Joe Papp was a New York City icon. In many ways, he still

is because his legacy thrives. It was Joe, the son of Jewish

immigrants from Russia, who convinced NYC to approve

the creation of the New York Shakespeare Festival. In the

early 60s, Joe introduced free Shakespeare-in-the-Park, with

two or three plays a year presented at the Delacorte Castle

in Central Park. Many of the world's greatest actors, from

George C. Scott and James Earl Jones to Meryl Streep and

Amy Adams have thrilled audiences with free Shakespeare

and other dramas and musicals.

Below: Joe Papp and the stage of the Delacorte.

It was Joe who galvanized forces to save New York

City's classic theatres from destruction when the city was

undergoing architectural transition in the 70s and realtors

were razing 19th Century theatres that were an integral part

of the city's cultural history to erect shiny, new box


In 1967, Joe managed to wangle a deal with NYC to take over

the old Astor Building/Library on the corner of Lafayette and

Astor Place in Greenwich Village. He intended to convert it

into theatre space for his non-profit company. In that building

he transformed the American theatre. Shows like Hair, A Chorus

Line, For Colored Girls, The Normal Heart, and No Place to be

Somebody all got their start at the Public Theatre. After Papp's

death, the Public still turned out ground-breaking shows like

Hamilton. Below: The former Astor Library, now The Public.

For his first show at the newly-created Anspacher Theater

within the Astor, Joe decided to mount a production of

Hamlet, one of his favorite plays. But he didn't want a

conventional staging of the play. It was 1967 and the whole

world was changing. Joe wanted a reinterpretation of

Shakespeare's tragedy that would speak in a new way to

ordinary people. Thus, The Naked Hamlet was born! Papp

and a student, Ted Cornell, said they wanted to slash the play

by half, pull out many of the famous lines, put those lines in

different places in the play, give them different speakers

sometimes, and see what happened. Characters were cut

and the scenes were all reconfigured. I know all this because

my high school sent a bunch of us into the city to see it. It was

my second show. As I recall, the soldiers at the play's beginning

all looked like they worked for Fidel Castro, and a cigar-smoking,

bearded Claudius, dressed in a khaki uniform, barked commands.

Gertrude showed up in a cocktail dress. A very fetching Ophelia

pranced around in a micro-mini-skirt. Sometimes, Hamlet, played

by a very young Martin Sheen, wore nothing but boxer shorts. He

slept in a coffin. The ghost of King Hamlet sported long-johns. I

remember during the carnival-like atmosphere of this play (and I had

never seen or read Hamlet before) that Sheen grabbed a bunch of

bags of peanuts and balloons and came up the aisles into the audience

as if he were hawking them to customers at a ball game. There was

even a rock-music score created by Galt MacDermott, the composer

of Hair! There was a lot of schtick, a lot of slapstick. At one point

Hamlet and Claudius get into a foul-mouthed fight, and the

audience wasn't sure whether it was real or not. One striking

moment was the delivery of the "To be or not to be" soliloquy.

Sheen, of course, was born Ramon Estevez. His father was Puerto-

Rican. So Sheen spoke Hamlet's famous lines with a thick Hispanic

accent that stunned the audience. Cornell wrote "not only did it

get quiet, you started to hear sobbing in the audience...He liberated

those lines so people could listen to them freshly." It was all over

in ninety minutes. Papp then came out and talked to us all about

the show and his ambitions.

Below: Sheen's 1972 reflections of the 1967 production.

Clive Barnes and Walter Kerr were the daily and Sunday critics for the

New York Times. Both of them pretty much eviscerated the production as

jejune and sophomoric. Barnes called it "a Hamlet for philistines". Never a

good thing to read. Most of the other reviews were kinder and more

appreciative of what Papp had aspired to if not fully achieved. Richard

Watts in the New York Post said it was "at times satirically amusing, at others

seemingly pointless, but always irreverently inventive." But Papp

won in the end. Everyone in New York was talking about this production,

good or bad, fascinating or moronic, artistic or juvenile. It created a buzz.

I'm not going to lie. I didn't know what to make of it. I probably would

disapprove today but the production's anarchic spirit entertained me back then.

(It probably helped that I didn't know the play!) I have seen many Hamlets since,

but nothing like this one! And ultimately it was an honor to see Joe Papp's first

Shakespeare production at the Public. I have taken students to see many since.