Saturday, December 12, 2009

This Day in Literary History (Thomas Wolfe Acts in Own Play)

December 12, 1919—A strapping young giant from the mountains of North Carolina, Thomas Wolfe, drunk enough on words that he was already editor-in-chief of his student newspaper, The Tar Heel, now turned his hand to something that few readers of his later nakedly autobiographical novels could imagine: not just playwriting but acting in his own production, The Third Night, with the Carolina Playmakers.

If you think of another literary genre for Wolfe besides the novel, I’ll bet that the first that comes to mind is poetry, right? He always aimed for the lyrical in his work, after all.

But when he set his sights beyond his mother’s boarding house in Asheville, Wolfe intended to be a playwright. He devoted his undergraduate years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and graduate school at Harvard before switching his energies to the novel.

At Chapel Hill, Wolfe studied under Professor Frederick Koch. As described by Wolfe biographer Andrew Turnbull (taking his cue from the novelist, who later thinly fictionalized him as “Professor Hutch” in Look Homeward, Angel), Koch was “long on encouragement and short on criticism.”

Koch (nicknamed “Proff” with two f’s) is considered one of the founders of folk drama in America, a kind of theater that looks to native American traditions rather than European genres. He founded the Carolina Playmakers, a group that over the years spawned such later literary or entertainment figures as playwright Paul Green, Andy Griffith, band leader Kay Kyser, Damn Yankees composer Richard Adler, and novelist Betty Smith (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn).

The Third Night was the second of Wolfe’s plays staged by the Playmakers. Morton I. Teicher’s Looking Homeward: A Thomas Wolfe Photo Album contains pictures from both of these productions. I haven’t been able to come across a description of the plot of The Third Night, but its subtitle, “A Play of the Carolina Mountains,” shows that it was fully in keeping with Professor Koch’s aim for the course. The picture of Wolfe in Teicher’s book from this show is pretty amusing, as the future novelist sports a Snidely Whiplash mustache.

Wolfe must have been a real handful for the UNC faculty. For a class he took with one professor, he submitted an essay on toilet paper, claiming that was all he had on hand. As Wolfe read the paper aloud, his English teacher, Professor Edwin Greenlaw, stopped him, remarking that the essay was indeed written on the right kind of paper.

Koch evidently was more patient, encouraging Wolfe to go on to Harvard and take the famous “47 Workshop” taught by Professor George Pierce Baker. The latter, who had earlier taught Eugene O’Neill and whose more recent prize pupil had been Philip Barry (later most famous for writing the Katharine Hepburn vehicle, The Philadelphia Story), tried to be helpful but ended up continually butting heads with the talented but socially awkward and argumentative young Southerner.

The unsuccessful production of a play that Wolfe submitted to the Theatre Guild, Welcome to Our City, ended his hopes of making a living from the stage. After that he turned to teaching for a few years, then, after Look Homeward, Angel, to fiction.

Nineteen years after their exhilarating work with the raw but exuberant aspiring writer, Professor Koch and a fellow actor in The Third Night, Jonathan Daniels, served as pallbearers at Wolfe’s funeral at First Presbyterian Church in Asheville.

1 comment:

Ken Houghton said...

Now I'm having flashbacks to Tubridy, Prince of Features.