In her recently released memoir Public/Private: My Life with Joe Papp at The Public Theater, author Gail Merrifield Papp spends her time chronicling her professional and personal relationship with New York theater legend, Joseph “Joe” Papp. Joe Papp is best known as the founder of both Shakespeare in the Park and The Public Theater (a theater downtown from Broadway that has been the birthplace of remarkable shows from Hair to Hamilton). But what the reader can really take away from the memoir is just how much Gail herself was the rock of The Public and a creative genius in her own right.
Gail first met Joe when she was hired to be a notetaker and assistant at Shakespeare in the Park (an initiative that Joe helmed which provides free tickets so New Yorkers can see Shakespeare’s plays in the Central Park’s Delacorte Theater ever summer). Gail was seeking a career change from working in publishing, and she describes her early years working as part of the original team that opened The Public Theater in 1967.
Gail began by reading new plays, and she eventually became The Public’s Director of Play Development. In this capacity, Gail was the one who found many of the plays and musicals that eventually came to define The Public (which sometimes required convincing Joe that taking a risk on a new playwright would be worthwhile).
Alongside discussing their professional relationship and the birth and growth of the Public, Gail also discusses her romantic relationship with Joe (hence, the “private” part of the title). Gail and Joe began as coworkers and eventually developed a secret affair while he was still married to his third wife. It sounds more sordid than it was, as both had been previously married and they did their best to keep it from impacting Joe’s relationship with his children, whom Gail eventually became very close to.
It’s the mingling of Gail’s respect for Joe as a theater maker and her love for him as her husband that really sets the book apart from other works on Joe and the Public.
The pair were eventually married in 1976 and from then on, weathered both the personal and professional together from the highs of opening A Chorus Line to the lows of dealing with the AIDs crisis and its effect on their family, friends, and coworkers. Gail’s love for Joe is clear throughout the memoir, from her description of his “Naked Hamlet” in the opening season of the Public Theater to her praise of him being a “nonsexist equal opportunity employer” even in the 1960s. It’s the mingling of her respect for him as a theater maker and her love for him as her husband that really sets the book apart from other works on Joe and the Public.
Gail doesn’t only rely on her own memories, but also quotes interviews (both published and unpublished) from others who worked with and knew Joe. Some of these are actors who are household names, while others are their early coworkers at the Public Theater. She also draws from her diaries, allowing her to more accurately describe events that took place many years before.
Photos are also peppered throughout the book, adding a visual element and allowing us to step further into the world of New York theater in the 1960s through 1990s. The book feels like a drawing back of the curtain on the office space of the Public, but also like being invited into the Papps’ living room and regaled with their stories.
Gail and Joe worked together for twenty-six years before his death in 1991. The book begins and ends with Gail reflecting on the service held for him at the Public after his death, an event that seemed strangely unlikely. Joe, and Gail alongside him, were titans of New York theater, insisting that there was another more democratic way to create and share the art form.
Right now, as theater becomes more and more commercialized in New York, and ticket prices soar out of reach of the average American, it’s inspiring to be reminded of people who dedicated their lives to making theater accessible. Gail’s story illuminates that you don’t have to be a Joe Papp and found your own theater to make a difference in bringing theater to the people.
There’s also potential for an audience who simply enjoy memoirs.
The book can seem repetitive and occasionally a bit disorganized. It’s understandable considering Gail’s attempt to look back on events that took place over several decades. It might be most interesting to those who have some knowledge of or interest in the New York theater scene, but I think there’s also potential for an audience who simply enjoy memoirs.
A review of the book on Goodreads criticizes that it provides “no real new insight into Papp,” particularly because there already exist extensive biographies about him. The reviewer questions what the purpose of this book is then. For Gail herself, the purpose seems to be to give her own personal perspective on Joe and all that he accomplished. For her editor and us readers, Public/Private serves as an ode to the woman behind the scenes, who also had a strong hand in shaping the direction of American theater for several decades.
It’s a reminder that for every great man, there is often a great woman who loved him and worked alongside him and whose name was typically left out of the headlines. Public/Private illuminates who Joe Papp was, not just as a director and creator of one of the country’s most important theatrical institutions, but also as a man. More importantly, it’s a record of Gail Merrifield Papp’s contributions to American theater.
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Grab a copy of the book, now available for purchase anywhere books are sold.
Learn more about Gail Papp on her website.
Read about Meryl Streep’s Broadway debut costume (featured in the middle photo) on Vanity Fair’s website.
Read about Kevin Kline in The Pirates of Penzance (featured in the middle photo) on Rotten Tomatoes.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured photo: Iconic images from The Public’s past with costumes and posters from productions of (from left): The Pirates of Penzance (1981), Three Penny Opera (1976), The Cherry Orchard (1977), and Trelawny of the ‘Wells’ (1975). Photo Credit: Jan Lisa Huttner (7/14/23)
Middle photo: Costumes* featured at Manhattan’s Museum of Broadway. Photo Credit: Jan Lisa Huttner (7/14/23)
*Note photos on the far right side of Meryl Streep (“Nearly 50 years ago, before she became a Hollywood icon, Meryl Streep made her Broadway debut in an ivory-colored Edwardian costume, carefully sewn with trapunto lace and antique point de gaze.” Vanity Fair) and Kevin Kline (whose ebullience took his cast from stage to screen).
Bottom photo: Exterior of the Off-Broadway Public Theater at 435 Lafayette Street in New York, NY in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan. Photo Credit: Robert K. Chin – Storefronts / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: 2AWB738