Acting is Academic
What Hallie Flanagan had in mind when she arrived on campus in 1925 was a bold restructuring of the college's drama curriculum—a rigorous, innovative four-year course of study, incorporating historical, theoretical, and practical work--an ideal balance from a liberal arts perspective. She had an ally in Winifred Smith, Vassar class of 1904, who had been teaching dramatic literature at Vassar since 1911. Together, they put forward the radical argument that dramatic literature could not be properly studied without production, and Flanagan argued even more radically that engaging in the act of creating art, i.e., dramatic production, was educational. At the time, none of the liberal arts colleges deemed courses in production credit-worthy, so it's not surprising that they didn't succeed in establishing the major. What is surprising is that they got approval for three practical courses—Dramatic Production, Advanced Dramatic Production, and Playwriting.
For the next eight or nine years, until Flanagan left Vassar to head the Federal Theater Project in 1935, she directed an extraordinarily ambitious lineup of classic and modern plays in the Experimental Theater, including Hippolytus in Greek, certainly the first time, and possibly the only time, the play was performed in the language in which it was written outside of Greece ("the most remarkable performance of a Greek play I've ever seen, then or since," wrote Mary McCarthy)—the world premiere of T.S. Eliot's Sweeney Agonistes—the American premiere of Luigi Pirandello's Each in His Own Way.
"These theatrical productions in the early 1930s brought the dream that Winifred Smith and Hallie Flanagan shared as close to realization as it was ever to come for them," wrote Evert Sprinchorn, professor emeritus of drama. "They united dramatic literature with practical theater and brought together the old and the new. They demonstrated what could be done with theater in a liberal arts setting."
VQ Spring 1991
Photo credit: Archives and Special Collections