Barrie Stavis

BARRIE STAVIS was born 16 June 1906 in New York City, three weeks before Clifford Odets, and nine years before Arthur Miller.  Educated at New Utrecht High School, Brooklyn, and Columbia University, he covered the Spanish Civil War from 1937 to 1939 as a foreign correspondent and served in the US Army Signal Corps from 1942-1945 as a Technical-Sergeant. His marriage to Leona Heyert in 1925, ended in divorce in 1939. His second marriage to Bernice Coe (1950) lasted more than fifty years, until her death in 2001.

His early plays: IN THESE TIMES (1932), THE SUN AND I (1933), and REFUGE (1938) saw New York productions. THE SUN AND I (written in collaboration with his then wife, Leona Stavis) was revived in 1937 by the Federal Theatre Project at the Adelphi Theatre.

Returning from Spain in 1939, he made up his mind to scrap his earlier work (a dozen scripts, by his own count), moving from the "imitation of life" naturalism he previously favored, for a sweeping "epic" style, devoid of scenery to concentrate instead on "plays of ideas" for his new "time-space stage." He embarked upon a tetrology "exploring the problems of…men who are of their time and yet in advance of their time, who have ushered in new and frequently drastic changes…the precise moment in history when society, ripe for change, gives birth to the catalyst who sets the dynamics of change into accelerated motion."

LAMP AT MIDNIGHT (1942, about Galileo and the Inquisition) was produced off Broadway in 1947, by New Stages, Bleecker Street (the site of what would become Circle-in-the-Square Downtown), within two weeks of the Charles Laughton version of Brecht's GALILEO at the ANTA Experimental Theatre on Broadway. Barrie's Galileo impressed the critics, particularly Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times, Brecht's did not, and outlasted it by two years. The play was televised by Hallmark Hall of Fame (NBC) in April 1966 with Melvyn Douglas as Galileo, directed by George Schaefer. That version was subsequently broadcast on the A&E cable network and seen worldwide by 52 million viewers. A major national tour followed the orignal screening, with Morris Carnovsky as Galileo, in a prodution mounted by Tyrone Guthrie, in 1969. The play was also staged by the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 1973.

GALILEO GALILEI, an opera oratorio based on LAMP AT MIDNIGHT by composer Lee Hoiby, libretto by Barrie Stavis, was commissoned by the Werner Von Braun Civic Center at Huntsville, Alabama, and premiered there in 1975. It has since been produced by several other concert venues.

THE MAN WHO NEVER DIED, about labor leader Joe Hill (1951), premiered in St. Paul in 1955, and was produced off Broadway at the Jan Hus Playhouse (future site of both the APA/Phoenix and the Manhattan Theatre Club) in 1958.

JOE HILL, an opera based on THE MAN WHO NEVER DIED by composer Alan Bush, libretto by Barrie Stavis, was commissioned by the Staats Opera, East Berlin, and mounted there in a well-received production, in September 1970. It was subsequently broadcast (twice) on BBC Radio 3 in 1979.

COAT OF MANY COLORS, about Joseph in Egypt (1961), based on his earlier THE SUN AND I, was first produced in Provo, Utah in 1966.

HARPERS FERRY (originally entitled BANNERS OF STEEL), was the first new American work to be mounted by the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, in 1967, directed by Tyrone Guthrie, with Edward Binns as John Brown. 

THE RAW EDGE OF VICTORY, about Washington at Valley Forge, was first staged in Midland, Texas, in 1976, and published by Dramatics magazine in two issues devoted to Barrie and his work, in 1986.

The Carodozo Studies in Law and Literature Journal devoted an entire issue (volume 2, number 2) to Barrie and his works, with articles by noted international scholars, in 1990.

HOUSE OF SHADOWS, a play about the Spanish Civil War (1992) remains unproduced.

Stavis is the author of two novels: CHAIN OF COMMAND (1945), and HOME, SWEET, HOME (1947), and several non-fiction works, including the biography JOHN BROWN: THE SWORD AND THE WORD (1970), THE SONGS OF JOE HILL (co-edited with Frank Harmon), and JOE HILL AND HIS TIME (1954).

His works have been translated into at least 28 languages, and presented around the world from Scandinavia to Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe to the former Soviet Union and South America, where he remains extremely popular, due to the social issues presented in his work. He was tireless in promoting his work, and traveled the world both assuring that his plays were scheduled for production, and then mounted to his satisfaction, always ready to re-write and adapt his works to the demands of the society in which they played. At the time of his death, he was working on a second tetrology dealing with major world leaders. Only the Washington play, THE RAW EDGE OF VICTORY, has been completed. 

The BARRIE AND BERNICE STAVIS AWARD for Emerging Playwrights was established in 1988 by the National Theatre Conference and is given each year. Previous recipients include:  Nilo Cruz, Carson Kreitzer, Ezra Goldstein, Barbara Cassidy, Dennis Covington, Naomi Lizuka, Edwin Sanchez, Keith Glover, and Thomas Gibbons.

Stavis was a Yaddow Fellow (1939) and an American Theatre Association Fellow (1982), and a member of PENN, ASCAP, the Dramatists Guild, the Authors Guild, the National Theatre Conference, the US Instutite for Theatre Technology, the American National Theatre and Academy (ANTA), and the International Theatre Institute/UNESCO—serving as delegate to the ITI World Congress for some 40 years, and a founding member of its Playwrights Committee. He served ITI through the 1995 Congress in Caracas, Venezuela, retiring to care for his wife Bernice Coe, who died of cancer in 2001.

He was an avid swimmer and sailor, and moored his treasured wooden sailboat in a canal leading to Great South Bay off Bayshore, Long Island, where he and his wife "B.C." kept a second home. His last years, were lived on his own in their rambling apartment on East 96 Street, among his books, until his death on Friday 2 February 2007. He was 100 years, seven and a half months, and had all his mental faculties intact to the end. When asked if he was still working, he would reply: "Am I breathing?"

He is survived by his children Alex and Jane, and a granddaughter, Emma.

Christopher Martin
564 Hudson Street #1
NYC 10014
(212) 691 4883

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