Baker Establishes the 47 Workshop at Harvard Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

George Pierce Baker, a teacher and writer, opened his celebrated 47 Workshop, a forum for aspiring playwrights that became an important creative incubator for modern American drama.

Summary of Event

In 1905, George Pierce Baker, a professor of English and forensics at Harvard University (from which he had graduated in 1887), began offering a course in dramatic composition. The course, English 47, was first offered at Radcliffe College and was added to the curriculum at Harvard College two years later, a change that was considered by many to be a minor miracle. Higher education at the beginning of the twentieth century, especially in private colleges, remained rather rigidly classical, and the idea that the teaching of playwriting had a proper place in the halls of academe was anathema to some of Harvard’s more traditional administrators. Had Baker not already established a reputation as a fine scholar and teacher and as the inspirational force behind Harvard’s formidable debating teams, he most certainly would not have been allowed to try his unusual experiment. As it was, he had to make concessions, including the noncredit, extracurricular status of the 47 Workshop, which he added to the basic drama writing course in 1913. 47 Workshop[Forty Seven Workshop] Theater;playwriting [kw]Baker Establishes the 47 Workshop at Harvard (1905) [kw]47 Workshop at Harvard, Baker Establishes the (1905) [kw]Harvard, Baker Establishes the 47 Workshop at (1905) 47 Workshop[Forty Seven Workshop] Theater;playwriting [g]United States;1905: Baker Establishes the 47 Workshop at Harvard[01130] [c]Theater;1905: Baker Establishes the 47 Workshop at Harvard[01130] [c]Literature;1905: Baker Establishes the 47 Workshop at Harvard[01130] Baker, George Pierce O’Neill, Eugene Sheldon, Edward Barry, Philip Behrman, S. N. Brown, John Mason Dos Passos, John Howard, Sidney Sherwood, Robert E. Wolfe, Thomas

Although Baker advanced his theory of dramatic composition in the course, its success ultimately depended on the practical application of that theory, which became the crux of the 47 Workshop. To some of his befuddled colleagues, Baker’s evolving method seemed to have more in common with laboratory courses in science than with typical courses in literature or drama, which conventionally took a historical approach. Baker insisted that his students prepare plays for the stage, an insistence that stemmed from the strong conviction that a play’s text was not a play until it was transformed into a live production utilizing the skills of various interpretive artists.

Baker was a tough-minded and pragmatic man who was conversant with both stagecraft and the realities of commercial theater. He required that his students write for actual audiences, not for a literate elite prone to favor poetic dramas that would never be produced. Among other things, he preached the idea that dramatic characters talk and act like real people. Thus, from its beginnings, English 47 involved both readings and performances of student works, initially in the theater at Agassiz House on the Radcliffe College campus. There, Baker’s students were afforded the valuable opportunity of seeing their plays performed by fellow students, providing an important test of the works’ stageability.

Baker’s 47 Workshop, the English 47 laboratory, was to become highly selective in its enrollment. It was typically not even open to the younger undergraduate student body, because Baker believed that typical baccalaureate students had too little life experience to write with understanding or conviction. He preferred to enroll students who had either already graduated or had worked for a living, or who, like Eugene O’Neill, his most celebrated student, had roamed for several years. Prospective students were also required to submit plays and to earn their seats by virtue of their writing promise. Baker would then make his selection from among the writers of the best submitted works.

The workshop was also limited to twelve students, which enabled Baker to give each of his writers a great deal of individual attention. In addition, a few volunteers from outside the university audited the workshop sessions and attended the stagings, which they critiqued in writing and discussed with Baker and his student playwrights. Thus, in this invaluable practicum, the aspiring playwright could write and revise works under Baker’s guiding hand, then stage them and have them reviewed by qualified critical jurors. Because Baker’s students had to prepare their works for performance and participate in their staging, they also had to learn the essentials of various theater arts, including acting, scene design, lighting, and costuming. In this way, the 47 Workshop was a course in theater arts.

Within three years of its inception, admission to English 47, the parent course of the 47 Workshop, became intensely competitive. Edward Sheldon’s Salvation Nell (pr. 1908), Salvation Nell (Sheldon) which was written while Sheldon was Baker’s student, partly accounted for its growing appeal. Sheldon’s play had a very successful commercial staging starring the popular and progressive actress Minnie Fiske. Sheldon’s next work, The Nigger (pr. 1909), had a daring and controversial plot that brought some helpful notoriety to Baker’s Harvard program; by the time the 47 Workshop was added, Baker’s program had become a principal enticement for several students enrolling at the school. Some of these, notably O’Neill, went to Harvard solely to learn the craft of playwriting or to become better at it.

Before leaving Harvard in 1925, Baker nurtured the writing and critical acumen of dozens of important figures in American belles lettres. In addition to Sheldon and O’Neill, Baker’s graduates included playwrights George Abbot, Philip Barry, S. N. Behrman, Sidney Howard, and Robert E. Sherwood. Others who studied under Baker earned their fame in other genres, notably fiction, including novelists Rachel Field, John Dos Passos, and Thomas Wolfe (who would later caricature Baker as Professor Hatcher in his 1935 novel Of Time and the River). Other important students from English 47 or the 47 Workshop would gain renown as critics, journalists, teachers, editors, essayists, or associates of the theater, including Robert Benchley, Van Wyck Brooks, John Mason Brown, Walter Pritchard Eaton, Theresa Helburn, Robert Edmond Jones, Frederick H. Koch, Kenneth Macgowan, Hiram Moderwell, Lee Simonson, John V. A. Weaver, and Maurice Wetheim. Many of Baker’s students, most notably O’Neill, came into prominence in the 1920’s, when the American theater itself finally came of age.

Despite Baker’s great success, Harvard never became entirely hospitable toward his program, and he left for a more promising arrangement at Yale University. There, with a fully equipped theater donated by Edward S. Harkness, he taught playwriting, dramatic criticism, and courses in technical theater to, among others, Elia Kazan, the eminent director and cofounder of the famous Actors Studio. Before his death in 1935, he helped to establish the growing reputation of Yale’s highly regarded graduate school of drama.

Significance

In a letter written to The New York Times shortly after Baker’s death, Eugene O’Neill credited his teacher and mentor with having been one of the prime movers in bringing the American theater out of its “dark age,” claiming that his influence “toward the encouragement and birth of modern American drama” was “profound.” That praise, coming from the first great American dramatist, himself a major force in maturing the national drama, emphatically stated what O’Neill and other students of Baker knew was true: that Baker had been an extremely important catalyst in the process.

Before World War I, despite some promising exceptions, theatrical productions in the United States lacked vigor and freshness and, at least in their play texts, revealed few sparks of true creative genius. Although realism in theater had been advocated by various writers, notably William Dean Howells, it had made slow progress in the face of the popularity of melodramas, with their outlandish, contrived plots, artificial language, and simplistic morality. For new writers wishing to experiment, the commercial theater was, as O’Neill noted, a “closed shop.” It was dominated by star actors and actresses who, often with their own traveling troupes, engaged in what O’Neill derided as the “amusement racket.”

O’Neill’s own father, James O’Neill, was one of these stars, and the elder O’Neill’s career reflected the system. Like most other stars, he became known for his interpretation of a specific role, that of Edmund, the Count of Monte Cristo. For him and for other headliners of the day, plays were merely vehicles for their acting, and their chief task was to thrill an audience, not to raise people’s consciousness or make them think. The younger O’Neill’s work, some of which James had an opportunity to see staged just prior to his death in 1920, simply dismayed him. He found its brooding intensity and naturalistic bias distressing. For him, theater had no business depicting ugly truths or depressing its audience.

Baker’s efforts to make playwrights move away from a romantic escapism toward a more honest depiction of life bore full fruit by the early 1920’s, when Eugene O’Neill’s meteoric career was on the rise. However, although Baker’s 47 Workshop was a major influence, it was not the solitary springboard to the radical change in the American theater. Instead, many important factors made important contributions to the new American theater, including the foreign influence of, among others, Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, Anton Chekhov, August Strindberg, and Émile Zola; the scenic design of David Belasco; the earlier plays by Americans such as James A. Herne’s Margaret Fleming (1890) and Shore Acres (1892); the impact of World War I; the theories of Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud; the conversion of many theaters that formerly hosted traveling stock companies into motion-picture houses; and the development of the little-theater movement and of such groups as the Provincetown Players, the Washington Square Players, and the Theatre Guild.

More clearly, Baker’s teaching methods exerted an important influence that can be traced directly to his famous course. He legitimated the workshop approach to playwriting and pioneered other practical courses in theater, providing models that began to be emulated at various schools in the United States. For example, in 1918, Frederick Koch, a graduate of the 47 Workshop, started a playwriting course at the University of North Carolina, and in 1919 he established the renowned Carolina Playmakers. A creative teacher who stressed the use of folk materials in drama while using some of Baker’s workshop techniques, Koch was also important in the growth of the little-theater and regional-theater movements.

Others followed in Baker’s pedagogical track, including Walter Eaton at Yale and Kenneth Macgowan at the University of California. Within a generation, these teachers helped to broaden college and university curricula, putting in place courses that provided practical training not merely in playwriting but in all the theater arts. Central to their philosophy was the belief that plays should be interpreted for performance, not just as fossilized pieces of dramatic literature. In addition to playwriting, at Yale Baker himself taught courses in stage design, costuming, lighting, and theater criticism, all stressing a practical, problem-solving approach. Thus, right up to 1933, when sickness forced his retirement, Baker continued to play a vital role in the creation of departments of theater, as distinct from such traditional disciplines as literature or speech.

It was, however, Baker’s great energy and enthusiasm for theater that mattered most. His true gift lay in his ability to infuse that same enthusiasm in others—to inspire them. Looking back from the perspective of the 1950’s, John Mason Brown noted that it was in such intangible contributions that Baker had a truly durable impact. According to Brown, most of the plays written in the 47 Workshop classes were actually very bad, even the ones written by playwrights who would later become very good at their craft, but Baker’s great patience and encouragement helped his charges through a painful artistic infancy and left them with a lasting faith in themselves. In his earlier eulogy on Baker, O’Neill made a similar assessment. In addition to giving O’Neill and his fellow students a belief in their work, Baker gave them hope. As O’Neill wrote, this was a gift for which “we owe him all the finest we have in memory of gratitude and friendship.” 47 Workshop[Forty Seven Workshop] Theater;playwriting

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baker, George Pierce. Dramatic Technique. 1919. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 2005. A handbook for playwrights, stressing techniques learned from studying established works and their compositional design. Still regarded as a classic, it has influenced many succeeding guides to the playwright’s craft.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gelb, Arthur, and Barbara Gelb. O’Neill: Life with Monte Cristo. New York: Applause Theater Books, 2002. The definitive biography on Eugene O’Neill. A good source for readers interested in learning more about Baker’s influence on his most famous student.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kinne, Wisner Payne. George Pierce Baker and the American Theatre. 1954. Reprint. New York: Greenwood Press, 1968. A rare book-length study of Baker and his significance in the development of the American theater, written by one of his students. Includes an important introduction by George Mason Brown, the texts of several letters, and a bibliography of Baker’s works.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meserve, Walter J. An Outline History of American Drama. Totowa, N.J.: Littlefield, Adams, 1965. A good, expanded checklist of playwrights, works, trends, and influences in the history of American drama, placing Baker’s contributions in the larger context of theater in the United States from its beginnings forward. Excellent for reviewing the history of drama in the United States. Minimal bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sarlós, Robert Károly. Jig Cook and the Provincetown Players. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1982. An account of the founding and history of the theater in which Eugene O’Neill first gained recognition. Serves as an informative parallel study to Kinne’s book. Includes an index to the persons involved and a chronology of works staged from 1915 through 1922.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilson, Garff B. Three Hundred Years of American Drama and Theatre, from “Ye Baare and Ye Cubb” to “Hair.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973. An overview of the development of drama and theater in the United States to the 1960’s, but in greater depth than Meserve’s work. A recommended guide for serious students of American drama, also placing Baker and the 47 Workshop in proper focus. Includes a helpful selective bibliography.

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