Group Theatre

The Group Theatre was formed in New York by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg in 1931. The Group was a pioneering attempt to create a theatre collective, a company of players trained in a unified style and dedicated to presenting contemporary plays. Others involved in the group included Elia Kazan, Stella Adler, John Garfield, Luther Adler, Will Geer, Howard Da Silva, Franchot Tone, John Randolph, Joseph Bromberg, Michael Gordon, Paul Green, Clifford Odets, Paul Strand, Kurt Weill and Lee J. Cobb. Members of the group tended to hold left-wing political views and wanted to produce plays that dealt with important social issues. Aaron Copland major contribution was writing the music for Quiet City, a play written by Irwin Shaw.

While working at the Group Theatre Lee Strasberg developed what became known as the Method. Based on the ideas of the Russian director, Konstantin Stanislavsky, it was a system of training and rehearsal for actors which bases a performance upon inner emotional experience, discovered largely through the medium of improvisation. The Group Theatre produced some notable plays including The House of Connelly (1931 by Paul Green), Success Story (1932 by John Howard Lawson), Condemned (1932 by Marc Blizstein), Thh Black Pit (1933 by Albert Maltz) Men in White (1933 by Sidney Kingsley), Gentle Woman, (1933 by John Howard Lawson), Awake and Sing! and Waiting for Lefty (1935 by Clifford Odets), Johnny Johnson (1936 by Paul Green and Kurt Weill), The Cradle Will Rock (1937 by Marc Blizstein), My Heart's in the Highlands (1939 by William Saroyan) and Native Son (1941 by Richard Wright and Paul Green).

The Group Theatre disbanded in 1941. After the Second World War, most of the members of the group were investigated by House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Some like Elia Kazan, Clifford Odets and Lee J. Cobb testified and named other members of left-wing groups. Those that refused to do this such as Stella Adler, John Garfield, Will Geer, Howard Da Silva, John Randolph, and Joseph Bromberg were blacklisted.

Primary Sources

(1) Elia Kazan wrote about the Group Theatre production of Men in White in his autobiography, A Life (1988)

Men in White was a triumph and in time won the Pulitzer Prize. It gave the Group its first great success and the members a long flow of full salaries. With this sudden affluence, sixty dollars per week, I made investments, not in stock and bonds but in lessons for myself. I had to be ready for any role. I believed I could do any part.

The members of the Group took the success of Kingsley's play in a characteristic way. It made them look down on the bourgeois critics, who'd praised the work, even more than they had before and provided them with even more intense reasons to scorn our middle-class audience. They didn't think more of the play because the theatre was packed eight times a week or of its author because he was wearing laurel. They believed that the style of Lee Strasberg's production and their own ensemble playing had provided Sidney Kingsley's bone-bare text with what it didn't deserve. All this reached Sidney, who resented it.

(2) In his autobiography Elia Kazan described Harold Clurman's method of directing.

I learned from Harold that a director's first task is to make his actors eager to play their parts. He had a unique way of talking to actors - I didn't have it and I never heard of another director who did; he turned them on with his intellect, his analyses and his insights. But also by his high spirits. Harold's work was joyous. He didn't hector his actors from an authoritarian position; he was a partner, not an overlord, in the struggle of production. He'd reveal to each actor at the onset a concept of his or her performance, one the actor could not have anticipated and could not have found on his own. Harold's visions were brilliant; actors were eager to realize them. They were also full of compassion for the characters' dilemmas, their failings and their aspirations.

(3) David Thompson, The Guardian (29th September, 2003)

In 1947 Elia Kazan, Robert Lewis and Cheryl Crawford founded the Actors' Studio, the home of the "Method". Only later did the Studio take in Lee Strasborg, who had been one of Kazan's early teachers (as well as a spiritual opposite) at the Group Theatre. But the Actors' Studio style would prove enormously influential in its stress on inner truths to be mined by the actor - indeed, it was a method that made a cult of the brooding actor, turning him from professional interpreter to creative genius (for good and ill). More than that, its hunger for intimate behaviour worked even better in movies than on stage.