About JOSEPH Papp

A Pragmatic Radical Touched with Public Genius

Joe Papp sitting at his desk

Joe Papp in his office at The Public Theater
Photo: © Estate of Barbra Walz

Joseph Papp (born Joseph Papirofsky; June 22, 1921 – October 31, 1991) was the American theatrical producer and director who founded The Public Theater in what had been the Astor Library Building in lower Manhattan. There, Papp created a year-round producing home to focus on new plays and musicals from voices not being heard. The Public Theater’s first production was Hair, which went on to be the first rock musical to play on Broadway.

Other examples of plays which began at The Public are the works of David Rabe, Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, Charles Gordone’s No Place To Be Somebody, the first play by an African-American playwright to win the Pulitzer Prize, Michael Bennett’s Pulitzer prize–winning musical, A Chorus Line, and under its current Artistic Director, Oskar Eustis, The Public Theater production of Hamilton. Papp also founded Free Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, helped to develop other Off-Broadway companies and worked to preserve the historic Broadway Theater District.
Gail Merrifeld was the Director of New Plays and Musicals Development for the Public Theater. Joe’s partner in work and in life, Joe Papp and Gail Merrifield were married in 1976. Gail calls Joe Papp a “pragmatic radical touched with public genius.” He was a fearless, outspoken leader who championed theater as a democratic voice of, by, and for all people.
As she introduces a new generation to Joseph Papp in her upcoming memoir, Gail will discuss the controversial issues that they dealt with (such as Joe’s front-page battle with Parks Commissioner Robert Moses to keep Shakespeare in the Park free, TV censorship and the 1980s political backlash against the arts) as well as a major conflict within the organization in the 1970s, all issues which resonate today. From her own role and working alongside Joseph Papp, Gail will also pull back the curtain on the theatrical process, discuss the improbable and totally unforeseeable making of huge hits – as well as how to work successfully with creative people, and will give insight into how Joe helped to empower playwrights through his inspiring leadership of a unique theatrical organization.
Having grown up in an orthodox household in Williamsburg, Joe enjoyed a lifelong passion for Jewish culture. Speaking Yiddish as a child, he believed, led him to an early appreciation of the musicality of Shakespeare’s language, as Gail Merrifield Papp recounts in her coming memoir, Public/Private. And Joe knew he had found the right home for The Public Theater when he learned that the building on Astor Place had been the home during WWII of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the organization that had helped so many Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. It gives Gail great pride to continue Joe’s love for Jewish theater and Yiddish traditions as a board member of the Joseph Papp Yiddish Theater.
Joe and Gail in 1978 (Photo: Adam Scully/PHOTOlink/MediaPunch)

Joe and Gail in 1978 Photo: Adam Scully/PHOTOlink/MediaPunch

“While memory holds a seat”



Theater doesn’t exist independently of life. In my world, there’s always a connection between the front page and the theater page.

There’s a very specific reference in Hamlet that I’ve always taken to heart and that is when Hamlet meets the Ghost of his father and the Ghost says, “Remember me.”

 

And Hamlet says, “While memory holds a seat in this distracted globe”—-that’s how long he’ll remember him.

 

Now that’s a triple metaphor.

 

“This distracted globe” was Shakespeare’s Globe Playhouse where all the distracted audiences gathered; the “distracted globe” was the world; and the “distracted globe” was Hamlet’s head, the more literal meaning of the line.

I believe in that: my head, the theater and the world. The interconnection has to be constant.

“While memory holds a seat”

Theater doesn’t exist independently of life. In my world, there’s always a connection between the front page and the theater page.

There’s a very specific reference in Hamlet that I’ve always taken to heart and that is when Hamlet meets the Ghost of his father and the Ghost says, “Remember me.”

And Hamlet says, “While memory holds a seat in this distracted globe”—-that’s how long he’ll remember him.

Now that’s a triple metaphor.

“This distracted globe” was Shakespeare’s Globe Playhouse where all the distracted audiences gathered; the “distracted globe” was the world; and the “distracted globe” was Hamlet’s head, the more literal meaning of the line.

I believe in that: my head, the theater and the world. The interconnection has to be constant.
Some content on this page is adapted from the Wikipedia page about Joseph Papp
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