In the fall of 1946, when everybody was making statements about whether or not the newly-returned war veterans were properly adjusting themselves to the college scene, a small veteran group, led by Jerome T. Kilty, was letting it be known that it was not willing to submit to the dictates of the officials of the Dramatic Club--men they considered less-experienced in theater work than they--and most of all, they were opposed to the period of candidacy required of new members of the Club. It was this anti-HDC feeling, more than a case of veterans buddying-up, which was responsible for the founding of the Veterans' Theater Workshop.
The organization's first production was a play called "I Was A King in Babylon," which was nightly presented in an almost empty Rindge Tech theater in December, 1946. It was a play dealing with some wildly assorted historical characters reincarnated in contemporary England: an amusing literary device, but dull theater, as it turned out. The losses were heavy, and the only things which held the inchoate group together were confidence in its leaders, critical praise received by its principal actors, and the encouraging results of a poll which had just been raken to find the College's preference in drama. From the ballots handed out in the dining halls, the VTW had learned that the most popular playwrights were Shakespeare, Shaw, and Noel Coward--a winning combination which might have come as a surprise to any but the last two named. A Shakespearean play would have been too expensive for the indebted Workshop, so Shaw's "Saint Joan" was selected for their second production in the spring of 1947.
Professor Herschel Baker has told his class in modern drama that he can never again speak on "Saint Joan" without recalling the Workshop's production of the play. It has had a memorable effect on all who saw it. Presented in Sanders, a theater which offers some of the most unreasonable handicaps ever placed on a college group (no proscenium, no sconery allowed, no backstage, no dressing rooms, no curtains, etc.), the VTW production made inspirational use of its handicaps. Aside from the excellent cast now working "ensemble," the real coup do theatre was made by the designer, John Holabird, who moved his audience out into the transept of Memorial Hall in order that the coronation scene at Rheims could be enacted beneath its Gothic beams and stained glass windows. The audience stood during the scene, and when brought back into Sanders for the final scenes, stood once again in prolonged applause. This column called "Saint Joan" the next day "the high-water mark in the drama at Harvard," a statement which was true enough then, but has thrice since been proved false by the Workshop.
HTW Turns to Shakespeare
"Saint Joan" paid the old debt and the Workshop's four productions since, all Shakesperean, have either met expenses or made a profit. Under its new and more accurate name, the Harvard Theater Workshop presented in 1947-8 "Henry IV, Part One" and "Richard II." "Henry IV" was the first play in which the group used recorded music to great effect. This was unquestionably the most popular production of the HTW, and one which brought it praise and attention, not only from the critics, but from leading figures of the academic and the theatrical worlds as well.
The HTW's presentation of "Richard II" was the most expensive undertaken by either dramatic group up to that time. It was believed that a Richard in rented costumes would not convey fully that king's opulent rule and degradation. So costumes costing $1600 were designed for the play by Robert Fletcher. "Richard II" was another impressive success.
This past fall has seen the HTW in its new quarters, Brattle Hall, which four members of the organization now own. The first production there was "Troilus and Cressida," one of Shakespeare's most controversial plays and one that has tempted few producers because of its intensely rigid poetry, its bitter theme, and its lack of histrionic possibilities. (It might be pointed out here that Shakespeare is rarely given a first-rate showing on Broadway until some actor promotes it as a vehicle for his own glorification. Shakespeare for itself, no). The Workshop did for "Troilus and Cressida" what museum workers have done for old masters; they scraped away the centuries' accumulated alterations, "improvements," and dust; they restored it to its natural vigor and color. It was the Workshop's most noble effort, and, surprisingly enough, one that proved commercially ennobling, also.
"Tempest" Last Show
For the next two weeks, the HTW will offer Cambridge an opportunity to see its last and most enjoyable production, "The Tempest"--a production which manages to reap the full harvest of marvels contained in that play. They Workshop has never yet failed to repay, with interest, the exacting price Shakespeare demands of his actors. This is the last HTW show primarily because the leading members of the organization are graduating. But the HTW will continue to be a part of the local scene for some time to come. After a profitable season last summer operating Brattle Hall as a professional repertory theater, the group now plans the demolition of that ancient building and the construction of a new theater.
It is safe to say that the future plays will be interesting selections (not all Shakespeare, of course) and that Brattle Hall will play a still larger, if unofficial, part in the undergraduate life here. It may even be that, as time goes on, the present student body will grow to realize how much richer college was made for it by these upstart war veterans.