REAL LIFE DRAMA

The Group Theatre and America,

1931-1940

By Wendy Smith

Knopf. 482 pp. $24.95

WITH PUBLICATION in 1945 of Harold Clurman's The Fervent Years, the deluge began. Scores of theatrical worthies from actress Stella Adler to coach Lee Strasberg, from playwright Maxwell Anderson to critic Gerald Weales, would detail their own connections, close or distant, to the Group Theater's legendary decade. Not unnaturally, each would have conspicuously different variations on the Group theme, its passionate efforts to introduce what has been dubbed "The Method" onto American stages.

In Real Life Drama, Wendy Smith, with a strong sense of theater and inexhaustible research, traces the ups and downs, the lasting effects and ultimate failure of this idealistic enterprise.

As so many theater groups do, the Group began with a few fervent souls: the garrulous, aroused Clurman; the private, intensely opinionated Strasberg, and the woman forced to do the practical begging and borrowing needed to bring her colleagues' theories to life, Cheryl Crawford. In 1931 Clurman and Strasberg were 30, Crawford 29. They were not, then, in the first flush of youth. The trio had connections with the Theatre Guild, under whose auspices the Group made its New York bow with Paul Green's "The House of Connelly" at the start of the 1931-32 season.

Smith uses the American 1930s as backcloth for her ongoing drama of shifting personalities -- the Depression, the politics of communism, Nazism and democracy, the pull of Hollywood money. The Group's leftist partisans were shaken into silence when Stalin and Hitler signed their non-aggression pact in August '39. Four months later Irwin Shaw's "Retreat to Pleasure" became the Group's final and fatally unsuccessful effort.

Smith writes: "Ever since Strasberg had seen the Moscow Art Theatre, which electrified New York audiences with performances there in 1923 and 1924, he had known what he was after: 'a superb ensemble able to fill each moment of a play with life, each actor concerned not with the importance of his part, but his relation to the scene, to the other characters, each moment played with full conviction and reality.' The company he and Clurman dreamed of would commit itself to a permanent company of actors, then weld them together through a common technique that would enable them to bring the reality of life onto the stage."

That was the dream, "a vision characteristic of the 1930s." For successive summers the Group would retreat to some bucolic hostel Crawford managed to borrow or lease at a minimum price. The first summer, at Connecticut's Brookfield Center, they achieved a high of exhilaration and self-discoveries that would linger for lifetimes. The three directors were joined by 27 comrades, all with some professional experience, varying from relative knowns such as Stella Adler, Morris Carnovsky, Franchot Tone, Robert Lewis, Sanford Meisner, Ruth Nelson, Margaret Barker and Phoebe Brand to such lesser-knowns as J. Edward Bromberg, Mary Morris, Paula Miller (who later would marry Strasberg), Virginia Farmer, Walter Coy and Art Smith.

In this New England setting these Northerners -- some wealthy, some poor, Jews and Gentiles -- went to work on "The House of Connelly," a new work by Paul Green, the southerner who had won a Pulitzer in 1927 for "In Abraham's Bosom." It was a quick, heady success, with the ensemble performances properly valued. Claire and Paul Sifton, John Howard Lawson and Dawn Powell were less successful with their subsequent scripts. Sidney Kingley saved the 1933-34 season with his Pulitzer-winning "Men in White."

The three directors finally would give a chance to one of their least valued actors, Clifford Odets, who had taken to playwriting. His "Waiting for Lefty," originally produced elsewhere as a one-night benefit, would turn 1935 into a critically and financially successful year. Odets became the favored company playwright with "Till the Day I Die," "Awake and Sing," "Paradise Lost," "Golden Boy" and "Rocket to the Moon."

Always anxious to help his Group friends, Maxwell Anderson gave them "Night over Taos," but they let such other Anderson works as "Winterset," "Mary of Scotland" and "Key Largo" go to other sponsors. Robert Ardrey, with "Thunder Rock," and William Saroyan, with "My Heart's in the Highlands," made their bows during the final year.

In time such others as Luther Adler, Sylvia Sidney, Frances Farmer, Leif Erickson, Alexander Kirkland, Van Heflin, Charles Bickford, John (then Jules) Garfield, Sidney Lumet, Edith Atwater and Lee J. Cobb would be cast in Group plays, taking roles that longtime members coveted and adding to a lengthening list of wounded prides. A young actor, Elia Kazan, would turn director and become one of the few characters Smith presents unsympathetically in her large cast. Ahead lay the House Un-American Activities Committee, which would involve many members of the Group in the late Forties.

Ultimately, it was the clash of personalities that demolished the Group dream. People simply do not fit pre-conceived slots, nor are they satisfied to stay in place. Romances within the Group, especially Clurman's long, stormy courtship of Stella Adler, added friction. Many Group members -- directors among them -- gave in to the pull of Hollywood.

Real Life Drama this was indeed, and one wonders if there may not be inspiration here for Stephen Sondheim, once he's finished his musical about presidential assassinations. The story could become a deliciously perverse "Babes in Arms."

What is lacking in Wendy Smith's admirable account (she has quite enough on her platter, though) is an emphasis on the heart of all drama, the playwright.

From a half-century's perspective, the Group's collapse as a producing organization was less the result of the theater's eternal economic barriers than of its inability to uncover solid plays, plays audiences wanted to see. With their bent toward works that suited their politics, its leaders missed such contemporary works as "Green Grow the Lilacs" (which became "Oklahoma!"); the O'Neill canon, which the parental Guild held for his lifetime; "Another Language," "Alien Corn," "Both Your Houses," "Tobacco Road," "Yellow Jacket," "The Children's Hour," "Valley Forge," "Dead End," "Ethan Frome," "Idiot's Delight," "Our Town," "On Borrowed Time," "The Philadelphia Story," "Life with Father," and the works of George S. Kaufman, all of which found stages via the despised commercial managements.

Nor did the Group ever tackle a classic, Greek or Russian, Shakespeare or Moliere. Not until 1964 did Strasberg attempt Chekhov with his Studio flock. "The Three Sisters" was so jolting a disaster in New York and London that afterwards he rarely ventured outside the classrooms. It was not until the film "The Godfather, Part II" that he exhibited his own performing craft to best effect.

For all the theories that may develop about acting, there first has to be something to act, something only the playwrights can deliver. Pushing its writers where its directors wanted them to go, the Group neglected what Hamlet remembered: The play's the thing.

Richard L. Coe is drama critic emeritus of The Washington Post.