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La, La, Lucille

Charles Wright reviews Alexis Greene's Lucille Lortel: The Queen of Off Broadway, a new biography from Limelight Editions. logo
In life and in death, Lucille Lortel has suffered the fate she feared most. During a career that stretched from 1947 to 1996, the New York producer who gloried in being called the "Queen of Off Broadway" brought to the stage works by writers such as Jean Genet, Bertolt Brecht, and Samuel Beckett that helped define the post-war avant-garde. The rub is that she accomplished all of this with capital -- oodles of capital -- supplied by an indulgent spouse, Louis P. Schweitzer, a paper manufacturer whose company dominated the cigarette paper industry on both sides of the Atlantic. That rich husband proved a mixed blessing: His ready cash, indispensable in a business sense, was and remains an easy target for those who have envied Lortel or simply don't know her true story. The woman lived, died, and is now remembered under the widespread misapprehension that she was a dabbler, an amateur, a dilettante.

As portrayed by Alexis Greene in a new, streamlined biography that's predictably titled Lucille Lortel: The Queen of Off Broadway (Limelight Editions, 376 pages, $32.50), Lortel was anything but a dilettante. Her saga, which begins in 1900 and closes in April '99, spans the 20th century. For nearly half of that century, Lortel was dedicated to locating new playwrights and producing their scripts. In her research, Greene enjoyed the cooperation of Mary C. Henderson, the Lortel estate's official historian, and many of the producer's friends, relatives, and professional associates. She also was given access to documents that Lortel hoarded for the posterity that she hoped would care: correspondence, journals, calendars, guest lists, even letters she wrote and never dispatched.

Lortel's beginnings didn't foretell her destiny. Born Lucille Wadler on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, she was raised on the Upper West. Though most of her upbringing was in middle class comfort, her formal training was patchy. Except for a year at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Lortel resisted higher education. She wasn't even much of a reader; during her producing years, she kept her nose out of scripts, preferring to have them read aloud by minions.

In her youth, Lortel's gamine appeal passed for beauty and, for a few years, she managed a respectable if never conspicuous career on the stage. Though terrified of speaking before audiences, she was always famished for public recognition and became a persistent self-promoter. Cagey about disclosing her origins, she fabricated her singular surname from whole cloth. "Lortel" has rhythmic pizzazz without any particular ethnic association; coupled with "Lucille," it's as jaunty as her trademark fedora. It's also as counterfeit as the la-dee-da airs she affected. What was genuine about Lortel was her remarkable taste in plays and the critical intuition that led her to champion unrecognized dramatists (Jean Genet, Athol Fugard) and known writers whose work was out of public favor (e.g., Sean O'Casey).

After capitulating to Schweitzer's materially advantageous proposal, Lortel tried to balance wedlock and career. But her husband, whose interests were hard work, ham radio, and the occasional extramarital affair, wanted her at home or otherwise by his side. Thwarted in her theatrical aspirations, Lortel suffered depression, possibly exacerbated by the ups and downs of her marriage. To keep the blues at bay, she whipped up a producing career, much as a less ambitious woman of her generation would have whipped up an extravagant meal. As Greene writes, quoting in part from Lortel's later account to a friend, "In 1947, when...Lou was 'in Paris...making hanky-panky,' [Lucille] started a theater."

First, Lortel established the White Barn Tryout Theatre, which offered playwrights the opportunity of hearing their new material performed by first-rate actors in the bucolic safety of the Schweitzers' Connecticut estate. Later, she moved on Manhattan, taking over the influential Matinee Series of the American National Theatre and Academy (ANTA). Then, in 1955, the Schweitzers acquired the Theatre de Lys, a fine little Christopher Street playhouse with good acoustics and bohemian credentials. At the de Lys, Lortel produced -- alone and with others -- an impressive array of plays. Over time, she changed the building's name to Lucille Lortel's Theatre de Lys and then, in her ultimate act of self-aggrandizement, to the Lucille Lortel Theatre. As proprietor of the venue that played host to such landmarks of the avant-garde as Marc Blitzstein's version of The Threepenny Opera and Caryl Churchill's Cloud Nine, Lortel truly reigned over Off-Broadway. Yet, just as she was typecast as a vixen during her undistinguished acting career, Lortel the producer was firmly classified by popular imagination as a rich matron dabbling in the arts.

Alexis Greene
It's hard to imagine that there's a broad readership for the story of this eccentric New Yorker and her often pathetic grandiosity. Lortel's frequent tussles with the Actors' Equity Association and the infighting among ANTA Machers, for instance, are pretty rarified matters. But it's heartening that Greene and her publisher, Limelight Editions (recently acquired by Amadeus Press of Pompton Plains, New Jersey), have treated a subject this specialized with scholarly care, deft prose, and high production values. Greene -- the author, in collaboration with Julie Taymor, of The Lion King: Pride Rock on Broadway and, on her own, of Women Who Write Plays -- has mined Lortel's history for all its narrative value and dramatic energy.

Any reader familiar with Lortel's story will be conscious of living persons who might have been among Greene's interviewees but aren't. Where, for example, is Carey Perloff, now artistic director of the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, whose directorial career Lortel promoted in the early 1980s? The colorful, loquacious Perloff used to have plenty to say about Lortel. But it's probably unfair to second-guess occasional omissions that may have been beyond the author's control. Without question, Greene has been a thorough sleuth, finding much that her subject might have preferred to keep hidden and presenting everything -- even Lortel's relentless vanity, her chintziness, and her habit of taking credit for other people's accomplishments -- in context, with sympathy and respect.

One striking thing about Lucille Lortel: The Queen of Off Broadway is that many of its supporting characters, such as the gifted playwrights whom the producer championed, would be more compelling subjects of in-depth biography than Lortel herself. Greene, who wrote a CUNY doctoral dissertation on the Off-Off-Broadway movement of the 1960s, addresses this issue by treating Lortel and her career as a lens for viewing the post WW-II migration of serious theater artists from the circus atmosphere of Broadway to more hospitable precincts around Manhattan. In the end, Greene's book is as much a biography of the Off-Broadway movement as of its queen. It's a tribute to the irrepressible spirit of both the American theater and Lucille Lortel.

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