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Before The Bard Was Big


Charles Miilhauser

James Daly '41 was a legendary Hamlet in 1941. Before his death in 1978 he had a distinguished acting career, particularly in television. He is the father of actors Tyne Daly and Timothy Daly.

The play’s the thing wherein professor Stephen Lacey ’65 will always be remembered by those fortunate enough to have seenor participated in one of his stagings between 1978, when his Shakespeare comedy course presented its first production, and 1999 when, a few short months before his untimely death, he produced his last.

Although his Shakespeare plays were the most widely and wildly popular of any non-theater department offering, his were not the first of their kind. Cornell did not establish a department of dramatic art until 1931 and earlier thespian ventures were a kind of cottage industry for literary societies, student clubs, and literature departments.

As a Methodist school, Cornell had prohibited its students from presenting and attending theatrical performances. The ban was lifted in 1899 when the Aesthesian Literary Society was permitted to perform an English version of Sophocles’ Electra in the Chapel. Hooks (still visible) were installed on opposite walls of the auditorium to anchor the ends of a wire over which a curtain could be draped and manipulated across the stage. When the weather allowed, productions were held in “Stageland Hollow” (site of the present heating plant, southeast of the library). In 1929, the college converted a former literary society hall on the third floor of College Hall into a “Little Theatre.” It lacked every amenity: actors had to enter and exit either through theaudience or through the back window, which opened onto a fire escape that connected to the window of an adjacent room. Finally, in 1938, the campus was blessed with a real theater when Armstrong Hall opened. Professor Lacey usually chose to present his plays in King Chapel.

Foreign language plays appeared as early as 1901, when the Alethean Literary Society began its annual presentations of plays in German. In 1904, the Latin department started offering Roman comedies in Latin. The expenses of its 1905 production were underwritten by a clergyman alumnus living in the Philippines! By 1910 plays in translation were the thing, and even the Cornell Pep Club got into the act with a Molière comedy.

A revival of parochial theater began in 1976 with the first of the annual Spanish plays. The actors spoke only in Spanish, but the audience was provided with a multi-page synopsis in English. Between 1982 and 1984 the French department presented plays in French. In 1990, the Latin plays were revived in a unique way. Members of the Latin literature course used the columns in front of Armstrong Hall (and later, Allee Chapel) as a backdrop in imitation of an ancient theater. In delivering their lines, the student actors alternated with seeming effortlessness between Latin and English.

The faculty began appearing in a series of annual follies in 1922. As if needing to apologize for their lapse of professorial dignity, they chose a line from the Roman poet Horace for the title of one of their efforts: “Dulce est desipere in loco” (It is sweet to act foolishly sometimes). By 1929, they felt confident enough to call their show “Faculty Whoopee.”

Charles Milhauser is classics professor and registrar emeritus.

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