Harvard Drama’s 300-Year Struggle

After a long history of extracurricular isolation, dramatic arts might be gaining academic ground

In 1605, Robert Harvard ventured out of bustling London to find a wife in the sleepy market town of Stratford-upon-Avon. In a house a short stroll from the home of William Shakespeare’s family, Harvard successfully courted Katherine Rodgers. The couple went on to sire our university’s namesake—John Harvard. And while the university was founded by a man whose parents very possibly knew Shakespeare personally, this fact did not foreshadow a corresponding care for drama in the new Cambridge. Puritanical conservatism, academic mores, and general structural lapses have hampered dramatic life at Harvard from its origins up to the present day.

Yet all hope is not lost. With a renewed interest in the arts emanating from Massachusetts Hall and mirrored in the English department and American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.), the time may have come for Harvard to finally reconcile its nearly 400-year struggle with the dramatic arts. Perhaps most significantly, students can now gain academic recognition for dramatic arts, through a new Secondary Field. As Homi K. Bhabha, professor, director of the Humanities Center, and member of President Drew G. Faust’s newly-inaugurated “task force on the arts,” says of drama at Harvard: “We are late to the plate.”


From those same Puritan beliefs that shaped John Harvard—compelling him to leave for the New World and donate his fortune to a new seminary college founded in 1636—came the interregnum of Oliver Cromwell and the rise of Puritan rule in Britain. One of the first orders was to ban all theater, viewed as a wicked pastime of the corrupted Crown. In 1642, Shakespeare’s beloved “wooden O”—The Globe Theater—was closed. But by 1660, the Puritan government had collapsed and Charles II took the throne, ushering in the Restoration and a renaissance in the dramatic arts as theaters were reopened. However, Harvard remained a Puritan stronghold and theater was still discouraged, according to Robert Brustein, founder of the Yale Repertory Theatre and the A.R.T.

Only at the start of the 18th century was drama allowed, at least extra-curricularly, with the founding of the Hasty Pudding Theatricals. It would take another 100 years for the Dramatic Arts to be taken even remotely seriously in the academic sense. While Shakespeare began to be taught in the intervening century, it was a purely literary study, not debasing itself to performance.

In 1905, George Pierce Baker came to Harvard and starting teaching a playwriting class where he taught the likes of Eugene O’Neill. More significantly, he started the Harvard Dramatics Club in 1908. According to Brustein, Pierce was offered an alumni donation of $1,000,000 to build a theatre at Harvard and allow the students in his playwriting class to mount their works.

Yet university officials, still entrenched in intellectual prejudices against the study of dramatic works, scoffed at what they felt would be a frivolous pre-professional program.

Baker went to New Haven to establish the Yale School of Drama, and the rest, as they say, is history. His departure ensured Yale’s well-known dominance over Harvard in the theater world.


While Yale’s dramatic scene took off in an institutionalized setting, Harvard’s began to develop into what was, by the 1960s, a student-driven extracurricular environment of chaotic and creative passion.

Although some practical dramatic arts courses were—and continue to be—taught through the A.R.T., these hands-on courses in subjects like directing and acting were not counted for any concentration credit.

Laurence Senelick, a professor of Drama at Tufts and one of the leading translators and experts of Anton Chekhov, fondly remembered his time at Harvard, where he received his master’s degree and Ph.D.

“The Loeb Theatre was run by an English department professor,” says Senelick. He adds that before the A.R.T. took over the space, all the productions were student-run.

“People had the chance to fail,” says Senelick, who directed his own share of productions. From this ad hoc, self-driven environment came the likes of John A. Lithgow ’67, Stockard Channing ’65, and Peter M. Sellars ’80.

While the environment was conducive to independence, students had nowhere to turn to learn the practical theater arts in an academic setting. This dilemma was meant to be resolved in 1978 with the founding of the A.R.T. by Brustein, who had also founded the Yale Repertory Theatre. Brustein’s exodus was the reverse of Baker’s. “My time was up at Yale,” he recalls.

But there was one problem: Brustein didn’t want the A.R.T. to be a Harvard organization.

“He came in as if he didn’t want to be a part of Harvard,” Senelick says. “Brustein wanted to run the A.R.T. like his own little fiefdom. It had nothing to do with the curriculum and it didn’t foster theater studies. The A.R.T. never really connected with the rest of the University, and I still think it doesn’t.”

For the most part, that same de-institutionalized, extracurricular spirit has persisted despite the campus presence of theater professionals.


But this situation has not always been seen as a negative one.

Playwright Arthur L. Kopit ’59 , who wrote “Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad,” which premiered at the Agassiz Theatre in 1960 before moving to Broadway, and which was also the first production mounted at Harvard’s New College Theatre, thinks the state of affairs for the past five decades has been a good one.

“Thank goodness Harvard doesn’t have a Drama concentration,” Kopit says.

In the chaotic environment of the drama scene, Kopit says he was able to grow academically as a writer in the liberal arts setting, not focusing solely on drama.

While some current students opt to create their own drama program via a special concentration, many who are deeply involved in drama prefer keeping their academic life separate from the theatrical.

Literature concentrator Kara E. Kaufman ’08, outgoing president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club, is blunt in her opinion about a potential drama concentration: “I would definitely not do it.”

Kaufman says she fell in love with the theater community here because of its unique dynamic. “There’s such a community because it’s extracurricular. Also, because of that, there’s a vitality and passion,” she says. “If there were a formal concentration or department, personally, I think it would create a weird dynamic.”

Kaufman goes on to explain that there would be a hierarchy of those studying drama versus those choosing to study other fields, creating tension when allocating resources, such as performance space for productions.

If the lack of a department or concentration in drama has fostered Harvard’s unique character, then the answer to how to improve the dramatic arts at Harvard may lie in a more conservative approach, using the already existing institutions, fostering inter-departmental work and creating more opportunities for undergraduates wishing to study the dramatic arts.


Such changes are already well under way. This will be the first academic year where students can receive academic credit for practical drama classes via the Secondary Field in Dramatic Arts. The program consists of six half-courses­: Two must be in practice-based courses, such as workshops on acting and directing, and another two must be in the study of dramatic works with courses taken through the Literature or English and American Literature and Language departments.

This decision marks a shift from Harvard’s previous policy of giving no degree credit for such hands-on courses—formerly thought of as carrying the taint of “pre-professionalism”—and opens the door for a possible full-fledged concentration.

Additionally, for some years, Harvard’s English department has been trying to draw top names in the study of dramatic arts to Harvard.

“We did make an offer to Joe Roach [a Professor of Drama at Yale] some years ago, which alas he declined,” says Leo Damrosch, acting chair of the English Department. Currently, no fully tenured professors specializing in modern drama are on the English department faculty.

A position has been offered to Visiting Professor Martin Puchner, from Columbia University, who received his master’s degree from Harvard, who thinks the Roach decision is indicative of larger trends.

“I think maybe in the last few years since Roach declined, some thing have changed,” Puchner says. “Now, there is more coordination, a larger arts initiative, and the English Department is trying to build the field of drama and to attract faculty. There are other offers out. I’m not the only one. There is at least one other outstanding offer.”

Indeed, since Roach declined the position, the Committee on the Dramatic Arts, headed theater professor Robert Scanlan, has made headway, including introducing a new Secondary Field in the Dramatic Arts, finally giving students recognition for their work in drama.

As for Senelick’s concern that the A.R.T. has never been integrated with the faculty, Puchner is already at work closing the gap.

“I think there’s some truth to that and we need something serving as a bridge,” he says. “Next term, I’m team-teaching a course with Gideon Lester, the interim director of the A.R.T. We’re inviting directors and dramatists to class to study the works being put on at the A.R.T.

“If I stayed, something like what I’m doing this year could be established since I’ve experienced no obstacles and see a lot of room to do it,” Puchner adds. “It’s just a matter of someone actually doing it.”

Puchner has not yet decided if he will take the tenured position, though he has many ideas on how drama can and is being improved at Harvard

“The arts need to be integrated into a liberal arts curriculum. That has not fully happened yet,” he says, citing the new “task force on the arts,” announced last month by President Faust, as a step towards that goal.

“Things are happening, with opening of New College Theatre, and the task force on the arts,” he says. “This seems like an exciting time for the arts in general.”

—Staff writer Alexander B. Cohn can be reached at


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