Kenneth Turan's new history of The Public Theater, Free For All: Joe Papp, the Public, and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told, has been over 20 years in the making. Told in an oral-history format consisting of testimony and first-person accounts from over 150 people connected with Papp (who died in 1991) and the Public over the years, the book turns out to be an invaluable means of preserving some of New York great theatrical voices. (Indeed, about a quarter of Turan's cast of characters is deceased.) Moreover, the oral-history format proves to be an intensely dramatic and extremely enlightening way to tell the story of America's preeminent not-for-profit drama organization.
The excitement stems not out of epic battles or tragic moments for Papp and his theater (though there are plenty), but the conflicting accounts of history offered by each of Turan's subjects. For instance, in the chapter about the successful Broadway transfer of the Shakespeare Festival's musical Two Gentlemen of Verona, both LuEsther Mertz and Bernard Gersten claim credit for the idea of having the Public be the sole investor in the Broadway production, a strategy that -- especially in the case of A Chorus Line -- underwrote the Public's operating budget for years. Turan presents these conflicting accounts without commentary, often back-to-back, just as any good dramatist would allow his characters to speak for themselves.
Papp emerges from this tome even more a legend and less a mere mortal than before. What starts as a biography of Papp and his impoverished childhood in Brooklyn quickly refocuses to Papp's professional life and the company he creates by the second chapter. One can tell that, whether they love him or hate him, everyone who comes in contact with Papp has a deep respect for the man. We are introduced to Papp the businessman, Papp the general, and Papp the socialist -- and it is the latter of these roles that Turan's interviewees unanimously agree deeply informed almost all of Papp's decisions about programming. Nothing that Papp produced could be merely "art for art's sake." He wanted the work he put on to have to have a meaningful and progressive social impact.
If we are to believe that "socializing" theater -- especially in terms of access -- was Papp's mission, as Turan's subjects and the book's title suggest, then he accomplished his goal. Despite instances of wealthy theater-goers hiring line-sitters to get their tickets for them, Shakespeare in the Park still offers the masses the most egalitarian way to see free, world-class productions every summer; audiences are only asked to give up the requisite time it takes to obtain a ticket. This "socialized" or public theater, and the myriad copycat companies that it has spawned, is truly Papp's greatest legacy.