About Harold Edgar Clurman
Harold Edgar Clurman (September 18, 1901 – September 9, 1980) was a visionary American theatre director and drama critic, "one of the most influential in the United States". He was most notable as one of the three founders of the New York City's Group Theatre (1931–1941). He directed more than 40 plays in his career and, during the 1950s, was nominated for a Tony Award as director for several productions. In addition to his directing career, he was drama critic for The New Republic (1948–52) and The Nation (1953–1980), helping shape American theater by writing about it. Clurman wrote seven books about the theatre, including his memoir The Fervent Years: The Group Theatre And The Thirties (1961).
Early life and education
Clurman was born on the Lower East Side of New York City to Jewish immigrant parents from eastern Europe. His parents took him at age six to Yiddish theater, here Jacob Adler's performances in Yiddish translations of Karl Gutzkow's Uriel Acosta and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's Nathan the Wise fascinated him, although he did not understand Yiddish. [Adler, 1999, p. 333 (commentary)].
He attended Columbia and, at the age of twenty, moved to France to study at the University of Paris. There he shared an apartment with the young composer Aaron Copland. In Paris, he saw all sorts of theatrical productions. He was especially influenced by the work of Jacques Copeau and the Moscow Art Theatre, whose permanent company built a strong creative force. He wrote his thesis on the history of French drama from 1890 to 1914.
Clurman returned to New York in 1924 and started working as an extra in plays, despite his lack of experience. He became a stage manager and play reader for the Theatre Guild. He briefly studied Stanislavsky’s system under the tutelage of Richard Boleslavsky (Carnickle 39), and became Jacques Copeau's translator/assistant on his production of The Brothers Karamazov, based on the 1880 novel by the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Clurman began work as an actor in New York. He felt that the standard American theater, though successful at the box office (Smith 4), was not providing the experience which he wanted (Smith 11). He said, “I was interested in what the theater was going to say…The theater must say something. It must relate to society. It must relate to the world we live in.”
Together with the like-minded Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg, he began to create what would become the Group Theatre. In November 1930, Clurman led weekly lectures, in which they talked about founding a permanent theatrical company to produce plays dealing with important modern social issues. Together with 28 other young people, they formed a group that developed a groundbreaking style of theater that strongly influenced American productions, including such elements as method acting, realism based on American stories, and political content. By building a permanent company, they expected to increase the synergy and trust among the members, who included Stella Adler, Morris Carnovsky, Phoebe Brand, Elia Kazan, Clifford Odets, and Sanford Meisner.
In the summer of 1931, the first members of the Group Theatre rehearsed for several weeks in the countryside of Nichols, Connecticut at the Pine Brook Country Club. They were preparing their first production, The House of Connelly by Paul Green, directed by Strasberg. Clurman was the scholar of the group — he knew multiple languages, read widely, and listened to a broad array of music (Smith 16), while Strasberg dealt with acting and directing, and Crawford dealt with the business side of things.
The first play which Clurman directed for the Group Theatre was Awake and Sing! by Clifford Odets, in 1935. The play's success led Clurman to develop his directing style. He believed that all the elements of a play—text, acting, lighting, scenery and direction—needed to work together to convey a unified message. Clurman would read the script over and over, each time focusing on a different element or character ("On Directing 74"). He tried to inspire, guide and constructively critique his designers, rather than dictate to them (“On Directing” 54). He would also use Richard Boleslavsky's technique of identifying the "spine," or main action, of each character, then using those to determine the spine of the play ("On Directing" 74). He encouraged his actors to find "active verbs" to describe what their characters were trying to accomplish ("On Directing 28"). He believed that Stanislavsky's system was good to know and study, but too time-consuming to use fully.
In 1937, tensions between Clurman, Crawford and Strasberg caused the latter two to resign from the Group; four years later, the Group Theatre permanently disbanded. Clurman went on to direct plays on Broadway, more than 40 in all, and write as a newspaper theatre critic (Smith 422).
Marriage and family
In 1940 Clurman married Stella Adler, a charismatic theatre actress and later a renowned New York acting coach. A member of the Group Theatre since its founding, she was the daughter of the notable actor Jacob Adler. Clurman was her second husband. They divorced in 1960.
Director and drama critic
Clurman had an active career as a director, over the decades leading more than 40 productions, and helping bring many new works to the stage.(See list below.) He is considered "one of the most influential theater directors in America".
In addition, Clurman helped shape American theater by writing about it - he was drama critic for The New Republic (1948–52) and then for The Nation (1953–1980). He encouraged new styles of production, such as that of the Living Theater, as well as championing plays and playwrights.
He wrote a memoir about the Group Theatre's beginning and their making art within American culture, called The Fervent Years: The Group Theatre And The Thirties (reprinted in 1983). He published six other books about the theatre.
In Uta Hagen's Respect for Acting, the celebrated actress and acting teacher credits Clurman with a turn-around in her perspective on acting. She summed up his approach as demanding the human being within the character:
"In 1947, I worked in a play under the direction of Harold Clurman. He opened a new world in the professional theatre for me. He took away my 'tricks.' He imposed no line readings, no gestures, no positions on the actors. At first I floundered badly because for many years I had become accustomed to using specific outer directions as the material from which to construct the mask for my character, the mask behind which I would hide throughout the performance. Mr. Clurman refused to accept a mask. He demanded ME in the role. My love of acting was slowly reawakened as I began to deal with a strange new technique of evolving in the character. I was not allowed to begin with, or concern myself at any time with, a preconceived form. I was assured that a form would result from the work we were doing."
Clurman died in 1980 in New York City of cancer.
Works on Broadway
Legacy and honors
Helped create a uniquely American theater
Harold Clurman Theatre on Broadway was named for him