Tuesday, January 6, 2015

This Day in Theater History (George Pierce Baker, Teacher of US Drama Giants, Dies)

Jan. 6, 1935— George Pierce Baker, an academic who influenced more than a generation of notable American playwrights—including Nobel, Pulitzer and Oscar winners—through innovative theater courses at Harvard and Yale, died in New York City at age 66.

I alluded briefly to Baker in a prior post on the unsuccessful playwriting experiences of student Thomas Wolfe, who caricatured him as “Professor Hatcher” in his 1935 novel Of Time and the River. But I have felt that the professor deserved a more extensive treatment that did justice to his career—and made his name known to people who had no idea he existed.

Before Baker arrived, the U.S. theater scene, influenced by Henrik Ibsen, was moving away from melodrama, spectacle and farce and more toward realism, but there were no significant counterparts to Ibsen, Strindberg, Shaw, Synge, and other European giants of the stage. Starting in 1905, however, with the introduction of his famous Workshop 47 course, the likes of Eugene O’Neill, Philip Barry, Sidney Howard, S.N. Behrman and Edward Sheldon began to write in a strongly personal mode while learning the rudiments of practical dramatic construction in his class.

In an introduction to a collection of the plays of Barry, States of Grace, New Yorker critic Brendan Gill noted that students in Workshop 47 “met in cramped quarters in Lower Massachusetts Hall and acted out plays on a makeshift stage in the little Agassiz Theatre at Radcliffe.” The quarters were unprepossessing, but this also meant that the stakes were low.

The advantage that meant to his students was summed up by one, drama critic John Mason Brown, nearly 30 years later: “As a rule, the good plays that Baker's more famous pupils wrote were written long after they had ceased to work with him. They were helped in writing these good plays because of the patience he showed in dealing with the bad ones they had written for him.”

The photo accompanying this post gives a pretty good impression of Baker in class: peering gravely at students from behind his pince-nez. That look, initially, could appear cold. But students soon found what they needed here: a forum where, free to experiment, they could make mistakes and learn, and, throughout the process, encouragement to continue.

Baker’s perception could, in fact, be quite acute. In Barry’s case, he urged the young man to “amuse in such a way that one is thinking about the play afterwards—not exactly in amusement, but thoughtfully and pleasantly.” This, in fact, became the template of the creator of such sparkling but rueful comedies as The Philadelphia Story, The Animal Kingdom and Holiday.

A graduate of Harvard himself, Baker began at his alma mater as a professor of rhetoric. Especially in the first years of Workshop 47 (named for its place in the school’s catalog), many in the university’s administration undoubtedly wish he had stuck with rhetoric, for they remained suspicious of the utility of his playwriting class.

In 1925, after a generation of wearily enduring this placement at Harvard’s periphery--and unable to persuade it to offer a degree (not just a class) in playwriting--Baker took up Yale’s offer to become first chair of its Department of Drama in the School of Fine Arts. There he remained until 1933, when illness forced him to cease teaching.

Howard, who had his first Broadway success a half dozen years after taking Workshop 47—and who would go on to write the Pulitzer Prize-winning play They Knew What They Wanted as well as the screenplay for Gone With The Wind—paid tribute to Baker by observing that “he taught his students truths more valid than technique. He taught them that plays are important and hard to write; that few subjects are worthy of dramatization; that characters must be imagined beneath their words; that art is an obligation, not a Sunday suit."

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