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95 7 Producers at Work On Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Off-Off-Broadway B arr’s production of Eugène Ionesco’s The Killer off-Broadway at the Seven Arts Theatre on 22 March 1960 allowed him to experiment with the new multimedia, interdisciplinary “Happenings” of the 1960s, using Wellesian visual imagery from his versions of Richard III and Macbeth in the new work of the absurdists. With The Killer, Richard incorporated all the arts into theatre, as Stuart Little relates: “The abstract painter Ilse Getz did a collage backdrop of New York City. Allan Kaprow, the artist and composer, built a special sound filter to run metropolitan static through on his electronic sound track giving off a continuous urban hum. And Todd Bolender, the dancer and choreographer of the New York City Ballet, worked out movement while Barr himself directed the production over all.”1 The Killer is the first of Ionesco’s Bérenger plays. Bérenger was Ionesco’s everyman character and appears in several of his plays, including Rhinoceros and A Stroll in the Air. In this play, Bérenger discovers a “radiant city” that holds a deadly secret—a serial killer who threatens the lives of all who dwell within. As director of The Killer, Barr experimented in ways that resonated with his experiences at the Mercury Theatre: “To begin with, it was the first evening-length Ionesco play produced in the United States; it was the first to use electronic music . . . it was probably the first to use the work of a modern sculptor as a backdrop, and it was certainly one of the first to use 96 Producers at Work Artaud’s theory that the action of the play should surround the audience (not unlike Orson’s Danton’s Death! Did I steal the idea?).”2 Barr used one of the Mercury performers, Hiram (“Chubby”) Sherman, to be the “star” of the production. Though fairly “mystified” by all of the artistic “embellishments,” Sherman was “game and patient.”3 The Killer received some kudos for the high-minded effort to bring Ionesco to New York audiences, though critics “hated the play.”4 At this, Richard lost his temper and wrote a vituperative letter to the New York Times attacking the Ford Foundation for giving grants to regional theatres rather than to playwrights, noting that “actors and communities do not make theatre; playwrights do” and pointing out that none of the regional theatres given these grants produced any new playwrights of distinction. In the letter, Barr made a plea that the Ford Foundation consider supporting playwrights’ work “in professional productions in the theatre capital of the country” so that commercial theatre managers might see how the productions would finance these shows to offset the Ford Foundation’s costs.5 Barr’s frustration with the lack of federal support for commercially produced new work led to his idea of a completion fund for new play production on Broadway. This in turn became the seed idea for the Theatre Development Fund. Barr’s fury with critics continued throughout his producing career, and, in this case, he went so far as to attempt to explain Ionesco’s play to the press, ironically describing the metaphor of his own producing struggles: “Berenger’s effort to recapture this transcendence of the world brings him to the Radiant City where all is perfection—much like the vision—except that the Killer is terrifyingly present. Berenger’s commitment to find, reform, or overcome this Killer represents to me Ionesco’s positive attitude about the worth of Living. Unfortunately Berenger is no Einstein or Picasso, whom the Drunk mentions, and he is overwhelmed.”6 In his own attempt to overcome the “killer” of theatre arts—commerciality and lowbrow tastes—Barr, too, was overwhelmed. But he believed that audiences could be educated and could evolve to accept the new if it was as well written as it was challenging and provocative. Ever the would-be Princetonian scholar, Barr approached the production of new plays from his own literary sensibilities. His was a conscious intellectualism that led him to link his Theatre of the Absurd Repertory at the Cherry Lane Theatre to Martin Esselin’s book The Theatre of the Absurd, a study that came to define the absurdist movement. The backlash to this cerebral approach came as Barr became pigeonholed as a producer of “rear-guard” absurdist works.7 Worse, his high-handed attempts to educate the critics ended up provoking them to attack...


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