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.

MS Thr 967

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!

MS Thr 894

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).

MS Thr 153.1

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.

President’s Day Roundup

TS 2026.30

In honor of Washington’s Birthday (Feb. 22) and the federal holiday we have come to celebrate as President’s Day, check out a few of our recent presidential pieces:

Philosophaster: A 400th Anniversary

Ms Thr 10

It is rare that we can mark a significant anniversary for a production in such style! The earliest manuscript play in the Harvard Theatre Collection is Philosophaster, an academic comedy by Robert Burton that was performed for the first and likely only time in the Hall of Christ Church, Oxford, on February 16, 1617. Almost everything we know of the play is derived from three manuscripts, two of which are held by Houghton Library. The most significant of these, cataloged as Ms Thr 10, is the volume pictured at left, which scholars with much more expertise in paleography than I believe is written in Burton’s hand. Another manuscript version of the play (MS. V.a.315) is held by the Folger Library, and it is presumed to haven been copied from the Harvard manuscript (or from another now lost source). The third extant contemporary source, Ms Thr 10.1, is a manuscript book by Thomas Goffe, which contains sides for four plays that he acted in as a student at Oxford. It includes lines for the role of Polupragmaticus (The Busybody) in Philosophaster. There are some differences between the 250 lines in Goffe’s playbook and the extant play manuscripts, although this is hardly surprising insomuch as the two manuscript versions refer to the success of the performance and were composed after the fact. As we presume that this is Goffe’s prompt copy for the actual performance, it simply suggests that Burton refined the play as he wrote it in Ms Thr 10.

Philosophaster was part of the flowering of so-called academic or Latin drama that began in the mid-sixteenth century and ended with the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642. It is perhaps needless to say that this aspect of English theatrical history has received far less attention than the vernacular drama of the time (Shakespeare, Jonson, etc.). The academic moniker derives from the fact that these plays were largely written by scholars for audiences at English universities while the Latin descriptor explains itself.

STC 4163 (B)

Robert Burton (1577-1640) was a prototypical Renaissance scholar, now best remembered for The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), a sprawling and learned work that was a survey of sorts of human emotions with an emphasis upon the dynamics of what we would now describe as depression. This engraving of Burton is taken from the spectacular frontispiece to the 1638 edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy, one of many that was printed during his lifetime as he continuously revised and expanded his work. Beyond his wide-ranging scholarship, Burton worked as a vicar and a librarian and he ultimately spent the entirety of his career at Christ Church, a constituent college of the University of Oxford.

In The Anatomy of Melancholy, Burton defined philosophasters as “those licensed in the arts who have no art, those judged wise who have no wisdom and have no qualifications for a degree except desire.” (This translation of the original passage in Latin and all that follow are taken from Connie McQuillen’s 1993 edition of the play.) As the title page of the manuscript suggests, the play was first drafted in 1605, which was the year that Burton was awarded his MA. Philosophaster is thus a satire of seventeenth-century education that was written by a somewhat disgruntled graduate student and revised in 1615 by a scholar still struggling to make a name for himself and secure patronage.

click to enlarge

The plot centers on seven scholars who take over a university recently established by a local duke, where they outrageously abuse the students and townsmen until their duplicities are revealed by two wandering scholars. The seven philosophasters are stock characters that represent assorted academic disciplines, including a pedantic literary scholar, a sophist, a poetaster, and a mathematician. The two righteous scholars, Polumathes (All Learning) and Philobiblos (Lover of Books), advise the duke to hideously brand and cast out the philosophasters, and the play ends with an affirmation of the reformed university. Much of the humor of the play derives from the cynical banter between the seven spurious scholars. When one suggests that they need to leave for another university, the dialogue proceeds:

Pantomagus: As if the quick-witted would not be there also?

Simon Actus: Where then?

Polupragamticus: Freiburg in Breisgau or Copenhagen in Denmark, Prague in Bohemia, or Oxford in England.

Lodovicus Pantometer: I warn you to be careful if you’re considering England. Don’t go there without a wolf, fox, or bear.

Polupragamticus: Why is that?

Lodovicus Pantometer: Because of the many mastiffs there.

Polupragamticus: But why should I take along a bear or wolf?

Pantomagus: So the mastiffs can chase one of them and leave you alone.

Polupragamticus: You’re being silly. Do you want to visit an Italian school?

Simon Actus: No.

Polupragamticus: Why?

Simon Actus: Because the women there are more learned than we.

Polupragamticus: Why is that?

Simon Actus: Because they frequently sleep with monks and theologians who sprinkle them with dew and inspire a certain spirit.

The passage above as it appears in Burton’s manuscript.

The humor is both rather silly and intensively allusive, referring to a 15th-century dialogue by Giovanni Pontano (1426-1503) whose work would have been well-known to its academic audience. The overall tone and the prominent role that students played in the production suggests that Philosophaster was something akin to an early version of the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, which similarly burlesque academic mores and university life. Burton’s manuscript is a rather remarkable survival, one that offers a window into the theatrical and academic world of the early seventeenth century. Even more exceptional is the fact that it was only ever performed once…on this evening four hundred years ago.

A short bibliography of Philosophaster appears below the fold. See also an earlier post on the Houghton Library blog by one of our student interns for additional information.

Continue reading “Philosophaster: A 400th Anniversary”

Underground Boston Theatergoing

On PBS tonight, the American Experience series will be featuring a new documentary that chronicles how Boston became the first city in the United States to construct a subway system. The first chapter of The Race Underground can be viewed here:

It is always striking to see how much opposition infrastructure projects like this engender, particularly when balanced against how important they are to our modern lives. We must confess to being mass-transit boosters, but has anybody really wished there were less convenient transportation options? In any case, the documentary describes how traffic congestion led to the construction of the Tremont Street Subway, which eventually became the Green Line. Construction began in the spring of 1895 and the first sections opened on September 1, 1897.

Boston Globe (November 27, 1898)

For the theatergoers of Boston, the new subway was particularly noticeable insomuch that it alleviated nightly traffic problems by removing streetcars from Termont and Boylston Streets and curtailing the crush of carriages that crowded downtown when the shows let out. Unfortunately, the subway proved so popular that the theater crowds were soon facing what the Boston Globe described as an “underground crush” in the subway. This entertaining article noted that the station just after the theaters let out was “a great time and place to observe people actuated by their more primitive impulses and instincts; for there, possessed solely by the desire of getting home as quickly as possible…men and women in rich and immaculate attire struggle and push with the meanest raiment, and almost every face is an index to an anxious, disappointed or angry state of mind.” And so, as it goes, solving one problem created several new ones.

Happy 75th Anniversary!

As noted in a post by Peter Accardo on our main blog, Houghton Library first opened its doors on January 3, 1942 to allow Harvard library staff to preview their new building. At the dedication ceremony the following month, benefactor Arthur Amory Houghton, Jr. expressed the hope that the library would be “fuel for the fire of learning.” Houghton Library has certainly worked hard to fulfill this charge, and this year we are celebrating our 75th anniversary with a whole host of programs and events. Information about all that’s happening can be found at our new Houghton 75th website. Our main exhibition at the moment features materials selected by Harvard faculty, which include John Keats’ copy of Shakespeare, ephemera relating to Bert Williams, and the famed Cranach Press edition of Hamlet.

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

Sir–

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.

Harvard Theatre Collection Fellowships, 2017-18

MS Thr 1337

A quick reminder that the due date for Houghton Library’s 2017-18 Visiting Fellowships is January 13, 2017. All of the details about the application process can be found through the link above, but note that preference is given to scholars whose research is closely based on materials in Houghton Library, especially when those materials are unique. The best guide to locating materials in the Harvard Theatre Collection is here. This year we will be awarding the following fellowships:

  • Beatrice, Benjamin, and Richard Bader Fellowship in the Visual Arts of the Theatre
  • Howard D. Rothschild Fellowship in Dance
  • Robert Gould Shaw Fellowship for the Harvard Theatre Collection
  • John M. Ward Fellowship in Dance and Music for the Theatre

Applicants need not apply for specific fellowships, as the Selection Committee will determine which fellowship is best suited to your research when awarded. Please also be sure to consult the full list of Houghton Library fellowships, as it includes additional ones such as the Katharine F. Pantzer Jr. Fellowship in Descriptive Bibliography, which might be applied to Theatre Collection projects. A list of past fellowship recipients can be found here.

The Diaries of Harry Watkins

TCS 18

Harry Watkins (1825-1894) was an actor and playwright who had long, if rather mediocre, career in the American theater. Indeed, his most notable legacy was neither a performance or a play, but a series of lively diaries he kept from 1845 to 1860 that offer a window into the mid-nineteenth century entertainment business. After Watkins passed, the thirteen volumes of diaries were kept by his daughter for a number of years, but when she fell are hard times, they were given to Maud Durbin Skinner. Her husband Otis Skinner was a celebrated actor and their daughter Cornelia Otis Skinner was a popular actress and author. Maud and Otis subsequently edited and published an abridged edition of the diaries as One Man in His Time (1938).

At length the Skinner Family papers, including Watkins’ journals, were given to the Harvard Theatre Collection. In 2012, Amy E. Hughes and Naomi Stubbs initiated a project to digitize, transcribe, and publish all 1200 pages of the diaries.

MS Thr 857

The digital images of the full run of the diaries can be found here, but a more useful (and word searchable!) full digital edition and one-volume print edition should be available by the end of the next year. In the meantime, the project is running a delightful Twitter feed as Harry Watkins, offering up daily excerpts from his diary exactly 171 years after he wrote it. Some of our favorites thus far: