All Joseph Papp wants to do is produce Shakespearean plays in Manhattan's Central Park and let people watch them for nothing. Such an ambition would seem to be about as controversial as sunshine, but Papp is forever warring against enormous odds, standing his ground in a swirl of controversy. The first big odd was former Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, who insisted that Shakespearean audiences were eroding the city's soil. But Moses departed. Papp hung on, and last week Papp proudly presided over the dedication of a $400,000 amphitheater in the middle of Central Park on a site provided by the city and largely financed by city funds.
But simultaneously, Papp found himself in another cauldron. As the new theater's dedicatory play, he had picked The Merchant of Veniceand the New York Board of Rabbis loudly protested. In the part of Shylock, said the rabbis, Shakespeare had perpetrated "a distortion and defamation of our people and our faith.'' Through WCBS-TV, the entire city would have a chance to see the performance, and that was what bothered the rabbis most. "The television audience will be a mass audience," they argued. "It will include impressionable young people and teenagers, and many of its adults would not pass muster on the score of intellectual maturity." Rabbis across the city took up the theme. At one temple, for example, Rabbi Louis I. Newman denounced Merchant as "a drama which has been demonstrated beyond peradventure of a doubt as a breeding center for those destructive forces which eventuated in the disasters of the 1930s and 1940s."
Joseph Papp, raised an Orthodox Jew, went ahead with his performance and his TV commitments. Unhappily, despite the raspingly effective performance of George C. Scott as Shylock and a smoothly urbane Portia by Nan Martin, the production was not up to the usual Papp standard. But 200 critics and 100,000 rabbis could not shake Joe Papp out of his fortress now. His new amphitheater is handsomely set in a rocky grotto at the edge of a lake, and equipped with a mobile stage that can swiftly and silently be changed to suggest anything from a closeted interior to "another part of the forest." It is above all solidly and massively there. New Yorkers will be watching free, and often exceptional, productions of Shakespeare for quite a whileif not until the last syllable of recorded time.