Pictured are David Pressman, Ronald Rand and Phoebe Brand in a recent photo.
The Group is a full-length script by Ronald Rand about the founding of the Group Theater, that pioneering handful of actors, directors, and playwrights who in the bleak 1930s moved American drama into the gristle of the twentieth century. In its short life, about a dozen years, the Group had its impact on everything that followed in American theater, especially the kind of acting that would presently give us a Julie Harris, a Marlon Brando, a Kim Stanley, an Al Pacino, a Meryl Streep, a Robert de Niro.
The play opens with the Group in formation at a summer retreat in Connecticut. An ingenue named Phoebe Brand has rescued a baby sandpiper and hands it to playwright Clifford Odets, who says: Its so beautiful! Look, hes looking at me!
Well, Odets, who gave the world Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing, Golden Boy, Rocket to the Moon, and more, left us in 1963, but Phoebe Brand, at 96, is very much with us, in an apartment right here on West 43rd Street. She remembers everything including the tumultuous, historic opening night of Waiting for Lefty, January 5, 1935, at the old Civic Repertory Theater on West 14th Street.
That was an affair to remember, she says of the first performance of the Odets hammer blow about a starvation-driven taxi drivers union meeting under the thumb of management goons. It ended with cries of STRIKE! STRIKE! by actors and audience, sparked by a young Elia Kazan.
This was fated to be the same Elia Kazan to whom and of whom, to the end of his life, Phoebe Brand would never again speak except with quiet fury the Kazan whod named names, including hers and that of her husband Morris Carnovsky, during the invidious HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) years of the early 1950s.
In that rickety theater [the Civic Repertory], the people were stomping in the balcony. I thought the building was coming down, says the actress. There was a huge jam on 14th Street. All those cheering taxi drivers. The police stopped them. The crowds were too big. The police were hitting people with their billy sticks, and the people ran.
When we [the actors] went out on the street, people came up to us and asked: How could you do that? [be so real on stage] marvelous!
The Sid and Florie of that first production young dreamers trapped in the grip of grim economic reality were Jules Garfield (whom Hollywood would rename John Garfield) and Phoebe Brand.
She laughed as she spoke of a scene between actors Tony Kraber, as a dedicated young research scientist, and Morris Carnovsky, as the lab administrator who tries to get the younger man to squeal on any radical associates.
At the end, the man Morris played says: No hard feelings? And the character Tony Kraber played says: Sure, hard feelings. With that [in the heat of performance], Tony punched Morris in the nose, and broke his nose. Such a beautiful nose! she said.
Morris Carnovsky would become her lifelong husband. A photo of him as King Lear adorns one wall of the 43rd Street apartment, across from a signed program of Edwin Booth as Hamlet.
A doctor set the nose in the dressing room. Morris played the whole rest of the show bleeding.
No, broken noses werent a common occurrence in the Group. Broken relationships, broken feelings, often were.
Productions and would-be productions often happened concurrently at the Group.
At the same time as Waiting for Lefty we were rehearsing Johnny Johnson [the Paul Green/Kurt Weill anti-war musical] up in the country at Pinebrook, Connecticut. Kurt Weill was there. Lotte Lenya was there.
It was on the SIDE that we were doing Waiting for Lefty, kind of off-the-cuff. We didnt know if it would be any good. Clifford wrote that play in two weeks time. No changes. Brilliant.
The triumvirate that started the Group Theater, coming over from the Theatre Guild, was Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman, and Cheryl Crawford. All three are now gone.
That summer [of 1934] we also did one act, the last act, of Awake and Sing the great Odets play about the Berger family of the Bronx, and Grandpa Jacob (Carnovsky, in his late 30s playing a man in his 70s) who passes along to grandson Ralph (Jules Garfield) the passionate injunction: Go out and fight so life shouldnt be printed on dollar bills, one of the ringing lines in all American literature, much less drama.
Clifford was from Philadelphia. He was a stranger here. He came and fell in love with New York. Hed walk around she acts it out saying: Oh, what a beautiful building! . . . Oh, what a beautiful subway! He used to listen to everyone and write everything down. And thats where he heard some man saying hed weighed himself twice in the subway.
That ended up in Awake and Sing, spoken by Myron Berger, husband of Bessie, father of Hennie. The original production, Belasco Theater, February 1935, had Stella Adler as Bessie Berger, powerhouse of the family; Phoebe Brand as her restless, unsatisfied daughter Hennie; Sanford Meisner as Hennies nebbish, greenhorn, unloved husband; Art Smith as her ineffective, daydreaming father; Carnovsky as old Jacob, Garfield as young Ralph, and Luther Adler as Moe Axelrod, the caustic boarder whod lost a leg in World War I and for whom Hennie ultimately leaves husband and child.
At Act I curtain, Moe Axelrod gropes in a fruit bowl and explodes: What the hell kind of house is this it aint got an orange! When the show reached Chicago, the audience was not friendly.
They threw oranges and apples. I was hit by a grapefruit. Stella stepped forward and said: These are your actors. You have to protect them.
Arthur Miller saw that production in Chicago. He has said it made him want to write plays. He even remembers the color of the refrigerator. People are always reviving Awake and Sing, but they dont get it, dont get the poetry.
Odetss Awake and Sing was in fact almost strangled in its cradle. Strasberg had turned thumbs-down on it.
Lee stood up and said: Clifford, we dont like your play. But Stella said: Lee, we like that play. She saved it. And then Harold said: Lets all take time off, and come back in the fall, and Ill direct it. What nerve Harold had! says Phoebe Rand, meaning courage. He had never directed anything.
Ronald Rand studied under, and reveres, Harold Clurman. In addition to the full-length The Group, which gets a reading June 29 at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Rand wrote and performs the one-man Clurman thats to be reprised this Friday and Saturday. June 18 and 19, at the Phil Bosakowski Theatre on West 45th Street.
Rand believes that Strasberg didnt like Awake and Sing because it was too close to Lee Strasbergs own Lower East Side family background.
I had no relationship at all to Hennie, I wasnt even Jewish. It was Harold who gave me the action that saved me, says actress Brand. It was I want to get out of this apartment just get out! Id read magazines, do my nails, anything to get out. Simple things like that. You could apply it to anything.
In all the long years of the blacklist what Stefan Kanfer calls The Plague Years Morris Carnovsky established a formidable career as an acting teacher, and so did Phoebe Brand.
There in her apartment, listening in, Ronald Rand inquires tongue-in-cheek: What was so good about Morris?
You have to ask? He was gorgeous! He looked like an actorovich! I teach Morriss method, based on three things: The self, the object, and action between those two.
With the Group I met Stanislavsky. He was not dogmatic; he was an investigator, same as Morris. Morris was studying acting till the day he died.
To find yourself is the hardest thing to do. My students, when they find themselves with simplicity they dont try to act. Its not that they should do less, she says. They should do more in a different way.
Phoebe Brand, whose father was chief mechanical engineer for Remington typewriters, was born in Syracuse, New York, brought up in Ilian, N.Y., and Stamford Connecticut.
My mother loved theater, adored it. She took me to see Maude Adams in Peter Pan. I saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I saw Duse! I saw Pavlova! I saw Barrymores Hamlet gorgeous.
As a very young woman she auditioned for Winthrop Ames, founder/director of an American Gilbert & Sullivan company. I opened my mouth and nothing came out. Mr. Ames said: Never mind, darling, youre in. I heard from other people, he fell in love with me the minute he saw me. For two years I played a lot of princesses with that company.
She then auditioned for Cheryl Crawford at the Theatre Guild. Like Winthrop Ames, Miss Crawford said: Okay, youve got it and Lynne Fontanne worked with me and said: Youre going to be a big actress.
A Group Theater effort called 1931 crashed just as the stock market had.
Franchot Tone was wonderful in that. The critics said: Wheres the Depression? Well, youd walk out of the theater and there it is all around you, right on 42nd Street. People as badly off as in the play, and worse than that. I used to walk 40 blocks to work.
The invitation to join the Group had come by a letter from Harold Clurman to Phoebe Brand and 30 others. The new adventure in American theater didnt even have a name yet.
I packed just one suitcase. I was thrilled. We all said, Thank God! Were all going away to the country and were going to build a theater.
Harold Clurman, who directed many stunning plays and wrote a stunning and crucial book, The Fervent Years a biography, so to speak, of the Group was more than once in his life, not least during the construction of Lincoln Center, heard to say: You dont start a theater with a building. You start with an idea.
The Group Theater was an idea, and still is.