Journeys In The Night

Book Review by Willard Manus

Reading Theodore Mann's memoir, JOURNEYS IN THE NIGHT--CREATING A NEW AMERICAN THEATRE WITH CIRCLE IN THE SQUARE (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books), had a special resonance for me, if only because I was living in Greenwich Village in 1950 when Mann and Jose Quintero opened a small theatre at 5 Sheridan Square, across the street from Cafe Society Downtown. I was there when they launched their first production, DARK OF THE MOON, paying $1.50 for my ticket.

Circle in the Square wasn't the first Off-Broadway theatre, but it certainly put Off-Broadway on the map, thanks to its brave and bracing productions of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey Into Night. O'Neill was out of favor as a playwright then; his work was considered too dark and depressing for most audiences. Not only that, both Iceman and Journey were long, slow plays, a popular euphemism for boring.

But Mann and Quintero ignored those fashionable (and ignorant) views of O'Neill. Believing him to be America's greatest playwright, they raised $2,500 to mount Iceman, with newcomer Jason Robards, Jr. starring as Hickey. Despite its 4 1/2 hour length, the play had an amazing reception.

"The real-life windows in our theatre behind the bar had been painted black years before, but the paint had chipped, allowing streaks of daylight to enter the theatre," Mann writes. "After the intermission at the opening performance, as the house lights went out and the actors came back to take their places for the second act, these little beams of light picked up the stooped forlorn figures of Harry Hope's saloon--like ghosts returning home. The audience, en masse, stood up and applauded. I'd never seen that before. I hope that other producers have had that same thrill--a standing ovation after intermission!"

Iceman was a huge success. It ran for a year and, as Mann notes, "launched us into a whole new dimension of importance in the theatre." Over the next fifty years, Circle in the Square went on to become an institution, a place where actors like Al Pacino, George C. Scott, Robards, Salome Jens, Vanessa Redgarve, Dustin Hoffman, James Earl Jones and Kevin Kline, directors like Quintero, Ellis Rabb and Donald McKayle, playwrights like Murray Schisgall, Henry Livings and Terrence McNally found a home for themselves.

Mann takes the reader through the history of Circle in the Square, recalling in warm, evocative fashion the ups and downs of running a small theatre, the triumphs and failures, the laughter and tears. His love, not only for Circle in the Square, but the theatre itself, illuminates every page. He also writes movingly about his wife, the opera singer Patricia Brooks, who was by his side much of the way, until she died, tragically young, of multiple sclerosis.

The book's other vivid portraits are of Pacino, George C. Scott, Quintero, Redgrave and Paul Lubin, his longtime partner and advisor. The Brooklyn-born Mann, who values friendship, courage and decency above all, embraces these comrades with all the warmth and strength he can muster. His stories and anecdotes about them make for telling and captivating reading.

Mann is still active in the theatre, directing more than producing, but teaching young actors as well, even doing a little playwriting. His life, like his book, remains exemplary and inspiring.