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78 6 The Zoo Story Discovering Edward Albee I n 1959, after his trip to Europe, a deeply dissatisfied Richard Barr left his “pleasant” though undistinguished producing partnership with Charles Bowden without having achieved his goal: “to try and bring the theater up to the point in which the other arts had arrived in this country. . . . It seemed to me it was time to do something about the theater.”1 Broadway had overlooked major changes happening in Europe, all but ignoring the new absurdist movement that had taken hold there. Writers such as Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Fernando Arrabal had transformed the European stage with theatrical experiments and by the early 1960s were rapidly approaching the acme of their writing careers. The excitement around their work was palpable, and New York producers were beginning to bring their plays to the United States. Richard Barr wanted to be the first to produce this new theatre off-Broadway , where he believed a self-imposed poverty of production would allow it to succeed. He was disgusted with producing star vehicles that had little to do with art and everything to do with egos and profitability. This, combined with a lingering desire to continue directing, led Barr to consider four ways to become a “name” director like Orson Welles or Guthrie McClintic: (1) conceive of a production and raise the money himself; (2) use a summer stock tryout; (3) connect with a star through summer theatre who possessed rights to a strong vehicle; or (4) form his own company with a long-term 79 The Zoo Story plan. He chose the last option, which was the most precarious but also the most prestigious, and became an independent producer.2 Tired of appeasing the vanity of star actors and directors, Barr decided to shift his producing focus to the playwright. This was precipitated by his encounters with playwright William Inge, whom Barr knew socially and who would “drop by the house occasionally.” On one particular evening, Inge launched into a tirade about his wildly successful Broadway play Picnic, which had been savaged by director Joshua Logan’s demands.3 In the original version, there was no fairy-tale ending. Madge doesn’t leave to find her true love and no longer has the security of Alan’s love to take her through life. It was an ending that Barr found “frightening, serious and sad,” but it had been diluted to make the play “more palatable” to commercial Broadway audiences. Inge was tortured by this revision and told Barr, “I have just won the Pulitzer Prize; I have a major hit on Broadway; I am going to be very rich; and I am miserably unhappy.”4 Disturbed by Inge’s revelation and by the crass commercialism that had driven the decision, Richard vowed to change the system. Inge’s experience was not new to him. He knew that playwrights were often forcibly locked into hotel rooms during out-of-town tryouts in order to change scripts to appease the tastes of producers, directors, stars, or “the wife of the biggest investor.”5 If this kind of manipulation was brought to bear on a major playwright, what chance did a lesser-known writer have to bring his or her own play intact to Broadway audiences? This deterioration of artistic values was why Richard had left Bowden, Barr, and Bullock: “That’s when I got fed up with it all and went Off Broadway. . . . I wanted to do that which was and is not possible to do on Broadway. Give authority to the playwright. Turn the theatre back to the playwright.”6 His “Diaghilev complex was given a twinge,” and his notion of the producer as a “catalytic agent” was clarified. Richard knew it was his job to create an off-Broadway theatre with the playwrights’ work as its focus, so he “began to explore the possibilities of doing something about it.”7 He sought a family of theatre artists, including directors, designers, managers, and publicists, to serve the interests of the play and the playwright. Barr wanted artists who were willing to “sublimate their own egos to the artistic purpose at hand.”8 By 1959, off-Broadway had already enjoyed several successes, including the defining 1952 production of Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke featuring Geraldine Page. Brooks Atkinson’s transcendent review of that production essentially created the off-Broadway phenomenon.9 In addition, there was the success of Julian Beck...


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