In 1950s, Professors Irving, Blau Created 'Best, Most Adventurous' Theatre Group in U.S.

Wednesday, August 05, 2020
Archival black and white photo of Herbert Blau and Jules Irving
Professors Herbert Blau (left) and Jules Irving. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Actors' Workshop.

AMERICAN THEATRE -- In his early years, Gregory’s pilgrimage to theatre meccas included a stop at the Actors Workshop in San Francisco. Focusing much of its effort on the avant-garde of the 1950s — Beckett, Pinter, Brecht, Ionesco and Genet — when hardly any other American troupe would do so, the workshop established a reputation as, in Richard Gilman’s appraisal, “the best, most adventurous permanent theatre group in the United States.” Led by two San Francisco State professors, Herbert Blau and Jules Irving, its accomplishments included Blau’s legendary “Waiting for Godot,” performed at San Quentin prison.

In 1964 Blau wrote a brave and salutary broadside condemning “the failure and fatuousness of American theatre.” “The Impossible Theater” was six times longer than “The Communist Manifesto,” but Gilman called it “a great purgative outburst of indignation and contempt.” Blau wrote: “There are times when confronted with the despicable behavior of people in the American theatre, I feel like the lunatic Lear on the heath, wanting to ‘kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!’” Though he would write 12 books, “The Impossible Theater,” marked also by acute interpretations of Beckett, was the one of consequence.

One of Lincoln Center Theater’s board members took notice of the book, and a year later Blau and Irving succeeded Elia Kazan and Robert Whitehead as the theatre’s directors.