Elia Kazan (born 1909) is known as the preeminent director of works by Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Kazan emerged as the leading exponent of psychological realism via his film and stage productions of the 1940s and 1950s. His works reflect both social struggle and personal pain.
Elia Kazan was born into a large family of Anatolian Greeks near Istanbul in 1909. Kazan's family came to the United States when he was four, and he grew up in the slums and suburbs of New York City. He was a reclusive child who read compulsively, often as an escape from working in the family business, the rug trade. Determined not to follow in his father's footsteps, the young Elia attended Williams College from 1926 to 1930, majoring in English literature. It was here that he developed his initial interest in theater, writing a prize-winning paper on the audience's emotional response to drama.
Kazan considered a career in the film industry and decided that more theatrical training would help him achieve that goal. He applied to the Yale School of Drama and was accepted, despite his lack of practical experience. From 1930 to 1932 Kazan immersed himself in all aspects of dramatic production at Yale. He found that he shared with several others an interest in social drama and the establishment of a left-wing alternative to Broadway theater. Before completing his degree, Kazan left graduate school to apprentice with the Group Theatre, an offshoot of the Theatre Guild.
The Group Theatre, fashioned after Stanislavski's famous Moscow Art Theatre, was founded by Cheryl Crawford, Lee Strasberg, and Harold Clurman. The company's productions were attempts to combine social consciousness and artistic excellence. Kazan worked for the group in a variety of capacities—as press agent, stage manager, and actor. In 1934, with Art Smith, he recruited new playwrights, an effort that resulted in Clifford Odets' Waiting for Lefty. In its initial performance Kazan played Agate, who delivers the play's final appeal for a strike of cab drivers.
His next association was with the Workers' Laboratory Theatre (re-named the Theatre of Action in 1935), where he realized his ambition to direct, beginning with Peter Martin's The Young Go First The production, implementing Group Theatre techniques of improvisation and rehearsal exercises, featured Alfred Saxe. The Theatre of Action's film division also employed Kazan as a director of left-wing movies. This unit evolved into Frontier Films, known for its documentary realism and called by Variety the "Group Theatre of motion pictures." In 1936 Kazan returned to the group, which was now headed by Clurman only. He stayed until 1941, acting in Odets' Golden Boy and other works. The departure of Strasberg and Crawford also allowed him to direct.
In the early 1940s Kazan began to concentrate solely on directing, and in the first few years of the decade he directed a number of plays, most notably Thorton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, starring Tallulah Bankhead. This production earned Kazan the 1942 New York Drama Critics' Award for Best Director. By 1945 Kazan was receiving offers to direct from both Broadway and Hollywood. He continued to produce successes in both arenas, with the film A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and the play All My Sons, the latter by a then-unknown young playwright named Arthur Miller.
In 1947, with Cheryl Crawford and Robert Lewis, Kazan founded the Actors' Studio as a kind of revival of the Group Theatre, with a focus on actor training rather than producing plays. When Lee Strasberg was eventually recruited as the head of the studio, Kazan's position became that of an occasional instructor and patron.
Kazan returned to directing with the play with which he had the greatest personal relationship—Miller's Death of a Salesman, starring Lee J. Cobb. Believing that the protagonist, Willy Loman, was a man who was "socially mistaught," Kazan considered the play to be "a story of love—the end of tragic love" between father and son. He also noted that "this play has to be directed with COMPASSION." Jo Mielziner's famous setting for this production reflected the fragile physical and psychological realities of Willy Loman. The play was a tremendous success, ran more than 700 performances, and garnered the Pulitzer Prize among other major awards.
During the next few years, Kazan spent more of his time as a film director. Notable among this work are A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), and East of Eden (1955). After the shooting of Streetcar Kazan was subpoenaed by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee to testify regarding any connection he had with members of the Communist Party working in the entertainment industry. Kazan, in a very painful position that would determine the future of his work, cooperated with the committee. He admitted that he had adopted communism for a time (which he had since renounced) and named several other party members with whom he had worked. He followed this up with newspaper ads, public addresses, and articles defending his testimony and anti-Communist position. Branded an "informer," Kazan found that a number of former associates would no longer work with him, including Harold Clurman and Arthur Miller.
Kazan threw himself back into his work, but his production of Flight Into Egypt closed on Broadway after only 46 performances. He then went to Germany to take over direction of Man on a Tightrope, but it also was a box-office failure. Kazan's next project was a Broadway production of Tennessee Williams' Camino Real, another financial disaster.
Kazan broke this string of disappointments with two Broadway successes, Robert Anderson's Tea and Sympathy and Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and the Oscar-winning film On the Waterfront, as well as East of Eden, which gave James Dean his first starring role.
After this successful comeback, Kazan established his own film company and produced Baby Doll (1956), A Face in the Crowd (1957), and several others, but they fared poorly. Kazan returned to the theater in 1957 to direct William Inge's Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Archibald MacLeish's J. B., and Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth.
In 1963 Kazan became co-director with Robert White-head of the Lincoln Center Repertory Theatre. The company's opening production was Arthur Miller's After the Fall, directed by Kazan. Miller and Kazan were re-united after a split of nearly a decade. The play was a success, but Kazan's subsequent production of The Changeling, just before the first anniversary of the Repertory Theatre, was a disastrous effort, and he resigned.
Kazan finally decided to produce his own screenplay, on which he had been working for several years. This was America, America, a fictionalized version of his own family's emigration to the United States. The Arrangement, his next film, was quasi-autobiographical and a financial disappointment.
Kazan then turned to writing novels (including The Assassins) and directed one film, The Last Tycoon, in 1976. His 1988 autobiography, Elia Kazan: a Life, touches on the entire fabric of people and productions in a fascinating life. In Kazan's mid-eighties, irony resonated as in a dark script when Arthur Miller's allegory of the Communist blacklisting era, The Crucible, was revived on the New York stage. At the same time, Kazan was denied a Life Achievement Award by the American film Institute because of his cooperation with the UnAmerican Activities Committee.
Further Reading on Elia Kazan
Thomas H. Pauly, An American Odyssey: Elia Kazan and American Culture (1983, paperback 1985); and in Michel Ciment, Kazan on Kazan (1974). Also see Kazan's 1988 autobiography, Elia Kazan: A Life.