Reviving and Reimagining The Black Crook
A Lecture and Performance by Joshua William Gelb
Wednesday, November 1st at 5:30 PM Houghton Library
Considered by many to be the first American musical, The Black Crook was born in 1866 out of a haphazard union between a hackneyed melodrama by Charles M. Barras and a newly arrived ballet troupe from Paris. The production was billed as the most costly spectacle of its day, taking postbellum America by storm and codifying the outlandish conventions of musical spectacle that defined the genre well into the twentieth century. Join Joshua William Gelb, director and adaptor of a recent revival of The Black Crook for a lively exploration of the mythology, scandal, and tragedy of this legendary production.
Joshua William Gelb is a director, performer, and librettist whose work runs the gamut from devised physical theater to stylized adaptations of classics and original musicals. In 2016, he spearheaded a new production of The Black Crook at the Abrons Arts Center (NYC) to mark the 150th anniversary of its premiere. His work has also been featured at Ars Nova, The Tank’s Flint & Tinder series, the Target Margin Lab, the New Ohio’s Ice Factory, Incubator Arts, and the Edinburgh Fringe. Gelb is an associate artist with Sinking Ship Theater and a member of the 2012 Lincoln Center Director’s Lab.
There will be just three more performances of the Theater, Dance & Media fall production of Adrienne Kennedy’s one-act play The Owl Answers. There will be post-show talkbacks with Joan Harris and Professor Glenda Carpio (Friday) and Eisa Davis and Professor Monica White Ndounou (Saturday). We saw the play last week and it’s fantastic!
And don’t miss the wonderful display in the lobby put together by dramaturg Rebecca Curran!
p.s. Also see this consideration of the play Aislinn Brophy ’17, who served as the assistant director.
The Smithsonian Folklife Festival is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year with a two-week-long celebration of the circus arts. The program runs from June 29-July 4 and July 5-9 and features performances, workshops, and presentations that explore the cultural legacy of the circus and the contemporary practice of the circus arts. The big story in the circus world this year has been the shuttering of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in May, which brought to an end a touring tradition that extended all the way back to 1872. Despite the passing of this veritable institution of American entertainment, the festival shows that the circus arts are alive and well in the United States. The festival includes a wide array of circus groups, ranging from youth circuses such as Circus Smirkus and the Sailor Circus to socially-conscious circus organizations like Circus Harmony and the inspiring Clowns Without Borders. The presence of performance ensembles like the Happenstance Theater and Wise Fool suggest some new directions in circus arts, and the overall program is a testament to the remarkable durability and vitality of the circus in the United States. Perhaps the greatest asset of the American circus has been its almost endless capacity for reinvention and understanding its long and varied history suggests that there is a promising future for this unique brand of entertainment.
As an advisory scholar to the Folklife Festival, I will be exploring the cultural heritage of the American circus with a mixed group of performers, academics, and enthusiasts on the National Mall during the second week of the festival (July 5-9). We will be located in the “Circus Stories” pavilion next to the Big Top and there will be presentations and discussions from 12-5pm each day, weather permitting. For all of the details about the this year’s Folklife Festival, see their website here!
John Lithgow: Actor as Artist, a look of the the actor’s talents for drawing as well as drama, has been extended through Thursday, September 7, due to popular demand.
While on campus this spring, Lithgow stopped by to take in the display and to pose with a caricature of himself by Al Hirschfeld from the 1988 Broadway production of M. Butterfly. Lithgow, too, caricatured the show’s entire cast—himself included—in one of the many cast drawings currently displayed on the Library’s ground floor. Join us for this encore performance.
John Lithgow enrolled at Harvard in 1963, intent on becoming a painter. Even as a professional actor, he has never lost interest in the visual arts. To honor Lithgow as this year’s recipient of the Harvard Arts Medal, Houghton Library presents an exhibition of the actor’s drawings, featuring designs for student productions at the Loeb Drama Center and caricatures depicting his career on Broadway and in television, including memorable performances in M. Butterfly, the hit sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun, and Netflix’s The Crown.
Theater visionary Edward Gordon Craig foretold a future when all the elements of performance—including lights—would play their parts as well as actors. A minor player in a major role, this Edison bulb from the Harvard Theatre Collection tells the story of the first electrified playhouse in America.
The invention of a practical incandescent lamp ushered in the modern era of stage lighting. In 1882 London’s Savoy Theatre was the first to make use of electric lights onstage in a specially-designed production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Iolanthe.
With the show set to open in Boston three weeks later, theatergoers bid at auction for premium seats in the newly renovated Bijou Theatre. Edison himself supervised the installation of over 600 lights throughout the house. Over half were installed behind the auditorium’s distinctive, horseshoe proscenium. On opening night, the new lights were the talk of the town, outshining even the cast.
The scene above captures the excitement of the American premiere. The lighted sets for Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster left the audience in a daze of wonder. “Never have we seen a steadier and softer light in a theatre than that given by Edison’s incandescent burners,” the Boston Globe reported. Besides its obvious safety features, electric light cleansed theaters of the odor and bluish tint put off by gas lamps.
The image also depicts the Oriental style of the Bijou’s sumptuous interior, featuring a Moorish ceiling and chandeliers left over from an order for the Khedive of Egypt. Today, a stripped down façade on Washington Street between the present-day Boston Opera House and the Paramount Center is all that remains of the Bijou’s former opulence.
That, and Edison’s bulb. Since its donation in 1975, this hand-blown beauty has seldom, if ever, been exhibited. Stored away from bumping elbows, it is part of the records of the Boston Bijou Theatre, which includes materials relating to the company’s day-to-day management. We owe to Edison’s innovation the thrilling anticipation before a performance as the house lights fade to black and transport us to another time and place.
It’s been a year of milestones for actor and Harvard alum John Lithgow, who this week celebrates his 50th class reunion. Last April, he was fêted with the 2017 Harvard Arts Medal at the kick-off of Arts First, the annual festival of student creativity he helped launch 25 years ago.
Fresh from on-screen successes in Netflix’s The Crown and NBC’s crime mockumentary Trial & Error, Lithgow has earned a reputation as a consummate performer; his two Tonys, five Emmys, and a laundry list of accolades make it impossible to imagine otherwise. Yet the former history and literature major once nursed ambitions of becoming a painter. His undergraduate years, he recalls, were “the most active and creative of my life.”
The artistic license of those formative years has proven impossible to recreate. “It was the last time I worked in the theater for the pure, unfettered joy of it,” he has written. “Some of the work was excellent, much of it was dreadful, but its quality was never really the point. Joy was the point.”
Here’s a joyous look back at just a few of Lithgow’s extracurricular entanglements, compiled from his memoir, Drama: An Actor’s Education, with illustrations from the Harvard Theatre Collection.
KING LEAR. While still a freshman, Lithgow played the ancient Duke of Gloucester in King Lear (in a wig once worn by acting great John Gielgud). The Crimson praised his blinding scene as one of the production’s finest moments, adding, however, that he “too frequently swings his long arms to less purpose.”
Lithgow supplied original woodcuts to illustrate the poster and program.
EDWARD II. The same year, Lithgow was cast in the title role of Christopher Marlowe’s play about the murdered English monarch. He also performed in staged readings of Tamburlaine and The Jew of Malta to mark the 400th anniversary of the births of Marlowe and Shakespeare.
THE FORCED MARRIAGE.Lithgow not only acted in but designed and directed productions across campus. For his directorial debut of a one-act farce by Molière, the cast performed in masks of his own creation, which the show’s reviewer pronounced “the work of a master cartoonist.” They also appear in Lithgow’s design for the production poster, since torn from his college sketchbook.
TARTUFFE.“If John Lithgow weren’t the star of this show it wouldn’t be worth seeing. … When you grow up you can tell people at cocktail parties you saw him before he was. Which won’t be true, actually, because he is already. Which is why he can carry a whole production.” –The Harvard Crimson
UTOPIA, LIMITED.A forty-second ovation during a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta finally changed Lithgow’s mind about becoming a professional actor.
WOYZECK.His senior year,Lithgow directed and designed a dark, expressionistic production of Georg Büchner’s fractured drama about a barber who murders his mistress.
THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS.Speaking of “dreadful,” the sets for Sean O’Casey’s play are a reminder that not everything Lithgow put his hand to turned into a hit. Lithgow himself described his designs as “the ugliest, most ungainly sets ever seen on the Main Stage of the Loeb Drama Center.”
THE LADY’S NOT FOR BURNING.Lithgow has shared the stage with a surprising number of classmates who later became career artists, including Tommy Lee Jones, Stockard Channing, and Lindsay Crouse.
WHITE HOUSE HAPPENING. “At some point, every skinny 6’4” American character actor is asked to play Abraham Lincoln,” Lithgow once quipped. “The only time I actually did it was in the summer of 1967, when I was twenty-one years old.” After graduating from college, Lithgow starred in a far-fetched drama written and directed by Lincoln Kirstein. Kirstein’s Lincoln plotted his own assassination and kept his illegitimate mulatto son as a steward in the White House.
Exhibit opens showcasing ‘Trial & Error’ star’s talent for drawing as well as drama.
Halfway through his freshman year, John Lithgow set his sights on a summer residency at the artist colony in Skowhegan, Maine. Hoping to give his son’s application an edge, John’s father arranged a private interview with the painter Ben Shahn, a formidable presence at this mecca for aspiring artists. Brusque and opinionated, Shahn peppered a wide-eyed, young Lithgow with questions: “If you want to be an artist,” he growled, “what the hell are you doing at Harvard?”
John Lithgow entered Harvard in 1963, intent on becoming a painter. As Shahn well knew, Harvard was then no place to receive formal training in the arts, either visual or dramatic. But the absence of an academic program in theater made for a thriving scene of extracurricular creativity. Almost immediately, Lithgow fell in with the theater crowd. He auditioned for and landed a major role on the mainstage of the Loeb Drama Center—the only freshman to be cast in the show. The next fall, during a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Utopia, Limited, a forty-second ovation changed his mind for good. He would become a professional actor.
“The dreams of an artist die hard,” Lithgow admits. Still he continues to paint and draw. One of his canvases even makes a brief appearance in the film Love is Strange, in which Lithgow plays a struggling gay artist.
Ever since his early years on Broadway, the actor has presented his fellow cast members and crew with an inscribed caricature on opening night or at the end of filming. A selection of these drawings, curated by Dale Stinchcomb of the Harvard Theatre Collection, is now on display through July 29 September 7 on the ground floor of Houghton Library. The exhibit spans Lithgow’s decades-long career, featuring artwork from undergraduate productions to his most recent role in the NBC mockumentary Trial & Error, including unforgettable performances in M. Butterfly, the hit sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun, and Netflix’s The Crown.
More on Lithgow’s Harvard years—“the most active and creative” of his life—in an upcoming post.
Rather unfortunately, an evening performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre on April 15, 1865 is perhaps the most remarked upon theatrical event in American history. Harry Hawk, who played the “cousin” character Asa Trenchard, delivered this risible line in Act II: “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdologizing old man-trap.” John Wilkes Booth ostensibly hoped that the ensuing laughter would cover the sound of his gun, and shot the President as he enjoyed a hearty laugh at the scene. Lincoln slumped forward as Booth jumped onstage and made a dramatic escape from the theatre. Although he survived the night, the wound was mortal and Lincoln passed away a little after seven the following morning. In the wake of the President’s shocking death, the public evinced a strong desire for mementos and playbills for the infamous performance proved to be one particularly valued keepsake. Years later and in a similar spirit, Harry Hawk assembled this montage of photographs and documents memorializing the tragic evening.
Although the portraits are mostly of theatrical professionals connected to the performance, Henry Polkinhorn, owner of the print shop printer used by Ford’s Theatre is also pictured in the middle of the bottom row. The letter at center by Hawk testifies that the playbill above is an original April 14 bill, but it was in fact printed soon after the fact by Polkinhorn, the giveaway being the broken “E” in the line dedicated to Laura Keene.
Indeed, authentic original playbills for the April 14 performance are few and far between amidst the ensuing flood of reproductions. The Harvard Theatre Collection holds a remarkable bound volume of playbills for the 1864-65 season at Ford’s Theatre that was assembled by stage manager John B. Wright. A letter tipped in to the front of the volume explains that there were actually two different issues of the playbill printed on April 14. When Wright was advised of the President’s patronage that morning, he went to Polkinhorn’s shop to have the lyrics for a patriotic song, “Honor to Our Soldiers,” added to the bill. When he arrived, the first version was already in the process of being printed. The press was stopped and the necessary changes to the form were made so that the remainder of the bills were printed with the added stanza. Wright took all of the bills that had been printed with him back to the theatre so both versions were posted and distributed that fateful day. The Harvard Theatre Collection holds two examples of the first type and one of the second issue (below) with the additional “patriotic song and chorus.”
Note the fully formed “E” in KEENE in contrast to the broken top beak of the “E” so commonly found in later reproductions. For whatever reason, when Polkinhorn began reprinting the playbills as souvenirs after the assassination he used the first of the two original versions and this reprinting with the broken “E” subsequently became confused with the true original playbills. Polkinhorn’s choice and the seeming rarity of the stanza edition has meant that this version was not widely reproduced. Indeed, I would be interested to hear from our readers about whether any other original stanza playbills are known. For a full exploration and analysis of the rather convoluted history of this fascinating bit of Americana, see Walter Brenner’s study, to which this post is much indebted.
The schedule for Harvard’s annual ARTS FIRST festival has been announced. As the icon indicates, the festival is celebrating its 25th anniversary, and this year’s recipient of the Harvard Arts Medal is none other than John Lithgow. As his papers are held by the Harvard Theatre Collection, we are planning a small exhibition to celebrate the occasion. Although obviously best known for his work on the stage and screen, Lithgow is also a talented artist who has produced a range of works over the course of his career (see this recent gift to Jimmy Fallon). It seems to be something of a tradition for him to create and distribute an artwork to the crew when various productions wrap, and several of these entertaining illustrations will be featured in the exhibition. John Lithgow: Actor as Artist will be on display at Houghton Library from April 25-July 29.
One bit of documentation that I love coming across in an archive is evidence of an author’s struggle with finding the right title for a given work. Last week, I blogged about William Gibson’s celebrated work The Miracle Worker, which won a variety of awards in its various forms for television, stage, and screen. I have since come across this sheet in his archive, which ostensibly reflects Gibson’s struggle to find the right title for the work.
Others may disagree, but I rather doubt the work would have found as much success if “With the Tongues of Angels” was its title. It’s also interesting to note that the eventual title is printed and crossed out at center, which suggests that Gibson was looking for a new one. The boxes around “The Deliverers” or “The Children” suggest that they were preferred substitutes. In any case, I just think it’s interesting to see how creative people tackle the critical decision of titling there work, and to that end we’ll post more material in this vein as we come across it.