A History of Celebrating Shakespeare at Indiana University

Tomorrow is the 400th Anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and many universities, libraries, scholars, and public are joining in the celebration of his life’s work. The Indiana University Archives has an alluring assortment of material that document how Indiana University has celebrated the bard’s work over the last 100 years. From James Whitcomb Riley’s tribute to Shakespeare to a Shakespearean version of Star Wars and the building of The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Indiana University has certainly done its part over the years to honor and preserve the works of Shakespeare.

Shakespearean version of Star Wars written by the Indiana University Department of English, 1984.
Shakespearean version of Star Wars written by the Indiana University Department of English, 1984.

Arguably, the most exciting of the material is a Shakespearean version of Star Wars written in verse by someone in the Department of English at Indiana University. The play was to be performed by students on Shakespeare’s birthday in 1984. Act 1 begins in Luke Skywalker’s spaceship, Luke: “….Darth Vader – that beast – / Will cower from th’ advancing host / When he discerns your forceful visage / Rushing intrepid at the force.” The script is full of wit, and the impeccable verse is impressive. Unfortunately for Leia, she is accused of being unfaithful and is slain by Luke. Han speaks to Leia, “Thy wench, the princess false, is cover’d with / The rude mechanical storm trooper robot. / You’ll have computers for cousins. I die, but thou art a cuckold. (Han dies).” Luke exclaims, “Miserable strumpet!” and kills Leia. Alas, what fools these mortals be.

Letter to President William Lowe Bryan from the American Shakespearean Foundation, thanking Indiana University for their contribution to the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, 1932.
Letter to President Bryan thanking Indiana University for their contribution to the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, 1932.

Under the presidency of William Lowe Bryan, Indiana University contributed funds to the American Shakespeare Foundation to help build the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. The original theatre burnt down in 1926; the new theatre, The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, was built adjacent to the original site and opened in 1932. “In behalf of the American Shakespeare Foundation I have much pleasure in reporting that the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon is now complete and will be formally opened by the Prince of Wales on April 23rd – Shakespeare’s Birthday.” Not only was enough money raised to build the new theatre, there were also “substantial” funds left over from the American Shakespeare Foundation for an endowment.

Hubert Heffner, Professor of Speech, Theatre, and Dramatic Literature at Indiana University (1955-1971), also served as acting director of the University Theatre from 1959-1960 and 1970-1971. Heffner was invited to a prestigious gala weekend for a celebration honoring the 400th Anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth in 1964. The weekend included a visit to the Folger Shakespeare Library and a reception at the White House, hosted by President and Mrs. Johnson. Listed to the left of the letter is, “Mrs. John F. Kennedy, Honorary Chairman.” Professor Heffner taught courses on Shakespeare at Indiana University.  His research and lecture notes are still preserved in his collection and can be accessed at the Indiana University Archives.

100 years ago, Indiana University celebrated 300 years of Shakespeare by performing “A Dramatic Tribute for the Shakespeare Tercentenary Celebration of Indiana University, at Bloomington Indiana,

Letter to Hubert Heffner from the Shakespeare Anniversary Committee, inviting Heffner to a 400th Anniversary gala weekend. April 16, 1964.
Letter to Hubert Heffner from the Shakespeare Anniversary Committee, inviting Heffner to a 400th Anniversary gala weekend. April 16, 1964.

April Twenty Sixth Nineteen Sixteen” written by William Chauncy Langdon. The tribute is a beautifully printed pamphlet, with the first two leaves printed on handmade paper; some of the leaves remain uncut. Included in the celebration are notable Indiana writers: “A Tribute from James Whitcomb Riley will be read by his nephew, Edmund H. Eitel; also Tributes from Meredith Nicholson and George Ade; and a Tribute in behalf of Indiana writers and scholars as a whole will be spoken by Will David Howe.” During the tribute, Marlowe says, “HA! Here he is at last! But hush! Be still! The Indiana poet, Riley sends his word of tribute to our Will!” Riley’s nephew Edmund Eitel rises from his seat in the audience and says, “From James Whitcomb Riley: – ‘By divine miracle most obvious, more vitally than ever in life, Shakespeare lives today!”

A Tribute at Indiana University honoring 300 Years of Shakespeare. April 26, 1916.
A Tribute at Indiana University honoring 300 Years of Shakespeare. April 26, 1916.

Indiana University’s Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance has kept Shakespeare’s works alive and well with their many performances over the years. Macbeth has been among the more popular of Shakespeare’s works, not only for the brilliant plot but also for its length; it is far shorter than his other plays. The Department of Theatre performed Macbeth both in 1965 and this year. If you missed their outstanding performance of Macbeth, fear not! The King Lear project is coming to the Wells-Metz Theatre May 5-8 in honor of the 400th Anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Murray McGibbon is directing the cast who will perform King Lear in original pronunciation, as it would have been spoken during the 17th century.

Whether it is in Bloomington, Indiana, Washington, D.C., or

Indiana University Theatre's production of Macbeth. December, 1965.
Indiana University Theatre’s production of Macbeth. December, 1965.

England, Indiana University has played and still plays an important role in honoring Shakespeare and preserving his works. The University is home to some the greatest works by and about Shakespeare. The Lilly Library has the First Folio along with many other magnificent pieces. The Indiana University Art Museum has beautiful works on paper depicting scenes from Shakespeare’s plays and the famous Henry Fuseli painting of The Tempest. To learn more about how Indiana University has celebrated Shakespeare over the years, visit the Indiana University Archives.

 

“…but then there was a star danced, and under that was I born.” – Beatrice, Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare

The Showboat – or its pieces – docks at the Archives

Sometimes, it’s not such a happy message to departments when they are told it is necessary to clear out a storage area or prepare to move to new space. But — and I’ll try to control my glee here — it is our department that oftentimes benefits. 🙂

Such an instance happened recently when the Department of Theatre and Drama tackled some cleanup. The department is already well-represented in our collection, as we hold records of the department spanning 1925-2007, records of its High School Institute (1959-1973), and the personal papers of some of its prominent faculty such as Lee Norvelle and Hubert Heffner. But there’s usually more lying in wait in some storage room and sure enough, we received 25 additional boxes of production and administrative files along with some pretty fabulous pieces from the Showboat Majestic.

sign

Built in 1923 and under the ownership of Indiana University from 1960-1966, the Majestic provided students with a unique opportunity to spend the summer extending their acting skills through performances before an ever-changing audience. The showboat’s student crew members were responsible not only for putting on shows, but also for a range of work on board the boat — from helping to prepare meals in the galley to literally swabbing the decks.

The beautifully weathered sign above, which now adorns the Archives reading room, was proudly displayed on the front of the Majestic between 1962 and 1965. Determined to verify this, our Curator of Photographs tracked down an image that would confirm this without a doubt:

The Showboat Majestic, May 25, 1966.

Oh, are you not so sure? Take a gander at this detail of the sign:

MajDetail

It is blurry and at an awkward angle, to be sure, but at each end you can see the swirls that are reflected in the sign now in the possession of the Archives.

wheel

In addition to the sign, Theatre & Drama also transferred the wheel and a life preserver from the ship, which are now on display in our reception area.

Indiana University sold the showboat to the city of Cincinnati in 1967, as it had fallen in disrepair beyond the reaches of available funding. Now a National Historic Landmark, the original Majestic is docked on Cincinnati’s riverfront and is currently running the final show of the summer, the Showboat Follies. At the conclusion of this run, after 23 years Cincinnati Landmark Productions will move from the theatre on the water to the Covedale Center.