Dramatics seem to have been part of a student’s life early in the history of the University, surprisingly, because attendance at the theatre was forbidden. The earliest known reference to a play performed by students is in the 1757 edition of Thomas Otway’s works in the College Library where a note in the hand of Nicholas Brown 1786 at the beginning of “The Cheats of Scapin,” reads, “Acted in the Hall in Providencè as a Farce to the ‘Revengè’ April: 1785 With Great Applause.” The volume also contains the names of the actors, all members of the classes of 1786 through 1788, in what seems to have been an afterpiece to the performance of Edward Young’s play, “The Revenge.” Later annotations of the names of student actors indicate that “The Cheats of Scapin” was also performed sometime in 1791-92 and again by the Class of 1805 in the third term of 1803.
The program for the sophomore-junior exhibition on August 22, 1804 announced the performance of a one-act comedy for four actors, “The Miser Outwitted.” Years later, in 1931, the Harris Collection of American Poetry and Plays acquired a copy of a play entitled “The Miser” by Samuel Randall of the class of 1804. This play, published in 1812 in Warren, appears to be a revision of “The Miser Outwitted” with three more acts and seven more characters. Its plot has to do with a Harvard student who must appeal to his father for money, having used most of his to help a poor young widow with three daughters. This is the first known play written by a Brown student to be acted by other students.
The Thalian Dramatic Society was noted in the Brown Paper in 1866, but was never heard from again. Hammer and Tongs, producer of skits and light operettas for the benefit of athletics, began in 1867, and after a brief hiatus in 1892 and 1893 when the Brown Operatic Club took its place, revived for a few years, and was replaced by Sock and Buskin, the Brown dramatic society, in 1901. Komians, the Women’s College dramatic society, also began in 1901, and the two societies went their separate ways for more than thirty years in which the men played women’s parts in their plays, and the women played men’s parts in theirs. In November 1929 more than twenty delegates from other colleges attended the first conference of the New England College Dramatic Societies, which was held at Brown. In 1939 a Student Dramatic Committee was set up to work with the newly appointed Committee on Dramatic Productions. The next year Sock and Buskin and Komians merged to form the Brown University Dramatic Society, which chose to reassume the name of Sock and Buskin.
In the 1920s the vaudeville group staged some very popular and irreverent St. Patrick’s Day shows (which were not necessarily held on St. Patrick’s Day). The 1924 show was “The Plastered Duchess,” a burlesque on “The Duchess of Padua,” which had recently been staged by Sock and Buskin. Featured were Quentin Reynolds ’24 as the Plastered Duke, P. L. Voelker ’24 as the Plastered Duchess, and Nathan Weinstein ’24 (later Nathanael West) as Macaroni in a satire on college life which included allusions to Percy Marks’s controversial book, The Plastic Age. The next year’s show was “Red Hot Martha,” a burlesque dramatization of Percy Marks’s new book, Martha.
Leslie Allen Jones ’26, who held scenic artist positions with various theaters throughout the country and offered volunteer assistance to dramatics at Brown in the 1930s, was appointed instructor in English and technical director of theatre at Brown in 1942. Janice Van De Water (later Mrs. Sevellon Brown), who joined the English Department in 1940, became a member of the Faunce House Theatre staff in 1942. During this period Sock and Buskin sponsored contests for one-act plays written by students, the best of which were performed each year. Also, for a few years, English 23-24, a course in play production introduced in 1946, held annual performances in the Faunce House Theatre. This course, the basic course in acting and directing, became Theatre Arts 23-24 in 1978, when the Department of Theatre Arts was established.
Production Workshop was formed in 1959-60 as an independent organization, controlled by students. Beginning with one-act plays, it provided opportunities for student direction of plays and experience for student actors who found Sock and Buskin too time-consuming. The 1966 Liber Brunensis described the work of Production Workshop as a supplement to Sock and Buskin:
“Production Workshop ... presents the more progressive and avant-garde side of drama.... The group presents four shows a year: two sets of from one to three plays chosen for their divergence from standard S & B material; one religiously significant play in cooperation with the UCA ‘University Christian Association’; and from one to three original one-act plays written by members of the University community and chosen through an annual play-writing contest.”
The Brown Summer Theatre was started in 1969. With $600 acquired from the summer programs budget and $200 from the Transitional Summer Program, Richard Schwab ’71 and Sharon Coleman ’69 gathered a small company of unsalaried actors to stage six plays during the summer in the Faunce House Art Gallery. Admission was free, but donations from the audience averaged forty dollars a night. Good reviews in the Providence Journal brought out a larger audience, which reached its peak at the production of “Luv,” which was attended by 275 people, 100 of whom had seats. The next year Don Wilmeth gave up a summer acting job and contributed his services as producer. John Lucas took over as producer in 1971, and served in that capacity until 1974. For the next four years the Summer Theatre was under the direction of James Barnhill. Lucas became the Summer Theatre’s full time director in 1978. At first the Summer Theatre existed on a contribution from an anonymous donor and performed in the Faunce House Theatre, where the atmosphere in the summer earned it the name of “The Black Hole of Calcutta.” With the advent of the Leeds Theatre and the addition of a box office manager and a technical advisor, the Summer Theatre gained popularity and continued to train students for the professional theatre. John Lucas, describing its function, said, “Our only job is to do theater as paid professionals.” Among professionals who started in the Brown Summer Theatre are JoBeth Williams ’70, Bess Armstrong ’75, Kate Burton ’79, and Scott Burkholder ’80.
Theatre Arts became a concentration within the English Department in 1969. The Department of Theatre Arts, with Professor James O. Barnhill as chairman, was created in 1978, at the time when Lyman Hall was being remodeled into a theatre. In the fall of 1981 the theatre arts programs at Brown, Providence College and Rhode Island College combined to present the first Shakespeare festival in Rhode Island, entitled “Trilogy of Kings.”
Hammer and Tongs
Hammer and Tongs began in 1867. As described in the Brunonian, “It is intended, not for a mere burlesque as the name might lead one to imagine, nor, on the other hand, for a heavy literary society; but for a central social organization. It is intended to be the source of pleasant, seasonable amusement; to cultivate the arts of Rhetoric and Logic, as well as to woo the muses; and to give to its members, by association with one another, that external and internal polish, that true refinement of mind and manner, which should be one of the tendencies of our college life.” The early entertainments of the society took place in the “Hammer and Tongs Opera House,” otherwise known as Number 47, Hope College, where such dramas as “Box and Cox” and “Cool as a Cucumber” were performed. Later productions were staged in local theaters. On December 10, 1875 a successful performance of “John Dobbs” and “A Thumping Legacy” was held at Barney’s Music Rooms on Snow Street, after which the floor was cleared for dancing. A highly successful performance of “The Mikado” took place on March 4, 1886 before a standing room only audience at Amateur Dramatic Hall, accompanied by Reeves’ Orchestra. The Brunonian reported, “The opera as presented was considerably abridged, and here and there, as opportunity offered, college jokes were interspersed.”
When Hammer and Tongs faltered, the Brown Operatic Club arose to take its place, and produced two comic operas written by William Chauncy Langdon 1892 with music by Nathan B. Sprague, “Cupid ’96” in 1892, and “Eight Times Eight” in 1893. The next year Hammer and Tongs was revived, its membership limited to the two upper classes, and presented “Priscilla, or a Maid of Brown,” which had among its characters Roger Williams, President James Manning, and a British spy. “Florida Water,” written by Borden D. Whiting 1898, William A. Slade 1898, and F. W. Arnold 1898 with music by E. W. Corliss 1895, was a great success on April 30, 1896 at the Providence Opera House. Based on the efforts of Ponce de Leon to find the Fountain of Youth, the operetta featured Thomas Crosby 1894 as Ponce de Leon, A. C. Stone 1897 as Minnie-He-He, and a chorus of Spanish maidens, played, as were all feminine parts, by male students. The “Game King,” presented the next year at Keith’s Opera House, was written by Whiting and Arnold with music by Corliss. and starred Crosby as the deaf king and W. E. Greene 1898 as the blind chamberlain. Hammer and Tongs once more dropped out of existence and was replaced by a new dramatic society, Sock and Buskin.
Sock and Buskin
Sock and Buskin was founded in 1901 by Thomas Crosby 1894, star of the no longer existing Hammer and Tongs Society’s famed “Florida Water.” The new organization was named for the footwear of the Greek actor the “sock” of the comedian and the high-laced “buskin” of the tragedian. Its first offering, “Our Boys,” was presented as a feature of Junior Week at the Providence Opera House on April 22, 1902. Annual plays, for a single performance only, were staged at the downtown theatres, usually at the Opera House, and all the parts, male and female, were played by men. Later, trips were made to nearby towns for one-night stands. Some years an additional play was staged on campus during the winter. The first full-length play written by a student, “Harkiss” by Edward S. Porter ’19, was performed in 1917. For nearly twenty seasons Crosby directed the plays with some occasional assistance from Paul Howland ’10. When Ben Brown ’19 assumed directorship of the organization in 1921, Sock and Buskin joined the “Little Theatre Movement,” abandoning the one lavish production at the Opera House for a series of plays on the second floor of the Brown Union with a temporary stage and home-made scenery. The experimental theatre was an artistic but not a financial success, so one-act plays were taken on the road to earn money. For a while, after the mid-twenties, one major production a year was designed to be taken on tour. Scenery was carted along and adapted to local stages. In the 1930s the rise of local dramatic societies ended the audience for the traveling performances. Classical drama was represented in the 1920s by productions of “Phormio,” “Oedipus Rex,” and “The Menaechmi,” which Professor John F. Greene translated and adapted for Sock and Buskin. Four Shakespearean plays were presented, two of them, “Measure for Measure” and “All’s Well That Ends Well,” for the first time in America. In 1924 a performance of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” which included both men and women in its cast, was directed by Rufus C. Fuller ’19. Ibsen’s “Ghosts,” performed in 1926, is considered the first production of Sock and Buskin alumni, although some alumni had staged “A Doll’s House” two years earlier (in a private performance before invited guests, because there were women in the cast). The alumni production, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” was the last in the old theatre in the spring of 1931. The next year the new Faunce House Theatre was opened with “The Merchant of Venice.” The first time a woman appeared in a Sock and Buskin play was on March 22, 1923 in Galsworthy’s “The Silver Box.” In this production Edith Meisner, a professional actress who was in Providence at the time with the Bonstelle Company, substituted for one of the actors who had fallen ill. He had been performing a female role, which Miss Meisner assumed. In May 1930 Sock and Buskin and the Komians, the women’s dramatic society, presented a combined production, “The Romantics,” translated from the French of Edmund Rostand by L. Metcalfe Walling ’30. Three performances were held in Rockefeller Hall and one in Alumnae Hall. “Romeo and Juliet,” the 109th production of Sock and Buskin in 1931, was the first in which leading feminine roles were taken by women, of whom two were guests and one, Rosa Rieser ’33, who played Juliet, was a member of the Komians. In December 1934 Sock and Buskin staged a burlesque opera, “Bombastes Furioso,” written by Thomas Barnes Rhodes with music by John B. Archer, Mr. Archer had been organist and director of chapel music in 1930-31. Shortly thereafter student interest in musical production brought about the formation of Brownbrokers.
In the spring of 1938 the University set up a Committee on Dramatic Activity and appointed Ben Brown director with responsibility for both Brown and Pembroke presentations. During the Second World War, while Ben Brown served with the Red Cross, Janice Van De Water and Leslie Allen Jones managed Sock and Buskin. Jones had been in charge of design and construction of sets for the plays as a volunteer from 1931 to 1942, when he was appointed to the faculty. Janice Van de Water began to teach at Brown in 1940, and, after Ben Brown’s death in 1955, directed Sock and Buskin until 1963, sharing play direction with James O. Barnhill. Janice Van De Water Brown had become ill and Barnhill took over a greater share of the directing, eventually becoming Director of Theatre. In the 1960s the Brown theatre program, Sock and Buskin, faced competition in the form of Production Workshop and Brownbrokers. A concentration in theatre arts and dramatic literature within the English Department was created in 1969. At about that time Sock and Buskin was using Brown University Dramatic Society on its advertising, and the titles of the staff were James Barnhill, Director of Theatre, Don Wilmeth and John Emigh, Associate Directors of Theatre, and John Lucas, Technical Director. In 1970 the alumni group reorganized into Friends of Brown University Theater.
Komians was the dramatic society of the Women’s College, started in 1901 by Amy Cook ’02 and Helen Sherman ’02, who decided that, in addition to Alpha Beta with its Shakesperean plays, there should be another club for other women students who wanted to act. Alice Cushing was assigned to select a name for the new organization, and the result was “Komians,” derived from “Comus,” the Greek god of revelry. Members of the society wore pins of which the design was a little red enamelled head in a jester’s cap and bells. The first public performance, given in a study room in Pembroke Hall on March 3, 1902, was a three-act play, “A Scrap of Paper.” The first major production, “The Rivals,” with Mabel Bartlett as the leading man, was performed on the stage on the top floor. Women performed both male and female roles in the Komians’ plays, as did men in the productions of Sock and Buskin. The Komians reorganized in 1908, opening the club to any dues paying member in lieu of tryouts. The newly created executive board selected the major production of the year and delegated the responsibility for the two short productions each month. The jester pin was replaced by a tragicomic mask, which became an acting award rather than a membership pin. In 1905 the Komians performed the final rehearsal of “School for Scandal” at the Academy Grammar School, wearing their usual clothing instead of costume. The effect of this departure was recorded in the Providence Journal, headlined by “Petticoats and Peek-a-Boo Waists,” with a subhead, “School for Scandal Given by Komians without Costumes.” Rehearsals outside the College ceased and the Komians stuck to period pieces with costumes. In time alumnae of Komians put their acting experience to use in raising money, presenting “The Critic” in 1914 to buy a new drop curtain, “Candida” in 1916 to provide a loan fund for freshmen, and “Quality Street” in 1919 for the new dormitory fund.
Sarah Minchin Barker, who performed with the Providence Players, took over the coaching of the major production in 1920. Before that time the Komians had had some help from Professor Thomas Crosby and Francis J. Brady of the Albee Theater. The traditional all-women cast staged “The Romantic Age” in modern dress in 1924, and in 1929 produced “A Night in an Inn,” which was written for an all-male cast. The performance of “Twelfth Night” in 1928 brought a Shakespearean play to the College for the first time since Alpha Beta’s annual productions ended with the disbanding of sororities in 1911. The first production in Alumnae Hall, “The Dragon” by Lady Gregory, was also the first in collaboration with Sock and Buskin, the men’s dramatic society, which provided the needed assistance in building a set for the new stage. In 1930 Sock and Buskin, accustomed to all-male casts, invited women guests, including Mildred Starkweather ’30, to act in “The Romantics.” Two members of Sock and Buskin and one member of the Providence Players appeared in the Komians’ production of “Alice-Sit-by-the Fire” in 1932, and the next year five men took part in “Dear Brutus.” Mrs. Barker continued coaching until 1937. In 1940 the Komians were merged with Sock and Buskin.
Brownbrokers was formed in 1935 when some students decided to stage an original music revue. Leslie Allen Jones ’26, who had been designing and constructing sets, was recruited and put in charge of this new endeavor. The coeducational group took its name from the name of the men’s college and the “broke” from Pembroke. “Something Bruin’” opened on May 10, 1935 with 23 original numbers. The program, according to Jones, “listed everyone as part of a baseball team ... as a means of settling the argument of who should be first. Among the first cast were Burton Shevelove ’37, who became a Broadway director, and Carolyn Troy ’35, whose original composition for the show, “Patch Up My Heart,” was purchased by a local orchestra leader for use as a theme song. Sock and Buskin, at first regarding the new performers as upstarts, pitched in to work backstage. The two highly acclaimed performances of “Something Bruin’” paved the way for the annual Brownbroker productions. “Road to Bruin,” the 1936 production parodied the college athletic and publicity departments. “Man about Brown,” which played to standing room only audiences in 1937, parodied everything from Gypsy Rose Lee to Roosevelt’s attempt to pack the Supreme Court. “Curriculi-Curricula,” produced in 1938, was described by Variety as the best college show in the country, and was favorably viewed in dress rehearsal by George M. Cohan, who was made an honorary member of Brownbrokers. In 1941 Life magazine photographer Eric Schall said that “Run for your Life,” based on the magazine, was the best college show he had ever seen. The annual musical was omitted in 1943 because of the war, but Brownbrokers returned in 1944 with “Scuttlebutt,” a navy show, for which some of the performers wore their own uniforms for costumes. The shows produced in 1956, “Barney ’n Me,” and in 1957, “Fiddle-De-Dee,” had books and lyrics by future Oscar-winner Alfred F. Uhry ’58. The 1958 production, “Down to Earth,” was the first written entirely by Pembroke students. In 1964 the Brownbrokers took “Statutory Scrape,” which was about the theft of the Statue of Liberty, on the road for a repeat performance at the Brown Club of New York. The annual productions of shows written by students continued, with the exception of the year 1962, when Sock and Buskin produced “Bus Stop” in the slot usually reserved for the Brownbrokers show.