The History of the Yale Dramatic Association, 1900-1980s

As compiled by Gerasimos Tsourapas, Dramat Archivist, April 2004.

Yale graduates clearly have reason to be proud of their tradition in the theater. As Lloyd Richards has noted, “We are the heirs of all who have preceded us. The great men and women of the theater constitute a single family tree that makes possible our individual and collective flowering… Those of us connected to Yale can claim not only the long legacy of world theater, but also an institutional legacy all our own. We can state with a great deal of pride that on that great family tree of the theater one branch blossoms blue. A very rare and special species!”. … As Cole would put it, “You’re the top!”

Michael Cadden ‘71, DRAMA ‘76
Former Chair, Lewis Center for the Arts, Princeton University

The ten Congregational ministers who founded Yale University would not be delighted to discover the important role their school has played in the history of the American theater. As the descendants of the Puritans who had closed down London’s theaters in 1642, the elders held fast to the conviction that men and women should play only that role assigned to them by God. The laws of the Connecticut colony prohibited stage performances and, in 1754, the faculty made explicit its own feelings on the matter: “No scholar is allowed to act any Comedies or Tragedies or any other plays or to be present at the acting of them.” At least some Yale students seem to have been of a different mind. Plays were staged both before and after the faculty ban and many fledgling actors were punished for their heretical behavior. Israel Stoddard, a fourteen-year-old thespian, was denounced at chapel and sent to the bottom of his class for having compounded the sin of acting by appearing “in Women’s Apparel, which is contrary to the laws of God, the laws of this Colony as well as the laws of this College.” Israel was back at it the following year — and once again was publicly admonished. It took some time before Yale was ready to accept theater as an integral part of the liberal arts curriculum.

Various literary societies founded at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries brought drama to the extracurricular life of many undergraduates; the Linonians and the Brothers in Unity distinguished themselves with their productions of contemporary British favorites and original materials by their members. But the University continued in its official disapproval. As President Timothy Dwight explained to the class of 1814, “There is sometimes truth to be found in drama, but seldom any and never much”. For Dwight, Christianity and the stage were mortal enemies. The anti-theatrical climate in New Haven brightened a bit as the societies and fraternities of the mid to late nineteenth century sought ways to enliven the social lives of their members. But it was not until the rise of the academic study of dramatic literature at the end of the century that Yale students began to think of the theater as more than a dissipated diversion.

Although many figures contributed to what Yale historian George Pierson has termed Yale’s “Literary Renaissance”, it was a young assistant professor who played the largest part in the development of the Dramat. William Lyon Phelps, a graduate of the class of 1887, used personal charms and intellectual authority to overcome faculty and administration distrust of theater. As Pierson notes, “Phelps was youth, novelty, enthusiasm, and personality personified. He taught almost unheard-of subjects—novels, drama, American literature—in equally unheard of ways.” In 1894, Phelps taught a course in Elizabethan drama; the following year, he tried to bring an example of the genre, a New York production of Ben Johnson’s Epicoene, to the campus. The faculty vetoed the performance, but Phelps continued to press for quality productions of classic dramatic literature. In 1898, he advised the fraternity brothers of Zeta Psi on their own Epicoene and lent support to a graduate school production of Beaumont and Fletcher’s Knight of the Burning Pestle. With English replacing classics as the most popular humanistic discipline, increasing attention was given to the value of knowing plays in performance. But without an organization dedicated exclusively to the purpose, students were at the mercy of impromptu ventures of uneven merit.

In the Fall of 1899, Henry D. Wescott of the Class of 1901 sought to change all that. He met with Phelps to enlist his aid in the creation of a university dramatic association. While Wescott attempted to generate enthusiasm for a college-wide theater club, Phelps worked to overturn the rules against public performance and to win over his colleagues and the community leaders of New Haven. On February 2, 1900, Wescott called the first meeting of the Yale Dramatic Association to order. In a statement of purpose published in the Yale Daily News a few days later, the newly-formed Dramatic Committee revealed its high seriousness: “If college stands for one thing more than another, it stands for a protest against so called Philistinism. If men come to college with any true purpose, a part of that purpose must be to improve their appreciation of fine things in literature and widen their capacity of pleasure. Here, then, is a chance to assist in our own education, to get pleasure of a genuine sort, and to reflect credit on our alma matter.” These ideals have continued to motivate Dramat members for over a hundred years.

For its premiere production, the new organization chose The Second Shepherd’s Play, the medieval English comedy that offers both sacred and profane variation on the birth of Christ: the religious could take comfort in the play’s theological interests; the secular could delight in the naughty pranks of the protagonist. All in all, a good choice to allay the fears of those distrustful of the theater. As if to reinforce the high moral tone of the inaugural performance, the Dramat Executive Committee added Wescott’s own adaptation of Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale. Frank Lea Short, a New York theatrical figure, was hired to direct; Phelps and Professor Albert Cook served as literary advisors. Although both plays called for small casts, an “audience-within-the-play”— some one hundred extras—was placed on stage as well; no doubt someone realized the importance of getting as many people involved in the new venture as possible. On May 13, 1900, the first production of the Yale Dramatic Association opened to the universal applause of town and gown.

In the years that followed, the Dramat persevered in its commitment to the classics of the English stage. Heywood’s The Fair Maid of the West, Sheridan’s The Critic, Goldsmith’s The Good Natured Man and Shakespeare’s King Henry IV, Part One and The Merry Wives of Windsor were among the plays staged in the Dramat’s first decade. But the undergraduates did not content themselves solely with revivals of historical interest. Under Phelp’s direction, they also explored the works of more contemporary dramatists. Productions of Ibsen’s The Pretenders, Pinero’s The Amazons, Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and Shaw’s The Devil’s Desciple put students in contact with some of the masters of modern stage and overcame any inclinations to think about the theater as a museum. In the classroom and on the stage, Yale committed itself to the visions of a living theater—a continuing tradition to which even undergraduates could make a vital contribution.

One contribution that the Yale men could make to ensure the continuing life of the theater was to don a dress. As Dramat historian Terri Jones had noted, “In the first decades of the twentieth century, the mainstays of most Yale productions were the boys who could look like girls”. The Dramat spared no expense in acquiring wigs and costumes that might transform male undergraduates into charming ingénues. Future Yale chaplain T. Lawrason Riggs wowed audiences in The Pretenders and won a place for himself as one of the Dramat’s most talented leading ladies. In 1908, he amused all with his characterization of Wilde’s Miss Prism—in a production that featured E.M. “Monty” Wooley, then in his freshman year, as Lady Bracknell. But the star of Earnest was Arthur Mowry Hartwell, the most praised of Yale’s female impersonators; as one critic commented, “Shakespeare himself would have been grateful for so comely a leading woman”. Needless to say, many worried about the effects of wearing petticoats on the character of even the most upright Yale man; in 1915, the Dean of College forbade students to assume female roles for more than one season. But only a change in women’s fashions banished these elegant charmers from the stage.

One of the most successful of the Dramat’s actor/actresses was none other than Cole Porter himself. His 1911 song, “The Queen of the Yale Dramat”, celebrated the histrionic talents that led a New Haven Journal-Courier reporter to lament that “the tragedy of life is that no woman is as beautiful as a Yale man impersonating femininity”. But it was not as a performer that Cole was to make his mark. It was as president of the Yale Glee Club, a member of the Whiffenpoofs and the composer of six undergraduate musical shows (two for his fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon, and four for the Dramat) that Cole was a big man on campus. As Brendan Gill has noted, “He was friendly enough with the Stovers to win their admiration with a couple of football songs—Bingo Eli Yale and Bull Dog” despite the fact that his best friends were Monty Woolley and Len Hanna, “notable specimens of what were thought of euphemistically in those days as perennial bachelors.” As a friend of Woolley and a student of Phelps, it was only natural that Cole find a place for himself in the ranks of the Dramat.

Cole wrote three of his Dramat shows for the annual smoker-college burlesques for members and their guests. The first, And Still The Villain Pursued Her (1912), satirized the characters and plots of conventional melodrama and featured Woolley as a bastardly demon of destruction.

Audiences in the New Haven Lawn Club and the Yale Club of New Haven demanded an encore and the following year Cole obliged with The Kaleidoscope, a comic look at various aspects of college life. Among the show’s targets were prom girls, absinthe-lovers, and that perennial scapegoat of sophisticated upperclassmen, the sophomore:

A Sophomore is a creature full of
concentrated gloom,
Who flitters through your window on a
vacuum-cleaning broom,
And forces you to swear you’ll not
get up and leave the room.

The 1914 smoker, Paranoia, or Chester of the Yale Dramatic Association was written in collaboration with T. Lawrason Riggs during Porter’s year at the Harvard Law School and included “I’ve a Shooting Box in Scotland”, the first Porter song to have a commercial recording. Cole’s last Dramat show, We’re All Dressed Up And Don’t Know Huerto Go, was performed for the Associated Western Yale Clubs at their 1914 meeting in Cincinnati. With Woolley established as the “coach” of the Dramat, Porter kept in contact with Dramat activities—providing songs for Wooley’s 1925 production Out o’ Luck, for example—but a wider world beckoned. In true Dramat fashion, Cole continued to reflect credit on his alma matter; the urbanity, wit and charm Porter developed at Yale eventually won him the respect and affection of theater goers anywhere.

The Dramat flourished even without Cole. From 1913 to 1916, Woolley directed its activities. His 1916 production of Troilus and Cressida, performed in a broadly satirical style, is thought to be the American premiere of that play; the war in Europe might well have prompted interested in Shakespeare’s bleak vision of the horrors of the Trojan War. While Wooley himself was serving in Europe, a group of students including Thornton Wilder, Steven Vincent Benet and Philip Barry handled matters as best as they could; but, as George Pierson comments, the period from 1917 to 11922 was characterized by “ill-advised experiments”. In 1922, however, Wooley returned to Yale to direct Shaw’s Ceasar and Cleopatra and was immediately proclaimed the financial and artistic savior for the Dramat. While he continued to display his showmanship with successful productions of King Lear and Aristophanes’ The Frogs, Wooley’s friends tried to get him an academic appointment in the English department. Although a group of alumni guaranteed his salary of a three year period, the Corporation refused to grant Wooley the position he desired; eventually, they named him Director of Dramatic Production in the Art School, with the rank of lecturer.

Monty Wooley was always a hard act to follow and the Dramat had some difficulty in finding a suitable coach to replace him. But in the spring of 1929, they found their man. In a major attempt to foster a cooperative relationship between the Dramat and the newly-founded Department of Drama, the Dramat elected to hire Alexander Dean, a faculty member of the Department of Drama, to direct an evening of one-acts and the Commencement Show.

Dean’s first full-length show, Captain Brassbound’s Conversion, put the Dramat in the black for the first time in two years and proved successful enough to revive the following fall. Productions of The Miser and Julius Ceasar (with T. Edward Hambleton in leading female roles) won considerable praise for the students’ ability to handle classical style. But it was the world premiere of four one-act plays by Thornton Wilder that marked the high point of Dean’s tenure. In November of 1931, the Dramat presented the first productions of The Long Christmas Dinner, The Happy Journey to Trenton of Camden, Such Things Only Happen In Books and Love and How to Cure It. Because Wilder intended to invite producers from New York up to see the show in hope of a commercial production, he requested that the Dramat break with its tradition of using men to play the female roles. Instead, the Dramat collaborated with the Philalethesis Society of Vassar. Dean commuted between Poughkeepsie and New Haven, conducting separate rehearsals for the actors and actresses; only in the final stages of the production process did they work together in the University Theater.

Two years later, with the Dramat now under the direction of Halsted Weeles, yet another Drama Department junior faculty member, the Vassar-Yale experiment was repeated in a collaboration on Molnar’s The Swan. Welles had made his Dramat debut earlier in 1933 with a romantic rendition of Much Ado About Nothing (with Hambleton as Hero and Stewart Alsop as Claudio) and he ended his first season with yet another Shakespearian comedy—Two Genltemen of Verona with Lanny Ross (the Maxwell House Coffee Hour star) as the “Who is Silvia?” songster and Handsome Dan (Yale’s bulldog mascot) as Launce’s dog. Needless to say, the raves went to the dog. But it was Welles’ production of Mikhail Bulgakov’s In The Days of the Turbins that generated most excitement on campus. Hundreds of male extras sang a soldiers’ chorus in Russian while staring admiringly at Blanche Yurka—the only woman in the production. Miss Yurka had played Gertrude to Barrymore’s Hamlet and Nurse to Katherine Cornell’s Juliet; in New Haven, she played Cleopatra to scores of would-be Antonys. The following season brought an adaptation of Around the World in Eighty Days (with Dillon Ripley as Phileas Fogg), Sidney Howard’s The Yellow Jack and Euripides’ Hippolytus, with Selena Royale as Phaedra. Clearly, the Dramat of the thirties enjoyed an extraordinary flowering.

The late thirties and early forties brought the rise of the Dramat musical, as Yale men by the dozens sought to emulate the success Cole Porter was having in New York. The 1936 college drama And For Yale proved so popular that it was revived three times—twice in the next year and a final time in October of 1945 as the first postwar production. (Among its many charms was an onstage recreation of the Yale-Harvard crew race of 1905!) Another repeater was 1066 And All That, a revue of British history that went on to have some of its music published. Here We Go Again (1939) kept the ball rolling and Too Many Boys (1940) won an ASCAP fellowship for college musicals. This last show was under the supervision of Burt Shevelove, as were many at the time. Shevelove directed two plays by his beloved Christopher Marlowe—Massacre at Paris (with George Roy Hill and Basil Henning singing—on separate evenings—”The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” as intermission entertainment) and The Jew of Malta (an interesting choice for 1940). In November of 1941, Sheevlove did the first of his two Frogs productions in and around the Exhibition pool at the Payne Whitney gym. The Waterbury Tales (1941), considered the best of the student musicals, featured pilgrim undergraduates swapping stories on the way to a debutante ball. The Dramat had planned a Christmas tour of this show before the war broke out and, despite some misgiving, the administration allowed them to perform; a note from Dean DeVane was added to the program, however, to forestall criticism: “The Waterbury Tales were put together in a quieter time, and in a time when youth in high gay spirits could better afford to laugh at the world than it does now. Most of the actors of the play will soon be engaged in more serious business on land and sea, and in the air. They will acquit themselves well; and I hope they will carry over into their duties some of the ingenuity, cheerfulness, even some of the gaiety which they have exercised so abundantly in the making and acting of their play.” In the following year, when Shevelove presented When In Rome, a musical based on a Roman comedy (and the forerunner of Shevelove’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), the administration was shocked by its licentiousness and ordered the Dramat to fire Shevelove. Evidently many felt it was no time for escapism. The final Dramat production before it was closed for the duration was Henry IV-Part I, no doubt with an emphasis on the licentious wickedness of Falstaff.

The postwar Dramat picked up where it had let off. Alumni gave generously to support a revival of the ever popular And for Yale and by 1946, the operation was back in full swing. Musicals, comedies and musical comedies dominated the scene as people tried to put the war behind them. Robert Costello continued the tradition of the student musical revue with Stanley Fink’s In The Clover (1947). Productions of Fashion, Room Service, You Can’t Take It With You, Harvey and Kiss The Boys Goodbye (with Elaine Stritch) helped the campus to forget the austerities of the war years. But the Dramat did not entirely give up on more serious fare; coach Atwood Levensaler encouraged a return to plays of “serious worth” when he directed the world premiere of Thomas Wolfe’s Mannerhouse in 1949. Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and Shakespeare’s Richard II (the last two with Bradford Dillman) also received production. It was Leo Lavandero, however, who brought a literary Renaissance to the Dramat. A recent graduate of the Drama Department, Lavandero both taught in the Department (Dramat 10, with Frank McMullan) and served as Dramat coach. Although he by no means discouraged original musicals, Lavandero’s tasted led him to the plays of Aristophanes. Shakespeare, Moliere, Shaw, Pirandello and Anouilh—and he took the Dramat with him.

Nikos Psacharopoulos became the Dramat director in 1956 and served until 1958. Like his predecessors, he was deeply committed to serious theater and his repertory was wide-ranging. He persuaded Curtis Canfield, the Dean of the Drama School and his old teacher, to direct Fry’s The Lady Not For Burning while he himself was busy with a Drama School show. Under Psacharopoulos, the Dramat produced two plays by Arthur Miller—the world premiere of the two act version of A View From the Bridge and The Crucible (with Rex Robbins as John Proctor, Carrie Nye as Abigail and Dick Cavett as Reverend Hale!). The musical tradition lived on in Richard Maltby and David Shire’s Cyrano (1958) and Grand Tour (1959), and helped to forge a professional relationship that has brought much toe-tapping joy to the American theater. Psacharopoulos was followed by William Francisco who served as the Dramat director until 1960. It was during his tenure that the Dramat got a sense of absurdism in the 1960 production of Waiting For Godot (with Sam Waterston and Austin Pendleton).

The avant-garde Dramat continued under the direction of Leland Starnes—the man students of the sixties considered the soul of the organization. As Terri Jones has noted, “Seasons under Starnes varied, but the pattern called for a spectacle in the spring—usually either musical or Shakespearian—and a classic and a modern classic in the fall and winter”. Most impressive was Starnes’ effort to stage experimental works of the twentieth century—Ghelderode’s The Death of Doctor Faust, Sartre’s Men Without Shadows, the American premiere of Breaking Point, and the English language premiere of Ionesco’s Hunger and Thirst.

When Starnes left Yale in 1968—under fire from students for not being experimental enough—the Dramat lost one their great coaches. For the two decades after the war, the Dramat had provided their audiences with a veritable smorgasbord of theatrical fare. Its inspired and inspiring directors used the organization to put students in touch with classical and contemporary works of true merit—and coincidentally produced some of the Dramat’s most famous alumni.

In the years that followed, the Dramat changed its course, attempting to rediscover its particular genius—and its audience. According to Terri Jones, “in response to both the new modernism in the Drama School and the intellectual tenor of the times, the Dramat tried simply to be more radical than its competitors”. A partial list of the new productions of the ear confirms that: Behan’s The Hostage (with Perry King), Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, Genet’s The Balcony, Arden’s Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance, Cumming’s Him, Littlewood’s Oh What A Lovely War. Although popular shows like A Funny Thing Happened… and Rosencrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead popped up now and again (often with Peter Evans in a leading role), the Dramat’s emphasis was on the politically and/or aesthetically difficult. To complicate matters, the 1970-71 Dramat Board abolished the tradition of resident director; from then on, directors would be hired for each production.

The mid-seventies saw a rise of classic comedies (Misalliance, As You Like It), Broadway musicals (Little Mary Sunshine, and the critically acclaimed 1974 production of Anything Goes) and recent New York hits (Little Murders, The Hotel Baltimore). There was a market for what the School and the Repertory Theater were not providing the local audience—a theater that aspired first and foremost to entertain. It was a radical concept but a legitimate one nonetheless. The Dramat had found a way to regain its footing and its sense of mission.

The eighties brought to the Dramat a renewed sense of vigor and enthusiasm. With the financial problems that had occurred during the seventies now under control, shrewd programming allowed for a theatrical unsurpassed in its long history. The Dramat continued its commitment to the American musical in its productions of Guys and Dolls, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Fiddler on the Roof and West Side Story. The proceeds of those shows went to underwrite an admirable mix of student-written works, classics and contemporary experimental plays. In the Image of Kings, for example, was written and directed by Tina Landau, a member of the Class of 1984, and displayed theatricality, wit and vision in its original treatment of lunatic monarchy. The Dramat also returned to the masterpieces of modernism with productions of Miss Julie, The Cherry Orchardand The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The Dramat of the eighties had ceased to define itself in reaction to the School of Drama and the Repertory Theater and, as a consequence, had already begun to make its own unique contribution to the history of theater at Yale.