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The last two years have brought a boom in dramatic activity at Harvard, and with the new semester now at hand this boom appears ready to become bigger than ever. Within the last year, all the Houses but Dunster have produced plays or operas, and Dunster now has a show in rehearsal. At present some sixteen groups depend on the University to provide most of its actors and audience. For those interested in drama at Harvard, this renaissance is an exciting thing to watch, but it also threatens some cause for alarm.
Harvard Square is in real danger of turning into a Little Broadway. As on Manhattan's Broadway, an increasing emphasis on commercial success has become detectable among the local drama groups, and the cult of success is made necessary by the fact that the productions are growing ever more grand and elaborate. The recent Harvard Dramatic Club staging of Hamlet had a budget of well over four thousand dollars, a figure which is by no means exceptionally large. Unfortunately even when these expensive productions get their outlay back at the box office, the result from an artistic point of view more often than not does not justify the expense.
An additional sign of the growing Broadway mentality among the local drama groups can be found in the type of play which they choose as their vehicles. The current Dudley House production of Streetcar presents a particularly unfortunate example, but scarcely an isolated one. The last couple of years have witnessed the college staging of other plays by Williams, as well as works of Miller, Fry, and Chekhov, all of whom then had plays running in New York. While these men are among the best of modern playwrights, their works do receive quite frequent productions by the commercial theater. Obviously college theater should not pretend or even wish to be a substitute for the commercial stage. Its particular strength is the possession of an audience which is able and often willing to support others beside the cocktail-party playwrights.
The Harvard theater, however, has shown only a sporadic tendency toward original or experimental work. One cause of this lack is the scarcity of produceable plays by local writers and the questionable quality of experimental plays by established authors, but these points make a poor excuse. The works, for example, of Ibsen, Lorca, and Yeats include many of which are eminently suitable for staging at the University. Some of them have the additional advantage of not requiring grand production. Instead of these, we get imitations of Broadway--and Shakespeare. Even worse than the popular modern playwrights, Shakespeare provides the staple for Harvard's dramatic diet. While it is laudable to produce nearly any of his works, the fact remains that Shakespeare also receives frequent performances. Two or three of his works can generally be found on the board in New York. The frequency with which Shakespeare is produced at the University approaches being too much of a good thing, and any theater which depends too heavily on one playwright, however great, is not completely healthy.
If the experimental spirit of college theater is too low, its energy is almost too great. There are obviously not enough actors to supply all the sixteen groups, and as a result the same performers can be found in the productions of three or four societies during a single year. Some groups, such as the one which recently staged The Barber of Seville, go to the length of recruiting as much as two-fifths of their cast from outside the University.
This excess of energy has a detrimental effect on the studies of those performers who do attend Harvard, especially if, as frequently happens, they are appearing in one play while rehearsing for another. Like any other extra-curricular activity, dramatic work takes time, but unlike most other activities the expenditure can not be spread out evenly through the year. When a production nears opening night, rehearsals get longer and more exhausting, sometimes lasting from six in the afternoon until two in the morning. As a result gaps which are difficult to repair appear in the school work of the student actors.
Since it would be highly undesirable to have the administration impose controls on the hours a student may spend on his dramatic work, the only feasible solution to this problem is a limit set by the drama groups themselves on the number of their productions. It should be possible for the groups to reach agreements on this point in an informal manner, and such agreements might also well prevent the presentation of more than one play on the same weekend. Harvard Theater, which already makes a great contribution to life at the University, might make a yet greater one by choosing its vehicles with greater wisdom, and by adopting drama race for prestige, for audiences, and for the necessary self-control. Otherwise the current money might well, like all races, come to a sudden stop.
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