Maude Adams at Stephen College: In Her Waning Years, a Philosophy of Educational Theatre
Maude Adams' niche in the history of the American professional theater has been duly recorded by historians. She was one of the immensely popular stars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Her name was linked with Charles Frohman's both professionally and romantically, with John Drew's as a frequent leading men, and with the plays of James M. Barrie. Coad and Mums called her a "national figure." (1) Hewitt pronounced her the woman who made real the Never-Never land which Barrie created. (2) Her most comprehensive biographer, Phyllis Robbins, called her a "sensitive and elusive spirit" in need of "rescue from the web of legends spun around her by those who knew her less well, or not at all." (3) She has been labeled invariably as a shy, retiring person who withdrew from the public, refused to be interviewed by reporters, dn frequently exchanged clothes with her maid in order to fool the stage door crowds. So much was this reclusivnessness a part of her image that, even in their brief biographical sketch, Coad and Mums mention her quiet, retiring manner and her avoidance of publicity whenever possible.
Late in her career, after she departed from the professional stage, she accepted a position on the faculty at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, where she coordinated the drama and humanities programs according to a simple, living, workable philosophy of the place of the theatre in life. This essay concerns their philosophy of educational theatre and the educational program at Stephens College for which it formed a basis.
Stephens College had an enrollment of about 1,700 women from every state in the United States when Maude Adams joined the faculty in 1937. Most of the girls were born after Maude Adams' period of immense popularity on the stage. Barnard stated that the members of the faculty were young, especially in the departments of drama and dance, and "devotees of the more or less stylistic modern stage," and that the academic faculty in humanities and speech was devoted "to its successful and established methods of teaching." Miss Adams's duties at Stephens College, according to Woolf, were to act as head of the department of drama, adapt plays for presentation, and give courses in voice training.
In a surprisingly short time, the Stephens College community saw Maude Adams solidify diverse elements into a drama program which most institutions would cherish and which most have been beyond the dreams of President James M. Wood who worked hard to get Miss Adams' services. Barnard reported from Columbia.
"By her Peter Pan appeal and by the underlying artistry of the task, she is doing a whole academic community, skeptical faculty as well as students, has been taken captive. The fact is that six weeks of Maude Adams has galvanized the whole college. In the first place, she has set an example of hard work, no play, and single minded devotion to a project that few even of the faculty can emulate. If ever a college rejoiced in the success of the "project method," it is Stephens College this fall. Under Miss Adams' inspiration almost every department is working literally night and day on Chantecler. three evenings a week, 200 meet with the amazing instructor to do breathing exercises. And at odd hours from dormitory after dormitory sounds of ‘bah, bah, bah and boo, boo, boo" startled the passerby.
"French classes are making a new translation of part of the play, and English classes are turning It into verse, nearer to Miss Adams' desire than the old acting version. Music pupils are scoring accompaniments. ‘Perhaps before long we shall have the mathematics and chemistry departments in," laughs Miss Adams. And all the evening dance teachers are training actors in rhythmic movements that are to be used in a mass pantomime."
The move to Stephens College made its changes in Maude Adams as well as in the scholastic community. In 1942, Brock wrote
"It has taken time to do it, but having 1,700 girls around all day and every day has worked a sort of miracle. She has been seen, with a group of these girls around her, sitting on a high stool at a hot-dog stand, and she looked as if she enjoyed it. She goes to teas with the young things and the faculty folk-even goes into town afoot shopping on her own."
However, as late as 1948, Woolf remarked
"While she is friendly with her pupils in the classrooms and on the campus, she still retains the remoteness which distinguished her when she was Broadway's leading lady."
Why Maude Adams gave up the seclusions of private life for the hustle and bustle of Stephens College becomes clear as a result of understanding her philosophy of the theatre. Although she seems never to have written a definitive statement of her philosophy (Robbins said she was more interested in the future than in what she had thought or accomplished in the past, her remarks in two speeches concerning the place of drama in education and th execution of her program at Stephens College seemed to delineate clearly her beliefs.
When President Wood asked Miss Adams "to relate for every girl on the campus the theatre and acting with the emotions of everyday life" he was touching the heart of her philosophy. Miss Adams believed that drama played a vital part in all human development, and she was eager for an opportunity to interpret drama in this light to American youth. She believed fervently that it was worth teaching young America how to use the theatre expertly as a civilizing force.
The key word in her philosophy was "emotion," a word echoed in President Wood's request. She once stated that "the actor's art deals with the emotions. It helps us to recognize the healthy emotions and ignore the unhealthy ones. It touches humanity directly, and it has universal appeal." The best statement of her philosophy, in Miss Adams' own words, came in a speech at the Annual Conventional of the American Association of Junior Colleges in Columbia, Missouri, in February, 1940. Miss Adams told the educators
"For most of us art is apt to mean the superficial cultivation of taste. but its mission is much nobler; it goes to the roots of taste; it cultivates the senses and the emotions that which religion does in a deeper degree. In this service among the arts, an actor feels that the drama of the theatre takes first place...Today, we are appalled at the power of emotions by which the dictators of the world sway huge masses of people who have never learned that while emotions are the great driving power in life, they are at the same time the greatest danger in life. "
Her ideas on religion, emotions, and dramatic art appeared also at the Stephens College Commencement Address, which she delivered in 1939. Miss Adams told her audience
"The church was the first to recognize the need for controlling the emotions, and it used an acted play, instinct with life, to impress its lessons upon mankind. The drama was a part of religious ritual...Religion and art were seeking the same end."
Having established her belief that emotions could be trained best in the drama, Miss Adams told her audience why she thought such training was especially needed by the young people of her day
"In modern life we train ourselves to think, forgetting that emotions are beyond thought and that they have supreme authority over us forcing our lives into channels we never charted...The power of the drama to develop young minds and young emotions is not used, it seems to me, with sufficient confidence.
"Young people are sure that their experiences have never come to anyone else in the world, the greybeard knows that the same experiences come to everyone. The great dramatists can tell the young people of every sort of crisis, no matter how complicated, and they are far enough away not to seem prejudiced as fathers and mothers must often seem."
It is significant that Miss Adams used the words "great dramatists" in he address. She believed schools should concentrate on the plays of the great dramatists of the past in their educational theatre programs. In the same commencement address mentioned above, she said
"The young people of today have no way of knowing the great plays which have come to the world through the theatre unless they study the plays in school and college. The great plays of the present may be seen in any of our large cities, but for the great plays of the past, the young people must depend upon schools and colleges."
She was speaking on the same idea at the Junior College Convention when she told the educators
"I want to make a pleas for a more thorough training in the great plays of the past. It is the providence of great plays to show us great emotions-to teach us to recognize them and from them to fix our standards. I would beg young people to know the great poets. The great men show emotions greatly. They teach us that emotions are just as universal as life itself."
These statements complete the rationale for her philosophy for educational theatre, that the school should teach young people the universality of emotions and to recognize and control emotions through acting roles in great plays of the past.
Acting in great plays was certainly a vial part of the program of Maude Adams. She once stated
"We may read plays, bu the only way to know a play is to act it, a play does not become alive until we put ourselves into it and make the great effort to delineate its characters. Let the young people know how to read Shakespeare, how to read Euripedes, but more than all let them know how to feel with these great men. let them learn to measure their feelings by these great men."
The academic analysis of great plays was not enough for Miss Adams. She must have felt strongly that the student derived the greatest benefit from participation in a great play. On the basis of this belief, Miss Adams worked constantly to get as many people as possible involved in the production of her plays. She used double and triple casts for many plays, chose plays with large choruses or crowd scenes, and even had girls studying and rehearsing various parts who were never used in productions, but who got the rewards from analyzing and identifying themselves with characters in great plays.
Another theatre practice which came out of Miss Adams' philosophy was the creation of a permanent repertoire for the college theatre. Dudley gave an account of this concept
"When a play has been given and found suitable for both actors and audience, that play was pt in the permanent repertoire. Costumes, scenery, properties, and the exact script were saved, not with the idea that they would ever be used again exactly as before, but so they might serve as a foundation for future performances. Then the rough spots of the previous performance would be ironed out, and the entire production improved. Moreover, the repetition would give both actors and audiences a chance to learn the play. A good play, she maintained, should be repeated often. it could not e known in three weeks' rehearsal or in a single production. if the play were repeated within a sort period, the same student might appear in it more than once, first in a minor part and later in one of the major ones. The audience would also learn to know the play and by comparing one performance with another, would learn the beginnings of criticism."
There were special values to be gained if some of these permanent repertoire plays happened to be in a foreign language. In this case, she believed the students each year should be asked, in their language classes, to translate significant passages. The best would then be put in the permanent script and, after a few years, the translation might be entirely the work of the students. Dudley further reported
"Her ideal was that a school should have in its repertoire enough plays for a college generation. If the school program called for four plays a year, there should be at least sixteen plays in the permanent repertoire of a four year college."
Although such a program as Dudley described would limit a school's entire dramatic output to the same sixteen plays every four years, a modification of this idea has considerable merit and is attempted at several institutions. An example is the Great Plays Cycle of the University of Hawaii. The cycle consists of eight masterworks produced at the rate of two a season. When all eight have been performed, the cycle is repeated. Selected plays are Oedipus Rex, Lysistrata, Everyman, hamlet, King Lear, Tartuffe, Hedda Gabler, and The Cherry Orchard. Everyman was also on an incomplete list of four which was selected by Miss Adams at Stephens College. The others were Chantecler, The Blunderer, and Alice in Wonderland.
Thus, after contributing her sparkling personality to the professional stage in a long and rewarding career, Maude Adams spent her waning years contributing ides from her fertile brain to the educational theatre, thereby effecting a union of two theatrical forces which is brought about all too seldom . Eventually, the rigorous schedule took its toll of Miss Adams and, after the winter of 1949-1950, she was unable to return to her work. After her retirement from her second career, she lived in seclusion in a small house in Tennersville, York, and once again settled down to the quiet, private life she loved so well. concerning this period of Miss Adams' life, Shanley commented
It is theoretically possible to reach Maude Adams by telephone. But calls, unless they are from one of her close friends, draw the reply that Miss Adams is not available. It is not beyond possibility that the voice conveying this information is that of Maude Adams herself."
During these final years, she must have been content in the knowledge that she had written a fitting finale to her fine career. She had taken the time to formulate a philosophy concerning the value of the theatre and had been willing to give up the one thing she most desired-privacy-in order to teach his philosophy to the youth of her country.