The Black Crook!

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.

Presented by the Harvard Theatre Collection and Theater Dance & Media.

The Owl Answers

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.

Smithsonian Folklife Festival

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!

Library of Congress

William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker

Tonight at 7pm the Harvard Film Archive is hosting the first film in a series celebrating the 75th anniversary of Houghton Library. The films are all connected in one way or another to significant collections housed at the library, in this case the William Gibson papers. Gibson’s The Miracle Worker was a truly remarkable work that went through several iterations, with each version seemingly more successful than that which preceded it. The story centers on how Anne Sullivan, a partially-blind teacher, helped a young Helen Keller to overcome the isolation that had characterized her blind-deaf life and communicate with the outside world. Gibson, inspired by the Sullivan letters that were published in Helen Keller’s classic autobiography about their first months together, initially wrote a treatment meant to accompany a performance by a solo dancer, . When plans for that project evaporated, he shelved the spare text until 1956, when his friend and director Arthur Penn approached him about writing a script for a new television show on CBS called Playhouse 90. At the time, Gibson did not even own a television, but was able to produce what he later described as a “skimpy piece of writing” that was brought to air on February 7, 1956.

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The teleplay, a corrected draft of which appears above, earned Gibson an Emmy nomination, although he lost to another Playhouse 90 production written by Rod Sterling. Nevertheless, the popularity of the piece and his success the following year with Two for the See Saw, Gibson’s first Broadway production, enabled him to revisit the script and secure backing for a proper theatrical run.

As Gibson got to work revising the teleplay for the stage, he was also in contact with Helen Keller. In an 1957 letter to Gibson, she praised his work for the attention that it brought to the American Federation for the Blind. Keller did have some detailed “notes and corrections” on the script that Gibson had sent her, which she included with her letter.

(click to enlarge)

What emerges clearly in these suggestions is her rectitude and an incredible attention to usage and grammar. Helen Keller hated contractions!

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The play opened at the Playhouse Theater on October 19, 1959 with Anne Bancroft as Anne Sullivan and Patty Duke as Helen Keller. It was a smash hit, running for 719 performances and earning Tony Awards for Bancroft, Gibson, and director Arthur Penn. The singular success of the play almost immediately led to a bidding war over the film rights, but Gibson refused all offers in an attempt to retain control over the production of what was clearly a very profitable franchise. Gibson continued to tinker with the story and eventually came to an agreement with United Artists to produce the film, for which he received an unprecedented $150,000. Critically, Gibson was able to ensure that Arthur Penn would direct and the two almost immediately began to battle with the studio over casting. It was their desire to have Bancroft and Duke reprise their Broadway roles, but the studio wanted Elizabeth Taylor to play Sullivan and thought that the now fifteen-year-old Patty Duke was too old to play the young Helen Keller. Gibson and Penn won out in the end, and the film was released in the summer of 1962 to great acclaim. Although neither won, both Gibson and Penn were nominated for Academy Awards. Anne Bancroft won for Best Actress and Patty Duke became the then youngest winner of an Oscar as the Best Supporting Actress.

The success of The Miracle Worker cycle was in many respects remarkable, but to date we do not have a good understanding of how the text evolved from teleplay to stage play to screenplay. As the William Gibson papers have multiple drafts of the various iterations, we hope that this screening might prompt further study of this fascinating and multifaceted work.

Silhouette as Art and Entertainment

In light of tonight’s lecture, we just wanted to take a moment and highlight one of the more interesting silhouettes in the Harvard Theatre Collection. I suppose some might argue that it is not a proper silhouette insomuch that it is drawn rather than cut. Still, it is lovely and rare contemporary image of the great actor David Garrick (1717-1779), one we suspect is based upon a painting by Benjamin van der Gucht in the Royal Collection Trust (an engraving after the painting can be seen here).

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Miniature portraits in this vein became extremely popular in the late eighteenth century and Houghton Library holds hundreds of silhouettes of prominent artists and scholars in its collections. During the nineteenth century, travelling silhouette arts brought the art to the masses, working at fairs, festivals, and other places of leisure. As Mr. Burns will demonstrate this evening, it is a tradition that continues to this day and we hope you will join us for what promises to be an entertaining event.

Hamlet’s Ghost

Hamlet's Ghost Flyer

In the first act of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the ghost of the dead King of Denmark appears to his son, setting off a chain of events that culminates in the play’s notoriously bloody finale. But how would this mysterious figure have been understood in Shakespeare’s world? Professor Stephen Greenblatt’s new HarvardX course, Hamlet’s Ghost, takes learners through an exploration of the Ghost’s uncanny theatrical power and the historical contexts from which it emerged.

The online course is free and open to all, requiring only a short registration process. A prompt at the start of the course asks users to introduce themselves by giving their name, location, and a short statement about why they are interested in the class. The responses thus far paint a fascinating picture of the global community that digital projects like this can help foster.

Part I of the course leads off with a look at Shakespeare’s source material and a discussion of the way directors have staged the appearance of the ghost in Act I of the play. This dramatic print depicts Hamlet’s first encounter with the ghost on the ramparts of Elsinore.

TS 680.12.1, Houghton Library

The print was engraved by Robert Thew after a painting by Henry Fussell at the behest of John Boydell, an enterprising British publisher who promoted a Shakespeare-inspired revival of the visual arts in the late eighteenth century. Perhaps the most enduring legacy of his efforts was the publication in 1803 of a two-volume “elephant” folio of Shakespearean prints created by some of the era’s foremost artists. But we digress. Although we are only just working through Part I, the course is both educational and entertaining. One exercise asks you to imagine how you might direct and stage the ghost for a production of the play. If any other students are in need of ideas, the Harvard Theatre Collection is a great place to look!