Tuesday, December 17, 2013
(Richard Barr in the Village)
By Robert Heide
A new book has arrived entitled Richard Barr – the Playwrights Producer written by David Crespy, a Professor of Theater at the University of Missouri and published by Southern Illinois University Press. His previous book Off-Off Broadway Explosion was a study of off-off coffee house theater including the Caffe Cino on Cornelia Street that served coffee and canolies to patrons who were also invited to watch new American plays by the likes of Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, and John Guare. In the East Village it was Café La Mama where playwrights like Rochelle Owens, Paul Foster, Leonard Melfi, and the director Tom O’Horgan reigned. On the back cover of this new tome, John Guare thanks author Crespy for turning a brilliant and long overdue spotlight on the life and career of Richard Barr whom Guare calls one of the seminal figures of twentieth century theater. Crespy’s book also offers a forward and afterward about Barr by Edward Albee.
Though it was ‘Richard Barr’ whose name was listed over the title of the plays he produced, to friends and colleagues he was always ‘Dick Barr.’ I first met Dick in the Village through my good friend playwright Edward Albee. By that time, he was the producer of Edward’s first play The Zoo Story starring the dynamic George Maharis; this play was on a double bill with Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape with Donald Davis playing the singular character of the banana-starved Krapp, to great acclaim. With director Alan Schneider at the helm and Richard Barr producing, all hell broke loose when these two plays opened at the Provincetown Theater on MacDougal Street in l959.
Richard Barr was just 20 years old when he graduated from Princeton in l938 and in an inspired moment and in need of a job, he wrote to John Houseman who with the young enfant terrible actor-director Orson Welles, created in New York in l938 the Mercury Theater. Barr first performed as a radio actor in the sensational War of the Worlds broadcast adapted by Orson Welles from the novel by H. G. Wells. Heard over the airwaves Hallowe’en eve 1938, many Americans were in a real state of panic believing that monsters from planet Mars were actually invading and about to take over planet Earth first landing in the township of Grover’s Mill, near Princeton, New Jersey. Dick became a member of the Mercury Theater, eventually becoming Welles’ assistant and later became an associate producer on the RKO film Citizen Kane. In the dramatic opening scene of this iconic movie you see the profile of Barr shouting out “Rosebud? What’s Rosebud?” referring to the mysterious childhood sled that haunted the mind of the megalomaniac Kane right up to the moment of his death. From 1941 through l945 he went to war as Army Air Corps Lieutenant Richard Barr.
One afternoon in Richard Barr’s Village apartment at 26 West 8th Street, handing me a large tumbler filled to the brim with Club Bourbon with one ice cube floating on top, he told me about the time when he first met Edward Albee. He said he felt in that meeting he had discovered his own Charles Foster Kane. He also proudly announced to me that he had a whole stable full of new playwrights just ready to let loose on the public. With Edward and also Clinton Wilder, he formed a playwrights unit at the Van Dam Theater on Charlton Street in the South Village where he produced plays by Terrence McNally and LeRoi Jones. I was happy to be brought into an arena where playwrights were offered real support by the team of Barr/Wilder/Albee. Dick had great charm and wit – After seeing a production of Jack Gelber’s play The Apple at the Living Theater on 14th Street, he declared ecstatically to me in the lobby, “The avant garde is now rear-guard but they don’t know it.” He was often to be found at the Caffe Cino watching my own plays, The Bed and Moon, in addition to those of Robert Patrick, William M. Hoffman, Claris Nelson, H. M Koutoukas, Doric Wilson, Jeff Weiss, Michael Smith and John Guare among others.
A vibrant, fun-loving guy, I remember great parties that Dick had at 10 MacDougal Alley and at his later digs on 8th Street. A lot of hard drinking went on with the bourbon and scotch flowing. Sometimes there would be spontaneous bacchanalian dances by the likes of Joe Cino himself and one of Barr’s favorite companions Charles Loubier. At one of his bachelor soirees which took place on 8th Street on New Year’s Eve at around the time Tiny Alice opened on Broadway, John Gilman and I were introduced by Barr to Noel Coward and John Gielgud. My partner John was thrilled to converse with and to be seated between these two knighted gentlemen.
A list of all the plays Richard Barr produced on Broadway or off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane and elsewhere are too numerous to list, but among the top Broadway productions in my opinion are Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance (both Albee); Boys in the Band (Mart Crowley); and Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street starring the great Angela Lansbury. It was said that whenever Richard Barr arrived always making a grand entrance at Sardi’s to hold court at the bar there, it was as if a red carpet had been rolled out. I can never forget Dick’s smile and the raucous laughter he brought about in the telling of his stories. Broadway was his beat but I believe his heart was downtown at the Cherry Lane and in the Village, where he liked to live and loved to play. Producing the Theater of the Absurd plays of early Ionesco, Albee, de Gelderode, Beckett or Ugo Betti were his real joy. A serious thinker, Richard read and studied Friedrich Nietzsche and the existentialism of Jean Paul Sartre. He often repeated his favorite Nietzsche quote, “The wonder of being alive at this moment now.” Richard Barr had H.I.V. and he died of liver failure on January 9, 1989. The author attributes this to his years of drinking. To learn more about the career of the legendary Richard Barr read this book.