Nineteen Sixty-Four was not a great year for serious dramas on Broadway. Or rather, it was not a great year for serious drama at the box office on Broadway. By Thanksgiving of that year, only five of the then-running 27 Broadway shows were dramas, and three of those had already posted closing notices. Lorraine Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, her first Broadway production following the highly successful A Raisin in the Sun in 1959, was one of the two still standing. The New York Times theater section of that Thursday mostly featured ads for star-driven musicals (Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly!; Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl; Zero Mostel in Fiddler on the Roof) and comedies (“The new smash comedy hit” Any Wednesday, the “hurricane of hilarity” Barefoot in the Park, The Owl and the Pussycat in which “the laughs roll on and on”). Smaller advertisements for edgier shows off-Broadway highlighted existential, absurdist pieces like Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit and Harold Pinter’s The Room and A Slight Ache, which themselves had found a growing audience.
The majority of American theatrical output after World War II, with the country in the midst of the Cold War, walked one of two divergent paths. Widely termed “The Golden Age of Musical Theater,” the 1950s and ‘60s saw an explosion of lively musicals featuring stories of grinning, white-toothed affirmations. While not every musical that premiered during this time steered clear of darkness and politicization, the majority of works served as diversions, providing an escape from the horrors of the second World War and upholding the triumph of good over evil in eye-popping, lavish works like The Music Man, Damn Yankees and The Pajama Game.
Meanwhile, French existentialist thought flooded the world of art. Eugène Ionesco, Pinter, Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee flourished on many of America’s avant-garde stages as their worlds, which questioned the existence of God and the meaning of life, started more and more to mirror our own. Hansberry fought back against these ideas wholeheartedly, and while she criticized writers like Richard Wright for romanticizing “black despair” as a term of the absurdity of life, she too was criticized by other thinkers of her time who found her work overly earnest, soap-operatic and purposefully and frustratingly avoiding, as The Village Voice put it, “the ever-present (and ever-so-popular) vogue of despair.” Hansberry wrote back, “Attention must be paid in equal and careful measure to the frequent triumph of man, if not nature, over the absurd.”
Hansberry’s views, though, were not based on any sort of naiveté. As an activist in the Civil Rights Movement, working in the midst of mid-century racism and Jim Crow laws, she was all too aware of the surrounding despair. When she wrote the text for a photo journal called The Movement for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the early ‘60s, she found her words accompanying graphic, unspeakable images of black men lynched and burned alive. In a speech in the late ‘50s, Hansberry recalled a conversation with a Greenwich Village intellectual wherein she was challenged, “Why are you so sure the human race should go on?” Her response was swift, “Man is unique in the universe, the only creature that has in fact the power to transform the universe. Therefore, it did not seem unthinkable to me that man might just do what the apes never will—impose the reason for life on life.” This sentiment is echoed in The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. In one scene, Sidney, impassionedly states, “The ‘why’ of why we are here is an intrigue for adolescents. The ‘how’ is what command the living.” Just two years before the Broadway premiere of Sidney Brustein, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf enjoyed a successful run as an alternative, sophisticated, avant-garde Broadway hit. Hansberry struck back at what she saw as the spiritual poverty of those marinating in the hip narcissism and malaise of existentialism: many scholars claim that the aloof playwright character of David in Sidney Brustein was inspired by Albee and his absurdist work, and, in fact, a 1963 draft of Hansberry’s script was subtitled Up Yours, Ed Albee.
Ads placed in The New York Times by famous supporters of Lorraine Hansberry.
Hansberry was battling pancreatic cancer when Sidney Brustein opened in late 1964 in a production starring Gabriel Dell as the title character and Academy Award winner Rita Moreno (West Side Story) as Iris. Despite Hansberry’s health limiting her participation in the rehearsal process, reviews for the play were mostly favorable. Broadway audiences, favoring musical comedies, however, felt no appetite for a work that focused on the real problems facing their country and urged existentialists to move beyond their inert ennui and do something. It was only with the ceaseless backing and funding of other well-known activists that the show was able to stay open for business as long as it did. Daily ads for the show in The New York Times featured open letters to the theater-going public, written and signed (and paid for) by famous Hansberry supporters James Baldwin, Lillian Hellman, Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Marlon Brando, Mike Nichols, Alan Alda, Sammy Davis, Jr. and many more, imploring them to see the show. These testimonials allowed the show to continue past its opening night, with the production eventually reaching 101 performances.
Towards the end of her life, Hansberry wrote, “In the next 10 years I hope that serious American art will re-discover the world around it… [and] render the infinite varieties of the human spirit—which invariably hangs between despair and joy.”