Comments and recollections of William Morris Hunt II '36
In 1895, the English Department constructed in Sanders the first Elizabethan stage in The United States. The set, which was based on original plans for London's Fortune Theatre, was first used for a production of Ben Johnson's The Silent Women. The forward projected stage was surrounded by audience on three sides, imaginative staging alternatives to the traditional proscenium stages of the day.
In 1908 Maude Adams, for whom James Barrie created the role of Peter Pan, performed on Sanders' Elizabethan stage the role of Viola in Twelfth Night. In 1916, Sir Johnston Forbes Robinson, the great Shakespearan actor, chose Sanders for his farewell performance of Hamlet.
After the Second World War, Jerome Kilty and Albert Marre, who brought national attention to productions at the Brattle Theatre, staged acclaimed productions of Henry IV and St. Joan at Sanders.
During the 1950's, The Poet's Theatre presented many of the most illustrious English-speaking poets and authors, including Dylan Thomas, who gave his first public reading of Under Milkwood at Sanders. Robert Penn Warren was sitting in the front row of the theatre to witness the first staged reading of his new play, Brothers to Dragons.
In 1956, with the support of Archibald Macleish, Elliot Richardson, Mark DeWolfe Howe and Professor Harry Levin, The Cambridge Drama Festival presented three highly acclaimed productions: Henry V, directed by Douglas Seale of London's Old Vic; The Beggar's Opera with Shirley Jones; and Saint Joan starring the Irish actress Siobhan McKenna whose performance was proclaimed by Elliot Norton to be the finest portrayal of the role in memory. St. Joan moved to Broadway and Siobhan McKenna commanded the covers of Time, Saturday Review and Theatre Arts in one month.
The Cambridge Drama festival also presented, in Sanders, Sir John Gielgud after not having appeared in the United States for eight years; the introduction of Marcel Marceau to American audiences; Treateau De Paris; and Piccolo Teatro Milano with the great clown, Moretti.
William Morris Hunt II '36 was a member of the Harvard Dramatic Club and the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, a founding member of the Poets Theatre, and the founder of Cambridge Drama Festival and The Elliot Norton Awards.
comments by Elliot Forbes '40
The completion of Sanders theatre afforded a welcome expansion of concert space. Although the theatre had not been designed for music making, at the 1876 Commencement, the acoustics were judged well suited. And so, a concert was planned. A logical choice was the Theodore Thomas Orchestra. In the seventies its tours exerted telling influences. The first subscription concert at Sanders occurred on November 21, starting with Beethoven's Conservation of the House Overture and ending with his Symphony No. 7. The program marked the premiere of Overture to As You Like It by John Knowles Paine, Harvard's first professor of music.
An illustrious event cemented the Music Department's name with Sanders Theatre. In the Fall of 1880 a group of students decided to emulate Oxford by producing a Greek Play in the original language. Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus was chosen and Paine was asked to provide incidental music. In May 1881 four performances were given. John Sullivan Dwight recorded in his Journal: "We really do not think it rash to express our feeling that in it we have witnessed the most complete and thoroughly artistic presentation of a work of pure, high Art, that this part of the world has ever yet achieved out of its own resources." He cited the beauty of the theatre and the appropriateness of its "memorial hall of tablets." For orchestra and seventy-five voices, John Knowles Paine, composed an overture, six choruses and a postlude, "every number of which was received with enthusiasm." The audience included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Julia Ward Howe, Charles Eliot Norton, and Alexander Agassiz.
For the season 1879-80, Paine organized a series of classical concerts. With the formation of the Boston Symphony orchestra in 1881, its founder, Henry Lee Higginson '63, saw to it that the new orchestra would continue the Harvard tradition by endowing six annual concerts in Cambridge (later expanded to ten).
Due to the size of the stage and to the unheated hallway which the players had to cross to reach the stage, this tradition was broken in the 1960's when the orchestra, under Erich Leinsdorf, found a loop-hole in Major Higginson's provision and withdrew to establish the "Cambridge Series" at Symphony Hall.
With the development of student performing groups, both choral and instrumental after the First World War, the undergraduates made increasing use of the Theatre for concerts. And when Alumni Hall no longer served as a dining space, it became, perhaps, America's largest "green room."
In 1939, there was one particularly noteworthy production, sponsored by the Harvard Student Union, the presentation of Marc Blitzstein's "opera" The Cradle Will Rock under the direction of Leonard Bernstein '39 and Arthur Szathmary 2G. With subdued lighting and the guiding force of Bernstein, playing from memory at an upright piano on stage, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, the whole score was brought to life.
Elliot Forbes '40, A.M. '47 is Fanny Peabody Professor of Music, Emeritus and the author of the book The History of Music at Harvard.