to make it a reality in what was then called the Henry Street Playhouse. History repeated itself. The school was more successful than the settlement model could contain. The Nikolais school moved to uptown quarters in 1970. Nikolais had grown into an internationally known choreographer, his company was in demand to perform here and abroad, and his students from four corners of the globe filled professional jobs across the world.

—Ruth Grauert, February 2008