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While Professor G. P. Baker '87 conducted the famous 47 Workshop, the University was considered a center for dramatic activity among the colleges. When he moved to New Haven to set up his Workshop at Yale the University Dramatic Club kept alive the interest in dramatics, and sustained the reputation of the University in this branch of the arts. The following article written by E. W. Gross '27 and R. T. Sherman '28, gives the history of the Dramatic Club, and that of its various productions.
The departure of Professor G. P. Baker '87, and the removal of the 47 Workshop from Cambridge to New Haven did not, contrary to a widespread belief, mean the end of all serious dramatic activities at Harvard. There still remains an organization which, though young when compared with the Workshop, has built up for itself a solid and worthy reputation.
The present year marks the eighteenth anniversary of the Harvard Dramatic Club; last year's production--"Brown of Harvard"--was the thirty-first which the Club has offered. Looking back over the years since the foundation of this group, now the heir to all the dramatic traditions of Harvard, one notes a development extraordinary in its rapidity, and important in its effects not only on college theatricals, but also on the national drama. The work continues; and the fame of the organization increases. Within the past two seasons there have been produced on Broadway three plays which had their first presentation in America (and one its first presentation anywhere) by the Harvard Dramatic Club. Probably no other college or amateur theatrical group can boast of such an achievement.
The Harvard Dramatic Club was organized in the spring of 1908. There was a definite need for such an organization which should not be restricted by class work and courses (such as the 47 Workshop) or to social clubs (such as were the Hasty Pudding and Pi Eta shows). From its very conception the Club has pursued a unique policy: the plays given have been, with the exception of the last production, which was a revival, either original works by students in Harvard and Radcliffe, or plays which have never before been done in this country. According to these two classes one may divide the history of the Club.
From 1908 to the entrance of the United States into the World War the first named class of plays were given--plays by students in the University or Radcliffe. The first venture was "The Promised Land," by Allan Davis, '07. The merit of the production did much to establish the calibre of work which could be expected of the Harvard Dramatic Club. Hermann Hagedorn, '07 poet and playwright, wrote two of the four one-act playlets which comprised the next bill--presented in the spring of 1909.
Offered One Act Plays
For the next three years the Dramatic Club offered a series of one-act plays, all written by Harvard students or graduates. A dramatization of Thomas Hardy's "The Three Strangers" was done with mediocre results, since the plot did not lend itself well to stage production. Cleves Kinkead, who was studying at Harvard in 1914 and whose "Common Clay" won the Craig prize for the same year, wrote "The Four Flushers," which the Dramatic Club produced. On the same bill was "The Clod," by E. L. Beach '13. "The Clod" has since toured the country on various vaudeville circuits.
In April, 1918, it was decided to suspend all he activities of the Harvard Dramatic Club for the duration of the War. The reasons for such a step were plain the Club felt that the expenses of a wartime production could not be met by the receipts gained by playing to wartime audiences; and, also, the large number of Club members who had entered the service had greatly decreased the number of available players. So, while the war lasted, the Dramatic Club--like so many other college activities--remained quiescent. Perhaps this period of idleness brought to the public the realization that the organization was a necessary one and one which was unique At any rate, since the war the Dramatic Club has become a Harvard institution; its productions have been big-goy its win's higher.
Foreign Plays Produced
The first meeting alter the Armistice resulted is a radical change in policy with the consequence that the fame of the Harvard Dramatic Club has ceased to be confined merely to Cambridge and Boston, but has spread through the country and even into foreign lands. Heretofore only plays by student authors or recent graduates had been presented. Now it was decided that things from foreign countries things which had never before been seen in America should form the programs of the Dramatic Club. That resolution has been faithfully followed by succeeding boards. With they exception of the revival. "Brown of Harvard," and the original American plays "The Moon Is a Gong," by John Dos Passos and "Pedro The King", by Miss A. Anthony Yyse, which had their premiers at the hands of the Club, all the plays presented by this organization have been written by foreign authors and have dealt with foreign themes. As a result of this policy, some plays have been produced whose only merit was the fact that they were written by foreigners--if merit that be. But these are few; the plays chosen have, in the large majority, been surprisingly good.
Dunsany Praised Own Play
The opening program under this new plan is interesting in its variety: Dunsany's "Fame and the Poet," and Holberg's "Erasmus Montanus" were given. This was the first presentation of "Fame and the Poet" on any stage, and Lord Dunsany, who attended the premiere, declared himself highly satisfied with the treatment which his work received from the hands of the amateurs. "Erasmus Montanus," by Holberg, "the Moliere of the North," won the better notices of the two plays. But the eighteenth-century satirist has yet to catch the popular taste.
One by one each country offered its wares. Jacinto Benavente, author of "The Passion Flower" and "The Bonds of Interest," and recognized as the chief of living Spanish dramatists, wrote "The Governor's Wife", which the Dramatic Club produced in 1919. The brilliantly designed scenery, done by Donald Oenslager '23--now with the Actors' Theatre in New York--attracted much notice. This was the first of several productions for which Oenslager made the stage sets.
Guitry Play Most Popular
The most ambitious undertaking, up to that time, was Sacha Guitry's biographical comedy "Beranger," given in 1921. In attempting to do "Beranger" the Club had to overcome more than the usual difficulties; Guitry was the most renowned of contemporary French playwrights; this particular play was widely popular abroad and comparisons were bound to be forthcoming; and, last of all, "Beranger" was a strictly historical comedy, depicting the career of Beranger, the favorite French song writer of the early nineteenth century, and consequently accuracy of detail was demanded. The fact that the production won more favorable notices than any other given by the Club before or since is proof that the task was accomplished with merit.
Gave Russian Production in N. Y.
Encouraged by the reception of "Beranger," the Dramatic Club now turned to one of the centuries most lertilo in the materials or art and especially the art of the theatre Russia. Leonid Andreyev's the "Life of Man" was the next production. Written by the author of "He Who Gets Slapped" it contained the germs of that play and was held by Andreyev to be the better of the two. Andreyev critics however have disagreed with him on that point, it was an ultramodern play and received ultramodern treatment. New York heard of this latest importation and wanted to see it; therefore, in the spring of 1922, the Dramatic Club took the play to that city. Since two performances were to be given--both for the benefit of the American Field Service--"Beranger" was also taken. The metropolitan reviewers were kind, especially to the Guitry play.
The next production was a sort of relapse. Nothing is more difficult to do well than Italian comedies of the eighteenth century. And in selecting Carlo Goldini's "The Liar," the Dramatic Club failed to realize that the Anglo-Saxon audiences to which it played could not easily catch the spirit of the gay Venetian. Goldini is not done now--even by the most artistically advanced of professionals; for an amateur organization he is almost impossible.
Kapek Introduced in 1924
The war created several new countries and one of them presented to the world a dramatist of recognized skill and undisputed worth. Karl Capek, Czechoslovakian dramatist, was introduced into America by his grim melodrama, "R. U. R." The public accepted it enthusiastically, but in a bewildered fashion. Then came "The Insect Comedy." And then, in the spring of 1924, the Harvard Dramatic Club presented Capek's latest play, "The Makropoulos Secret." This story of a woman who lived 300-years ran successfully in New York.
A drama of mediaeval Spain--"Pedro the King," by Miss A. Anthony Wyse of Cambridge, was the program of the following year. Coming as it did after the enormously popular "Makropoulos Secret", any play of conventional plot, or at least a plot which made no pretense o "modernistic" ideas, was bound to seem comparatively. But this tale of a tyrant whose cruelty won him immortality was anything but unexciting. Nevertheless it proved one of the less popular of Dramatic Club Productions.
Passos Stuns Audience
In the spring of 1924 there burst upon an unprepared Cambridge the most radical departure from conventional drama technique that any American playwright has written. John Dos Passos's '16 "The Moon is a Gong" is a radical play in every detail, and an extremely interesting one It was put on Broadway last year and then taken off with the announcement that it would return this fall. Of the original presentation, by the Harvard Dramatic Club, there is little to say which has not already been said: if suffices perhaps to mention the fact that "The Moon is a Gong" is the basis for Des Passos's new novel. "Manhattan Transfer" and that the two, taken together form most notable examples of expressionism in dealing with the American scene.
A year ago Nicola Evreiner's "Mr. Paelete" was produced. The Theatre Guild played it under the title of "The Chief Thing." Typically Russian, but radical and futuristic even for Russia, this play "for some a comedy, for others a drama," provoked the widest discussion. It was one of the three Dramatic Club productions to be taken over by New York managers and staged on Broadway within two seasons.
Last spring came the revival of Rida Johnson Young's comedy, "Brown of Harvard." Written in 1906, this play aimed to give an accurate picture of Harvard life of the time. The revival was dated in the same period, the old style costumes were worn, and throughout the play the actors conformed to all the set forms of the art of acting.
In addition to the two regular programs which the Club gives every year it has, in the past three seasons, staged a Miracle Play, using the Germanic Museum as a background.
Three years ago the Club produced Carlo Goldini's "The Liar". This eighteenth century Italian comedy is a difficult piece to play and a difficult piece for a modern audience to appreciate. This fall another eighteenth century Italian comedy will find its way onto the Brattle Hall boards, with "The Orange Comedy", an adaptation by Gilbert Seldes '14 from the Italian original by Carlo Gozzi, a contemporary of Goldini's. Gozzi wove around the stock characters of early slapstick comedy a story from the Arabian Nights, welding together the comic and the romantic elements. The result is something unique on the modern stage, and the particular piece which the Dramatic club has chosen has never been played in America.
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