Campus & Community

A century of histrionic history

3 min read
Alexandra Exter
Alexandra Exter (1882-1949). Scene design for “Le Cirque,” ballet by Elsa Krueger, ca. 1927-1928. Original design, gouache.

The Harvard Theatre Collection is celebrating its 100th anniversary this month with an exhibition titled “One Hundred Years, One Hundred Collections.” The exhibition will showcase representative items from the collection’s holdings, which in their entirety touch upon every imaginable aspect of the performing arts. In addition to the mainstream genres of theater, dance, opera, and musical theater, there are valuable holdings in circus, magic, puppetry, fairgrounds, spectacles and festivals, music hall, film, minstrelsy, toy theater, and all manner of specialty performance.

Irene Sharaff
Irene Sharaff (ca. 1910-1993). “Fanfare,” 1953. Original costume designs, gouache.

The Theatre Collection was established in 1901, when a group of Harvard alumni presented the library with engravings of the famous 18th century British actor David Garrick, in memory of their teacher Justin Winsor, a Garrick scholar and former Harvard College librarian.

One of these alumni, George Pierce Baker, Class of 1887, who later became a Harvard professor and mentor of playwrights such as Eugene O’Neill, secured the first significant gifts to the collection. Among them were the library of Robert W. Lowe and the vast collection of Robert Gould Shaw, Class of 1869, who then became the first curator of the Theatre Collection. These monumental gifts were later matched by the bequest of Evert Jansen Wendell, Class of 1882. The combined Lowe-Shaw-Wendell collections were of an unparalleled strength in the history of the British and American stage.

Other gifts joined the existing collection throughout the century, adding to its depth and leading it in new directions. The Theatre Collection continues to grow actively today, attracting important donations from the likes of Tennessee Williams and George Balanchine, such as the papers of playwrights, actors, designers, artists, directors, choreographers, photographers, and theater managers.

The first collection of its kind to be established in this country, the Harvard Theatre Collection, part of Houghton Library of the Harvard College Library, remains among the largest in the world today. From the ages of Shakespeare, Irving, and Shaw to modern trends in performance such as the plays of Harold Pinter, collection holdings number in the millions and include everything from original play manuscripts, art work, scene and costume designs to rare books, engravings, photographic archives, musical scores, production documents, and management papers, play texts, programs, playbills, posters, and newspaper clippings. The collection also houses a variety of objects, including souvenirs, figurines, medals and coins, puppets, models, and personal effects, many of which are unusual or unique.

“One Hundred Years, One Hundred Collections” runs from May 16 through July 27, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., in the Nathan Marsh Pusey Library. The exhibition, which is free and open to the public, is supported by the Beatrice, Benjamin, and Richard Bader Fund in the Visual Arts of the Theatre and the Barry Bingham Sr., Fund for Publications.

For more information, call the Harvard Theatre Collection at (617) 495-2445.