‘John Lithgow’ Exhibit Extended

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.

Edison Bulb in the Spotlight

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.

Edison bulb from the Boston Bijou Theatre
Edison bulb from the Boston Bijou Theatre, 1882. MS Thr 432 (40)

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.

Boston Bijou Theatre interior
Lithograph of the Bijou’s interior, 1883. TCS 66 (20)

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.

Edison’s bulb is featured in the exhibition Open House 75: Houghton Staff Select on display in Houghton Library’s Edison and Newman Room from May 8 – August 19, 2017.

Most Creative: John Lithgow’s Harvard Years

Watercolor of Winston Churchill in The Crown by John Lithgow
Self-portrait as Winston Churchill in The Crown. 2016MT-55

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.

John Lithgow as Gloucester in King Lear
John Lithgow as Gloucester in King Lear, 1964. MS Thr 546 (70)

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.”

Poster for King Lear and Julius Caesar
Poster for King Lear and Julius Caesar, 1964.

Lithgow supplied original woodcuts to illustrate the poster and program.

John Lithgow in Edward II
Paul Schmidt and John Lithgow in Edward II, 1964. MS Thr 546 (69)

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.

Poster design for The Forced Marriage by John Lithgow
Poster design for The Forced Marriage, 1965. MS Thr 396

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.

John Lithgow and Elizabeth Cole in Tartuffe
John Lithgow and Elizabeth Cole in Tartuffe, 1965

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

John Lithgow and Janet Walker in Utopia, Limited
John Lithgow and Janet Walker in Utopia, Limited, 1964. MS Thr 546 (147)

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, 1966. MS Thr 546 (160)

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
The Plough and the Stars, 1967. MS Thr 546 (113)

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.”

John Lithgow and Tommy Lee Jones in The Lady’s Not for Burning
John Lithgow and Tommy Lee Jones in The Lady’s Not for Burning, 1967. MS Thr 546 (71)

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.

John Lithgow as Abraham Lincoln in White House Happening
John Lithgow in White House Happening, 1967. MS Thr 546 (155)

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.

John Lithgow: Actor as Artist is on display at Houghton Library through July 29 September 7.

Thanks to John Ross, Harvard Class of 1967, for identifying the photo from Edward II.

John Lithgow: Actor as Artist

John Lithgow headshotExhibit 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: Actor as Artist poster

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.

John Lithgow in Utopia Limited
John Lithgow (center) in Utopia, Limited, 1964. MS Thr 546 (147)

“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.

John Lithgow in Love is Strange (2014). Jeong Park/Sony Pictures Classics

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.

Trial & Error cast drawing by John Lithgow
Drawing of the cast and crew of Trial & Error by John Lithgow, 2016. Lithgow appears alongside co-stars Sherri Shepherd, Steven Boyer, Jayma Mays, and Nicholas D’Agosto. 2016MT-55

Trial & Error cast

More on Lithgow’s Harvard years—“the most active and creative” of his life—in an upcoming post.

John Adams on Shakespeare, or, As You Dislike It

Portrait of John Adams by Gilbert Stuart, 1823. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.Another year of Shakespeare has drawn to a close. This week on Broadway the curtain came down on the hit show Something Rotten! whose song “I Hate Shakespeare” offered the closest thing to a respite from the past year’s tempest of fulsome tributes. Those weary of the much ado can take heart: the next anniversary won’t come around until 2039, when Stratford’s favorite son turns 475.

Over the din of universal praise, the Bard’s detractors seldom get much airtime. Houghton’s own exhibition last spring, Shakespeare: His Collected Works, somehow managed nods to poet-playwrights John Dryden and William D’Avenant while playing down the artistic quarrel between Shakespeare and his adaptors that overspread much of the eighteenth century. Mea culpa.

Instead the exhibition highlighted just one contrarian: President John Adams, whose complaint was hardly artistic. He objected on moral grounds, laying out his argument in a disapproving letter to a young, ambitious, and I daresay, unsuspecting, playwright.

By 1822 Samuel B.H. Judah had two plays mounted at the Park Theatre in New York with indifferent success. A third, dramatizing events at the Battle of Lexington, was to be performed on Independence Day. Perhaps in light of these patriotic stirrings, Judah presumptuously sent to both Adams and Thomas Jefferson copies of his newly published dramatic poem Odofriede, compelled, he wrote, by its favorable reception “in some of the first cities in our country.”

It was a shameless exaggeration.

AC8.J8802.822o, Houghton Library.

Adams, then in his eighty-seventh year, patiently listened while Odofriede, eighty-three pages long, was read aloud, and then dictated, signed, and dispatched to its author the following letter:

Montezillo 25th June 1822


I have heard read your horrible Odofriede; although there are marks of genius and talents, which in so young a man; if hereafter carefully cultivated and applied to more proper subjects, may produce something agreeable and useful, yet I can neither applaud or approve this kind of composition in prose or verse. They serve only to continue in the minds of men chimerical fantasies, which never existed anywhere but in human imagination. They greatly diminish the sum of human happiness by keeping up a constant terror in the minds of a great part of mankind, for fear is a painful and distressing passion. I could wish that Shakespear had been asleep when he imagined or borrowed from Teutonic tales his gost [sic] of Hamlet, his Witches in Macbeth, his Queen Mab, and his Oberon. I could wish that the German Oberon had never been written and especially that it had never been translated into English by Sotheby beautiful as it is. I thank you however for your civility in sending me the Book.

and am your hearty well wisher
J Adams

MS Thr 32, Houghton Library.

While it is tempting to credit the pugnacious elder statesman with a takedown, it is doubtful that Adams intended “horrible” to carry today’s meaning. (Another reviewer did confess, however, that he had “seldom met with a writer so entirely deficient in all the essentials of his art.”) More likely, Adams was using the word in its etymological sense, given what he has to say about fear later on. But it is the seriousness with which he takes up the mantle of literary critic that makes the letter so amusing. The reference to Mercutio’s lines on Queen Mab from Romeo and Juliet, he slips in as proof that he has studied the plays closely.

Adams’ distaste for the supernatural elements in Shakespeare is indicative of the general skepticism regarding works of fiction shared by the Founders. For his part, Jefferson gingerly declined to comment, replying that “the chill of 80 winters has so compleatly extinguished his sensibility to the beauties of poetry; as to leave him no longer competent either to enjoy or judge them.” Well played, Jefferson.

Despite their protestations, both men were lifelong admirers of Shakespeare. Decades earlier, in the spring of 1786, the odd couple had made the pilgrimage to his birthplace, only to find it, in Adams’ words, “as small and mean, as you can conceive.” Stratford wasn’t then the tourist mecca that it is today, and Adams bemoaned that the English hadn’t done enough to honor the immortal poet. Too bad his visit didn’t fall on an anniversary year. It might have changed his mind.

Transcripts of Samuel Judah’s letter to Adams, his almost identical letter to Jefferson, and Jefferson’s reply are available from Founders Online.