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.