- The Group Theatre: Passion, Politics, and Performance in the Depression Era by Helen Krich Chinoy
The venerable Helen Krich Chinoy passed away prior to completing her work on the Group Theatre, which was drawn from decades of personal research and interviews with former Group members. But Don Wilmeth and Milly Barranger have done an admirable job with the monumental task of making certain that Chinoy’s groundbreaking research saw the light of publication. The published result is a manuscript unmistakably unfinished, yet richly textured in its analysis and one where the author’s voice is allowed to flow free.
What Chinoy left behind, according to the editors in the preface, was a manuscript “longer than our publisher’s contractual agreement” and one largely devoid of “details as to sources and documentation” (xii). Moreover, in their “Note on Sources,” the editors clarify that Chinoy’s original plan was “to minimize scholarly apparatus” and have notes within the text “take the form of a running commentary” (263). This innovative strategy was part of the reason for the manuscript’s initially excessive length. Wilmeth and Barranger wisely chose not to engage in the painstaking process of tracking down every source or making significant rewrites to chapters themselves. Where they can, they have provided shape and guidance in regard to sources and have made all deletions to content with the goal of remaining “faithful to Helen’s objectives” (xii).
Chinoy’s primary objective, according to the editors, was to construct “a collective biography of the Group Theatre” (xi), which sets the book apart from most other examinations of the historic institution. Standard histories of the Group tend to emphasize Harold Clurman’s aesthetic vision, Lee Strasberg’s dogmatic techniques, and Clifford Odets’s meteoric rise as dominant factors in the Group’s emergence as a major theatrical force. These histories are often informed, of course, by the self-serving memoirs and writings of all three, which results in a limited, male-dominated narrative. To be sure, all three men made tremendous contributions to the Group, and Chinoy pays these prominent figures their due attention. However, she offers us a view not limited to major players, but one that intertwines the various relationships of many who contributed to the Group’s formation and its rise to theatrical prominence. Clurman, for example, may have provided the vision, but Chinoy shows us how so many connected to him were instrumental in carrying out the overall purpose. She amplifies several under-served voices though her examinations of the role of African American actors (who were segregated despite the Group’s egalitarian pretensions) and an entire chapter devoted to the women of the Group. Cheryl Crawford, often underappreciated in Group histories, receives much fuller and more sensitive treatment in Chinoy’s observations. In interweaving these complex interrelationships, she recognizes and respects the Group’s ultimate collectivity, which was the theatre’s stated aim. In this sense, Chinoy provides us with perhaps the most compelling history of the human element of the Group Theatre yet rendered.
While part 1 focuses on the people of the Group, the strength of the second part lies in its dissection of the evolution of the Group’s acting. Strasberg remains a polarizing figure among theatre scholars and practitioners, and the animus between him and Stella Adler over the interpretation of Stanislavski reached its own epic status, apart from its genesis in the Group. Chinoy treats this delicate subject with fairness and respect to both artists; her assessment of Strasberg is especially sensitive. Often demonized for his obsession with emotional memory, she convincingly argues that it was Strasberg’s emphasis, however controversial, on acting technique that instilled discipline, created a strong ensemble, and set the Group apart both aesthetically and philosophically from other US theatre companies. Her revisionism does not overlook Strasberg’s less favorable attributes, but acknowledges his significance with depth and humanity.
By focusing part 3 on actual Communist...