- Audrey Wood and the Playwrights by Milly S. Barranger
In Audrey Wood and the Playwrights, Milly S. Barranger documents the life’s work of a play agent who shaped American theatre over the course of forty years, until she slipped into a coma in 1981 at the age of seventy-six. Rather [End Page 260] than follow a strict chronology, Barranger structures Wood’s biography playwright-by-playwright in order to focus on Wood’s developmental influence on the writers she represented. As the daughter of a successful theatre manager, Wood grew up immersed in the theatrical world and developed the ability to sense intuitively whether or not a play held commercial value. Barranger begins with Wood’s early professional experience, from initiating contact with George Pierce Baker seeking names of up-and-coming playwrights to her business and marital partnership with casting agent William Liebling. As the most famous literary agent to represent American playwrights, her life deserves documentation; writers such as Tennessee Williams and Maurice Valency dedicated their published works to her in gratitude, she received the Richard L. Coe Award in 1981 for her contribution to the theatre, and a stage at the Jack Lawrence Theatre in New York City bears her name.
Material about topics such as intimate relationships or personal weaknesses found in typical biographies is missing here; instead, we discover the writers Wood advised, the plays she brought to production, and the criticism she offered. Barranger acknowledges the difficulties of writing about a person on whom so little documentation survives and focuses instead on Wood’s instrumentality in linking playwrights to producers and directors, noting how “the agent is the unheralded handmaiden who facilitates the writer’s career and sees to the affairs of business with a mixture of compassion, wisdom, and efficiency” (171). Barranger concedes that an authors’ agent is largely “invisible” to the actors, the critics, and the audience; at times, it seems that Wood is absent from her own book. In one chapter, for example, detailing how three of her clients—Bertolt Brecht, Yip Harburg, and Jay Gorney—testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, no mention is made of Wood’s perspective on the proceedings. Much of the book’s excitement comes from anecdotal stories of working with her husband, a casting agent, to find the right director and actors for specific plays, such as when they convinced Elia Kazan to direct Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire and recommended Marlon Brando for the leading role.
Since the agent resides primarily on the sidelines of her writers’ accomplishments, Wood’s professional success can only be appreciated by witnessing all the behind-the-scenes coaching she did, and Barranger’s book provides a long-overdue summation. She explores how Wood approached each writer as a potential client and traces their ensuing relationship over the years. Wood had an innate ability to determine a successful play by “a green light flashing in her head” (25), and she would write playwrights succinct feedback indicating her belief in their talent. Nonthreatening to insecure playwrights, she possessed a [End Page 261] soft but brisk demeanor, and she negotiated tirelessly with directors, producers, and the burgeoning Hollywood film industry to ensure her clients got the best deal for production rights and royalties. Her propriety appeared in the way she dressed and conducted herself, including once reproving Charles Laughton for receiving her one day lying on his bed with rumpled trousers, unbuttoned shirt, and bowl of fruit balanced on his chest. She maintained rules about reading manuscripts herself rather than having the playwright read them aloud to her (as they frequently offered to do) and insisted that no actor receive billing above a play’s title.
Investing in an artist’s creative output is a precarious business, and several times Wood experienced authors turning against her and blaming her for their soured careers, most notably Tennessee Williams and William Inge. She showered attention on Williams. In addition to arranging his domestic and...