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Obituaries

Herbert Blau; staged early works of existentialists; 87

Mr. Blau was a passionate voice for a more challenging theater experience.

Dick Blau/File 2012

Mr. Blau was a passionate voice for a more challenging theater experience.

NEW YORK — Herbert Blau — a fiercely iconoclastic theater director, scholar, and theorist who staged some of the earliest productions of Samuel Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, and Jean Genet in the ­United States — died in Seattle on May 3, his 87th birthday.

The cause was a sarcomatoid carcinoma of the chest, a type of cancer, his family said.

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Mr. Blau briefly helped lead the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center in New York but he is probably best remembered for starting, with Jules Irving, the Actor’s Workshop in San Francisco in 1952. Originally a teaching studio, it grew into a vibrant theater company known for feisty experimentalism.

The workshop was an early champion of Beckett, whose ‘‘Waiting for Godot,’’ in which two tramps wait for a man who never appears, had been produced in Florida and New York to scant critical and audience approval. The Actor’s Workshop version was a hit when it opened in San Francisco.

The troupe was asked to put on a play at San Quentin State Prison in 1957 to replace a traditional variety show done by inmates. The Beckett play was chosen after prison officials specified that none of the actors could be women.

The prisoners, used to waiting themselves, loved it and started their own drama group as a result. The performance became the subject of a 2010 documentary, ‘‘The Impossible Itself,’’ and a legend in the development of absurdist theater. Beckett thought the review in the prison newspaper reflected the best understanding of the play he had seen.

‘‘We’re still waiting for Godot, and shall continue to wait,’’ the reviewer said. ‘‘When the scenery gets too drab and the action too slow, we’ll call each other names and swear to part forever — but there’s no place to go.’’

Mr. Blau went on to become a passionate voice for less conventionality in theater. In his 1964 book, ‘‘The Impossible Theater: A Manifesto,’’ he decried the ‘‘failure and fatuousness of the American ­theater,’’ asserting that most working on Broadway were ashamed’’ of what they did — or at least, in his view, they should be.

‘‘There are times,’’ he wrote, ‘‘when, confronted with the despicable behavior of people in the American theater, I feel like Lear on the heath, wanting to kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!’’

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