Toward a 'Catholic' Theater

The legacy of Gilbert Hartke

Once upon a recent time, there was a man with four hungers who befriended and benefited a multitude while appeasing those hungers. Gilbert Hartke (1907-86) desired to love and serve God; so he became a priest. Besotted with the theater, he created and helmed a famous drama department in a university that did little to encourage his efforts. Attending to his third hunger, to hobnob with the rich and famous, this Dominican attached himself to powerful politicians (notably Lyndon B. Johnson) and theater eminences (notably Helen Hayes and David Merrick), wangling from them professional opportunities for his "kids," the aspiring actors, playwrights, and directors he was training. Finally, nostalgic for his happy Chicago childhood, he turned his drama department into a surrogate family with himself as benevolently beaming paterfamilias.

You can read of this unusually successful life in Mary Jo Santo Pietro’s excellent Father Hartke: His Life and Legacy to the American Theater (Catholic University Press). It’s the sort of biography that has an autobiography embedded within it. In addition to using the papers, diaries, and contacts that any authorized biographer has access to, Santo Pietro (who used to be one of Hartke’s "kids") encouraged her subject, during the last year of his life, to speak at length of his past into her tape recorder. Quite a few pages of her book contain transcriptions from those tapes. But Santo Pietro is no amanuensis. She has shaped the life lived into a story told, and told with a coherence, balance, and objectivity few people can bring to their own lives. In fact, the contrast between Hartke’s voice-expansive, rambling, quietly boastful, suddenly humble, ameliorative-and his biographer’s-patient, economical, often tart, always candid-is one of the treats of the book.

I won’t recapitulate the life since my concern here is with the other L-word in the book’s subtitle, the legacy to the American stage.

Washington, D.C., for all its wonderful, admission-free museums and its surprisingly strong musical scene, has always been a theatrical backwater. Father Hartke was not a big theater fish in a small theater pond but rather an ever-hopeful fisherman relentlessly urging that the pond be stocked, maintained, and harvested. Much of this book is about his efforts to create or resuscitate various theatrical venues in the District (not to mention two playhouses he started in New England): the National Theater (which its owner had closed rather than yield to Hartke’s efforts to racially integrate it); Ford’s Theater, a calamitous episode in which Hartke’s vague business practice shattered against the vindictive egomania of others; the Olney Theater, a triumph which gave Maryland a state summer playhouse; Players, Inc. (later, the National Players), a touring repertory that has brought Shakespeare and Molière to colleges and civic centers throughout the country longer than any other touring company in American history. And of course there was The Catholic University drama department’s own Hartke Theater, so long dreamed of but not brought to fruition until 1970, after the department had spent thirty-five years presenting critically acclaimed, commercially successful shows in the basement of an unfinished music department building, "a huge empty space with nothing but a cinder floor."

Hartke filled that space with teachers and students who proved to be among the best American theater talents of the second half of the twentieth century: Alan Schneider, Walter and Jean Kerr, Susan and Chris Sarandon, Jon Voigt, Philip Bosco, Pat Carroll, Michael Christofer, Jason Miller, Lawrence Luckinbill, Henry Gibson, Jim Waring, Robert Moore, Matt Crowley, Stanley Wojewodski (later the dean of the Yale Drama School). In fact, there was a time in the mid-1970s when you couldn’t turn on your TV or buy a ticket for a movie or a New York play without encountering Hartke-trained talent. They were in, or behind the scenes of, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Rhoda," The Boys in the Band, Agnes of God, That Championship Season, Deliverance, Midnight Cowboy, Dog Day Afternoon, Nashville, Joe, The Rocky Horror Show, Pretty Baby, The Exorcist. Commonweal stage critic (1950-52) Walter Kerr was the leading New York City newspaper drama critic for over a quarter century (first with the Herald Tribune and later the Times), while Alan Schneider helped change the face of the American theater with his productions of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and several other works by Edward Albee.

Hartke’s "kids" were everywhere, precisely because he encouraged them to go forth and conquer in the theater world at large and not stay within some self-restricted Catholic theatrical community. This wasn’t the triumph of secularism over religious vision but the result of a vision in which religious faith and artistic commitment could not be at odds. Santo Pietro pinpoints the occasion when this vision crystallized.

Several years before founding his department, Hartke was associated with the Blackfriars Guild, led by Fathers Urban Nagle and Fabian Carey. In fact, "it was the early work of the Blackfriars in Washington that ultimately set Gilbert Hartke on his life’s course." But that course soon diverged sharply from Blackfriars’. The Nagle-Carey goal was to create a specifically Catholic theater movement with Catholic actors performing only those plays that had Catholic content.

By contrast, "Father Hartke came to believe quite strongly that there was only one theater in the world, and although one might try to influence it for the good and produce it only at its best, there was little value in creating a separate Catholic theater. The primary job of Catholic University became that of training people to succeed as artists and as human beings in the one universal theater, and training teachers to teach about it in Christian ways, in Christian settings."

But there is an unignorable difference between the mainstream American theater that existed when Hartke began his drama school in the 1930s and that which prevailed at the time of his death. The former, at its best or even its light-hearted second-best, was a purveyor of what I would call a deep humanism in order to distinguish it from that bugaboo of televangelists and conservative Republicans, secular humanism. A deep humanism in the theater accommodates Aeschylus and George Gershwin, Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams and Zero Mostel. It implicitly or explicitly affirms that a human being is more than the sum of the body’s material components, and that the individual’s assignment in the universe is more than the exertion of power in order to dominate space. It maintains that though a person subsides into dust at death, something transcends the dust. You feel this transcendence when the Marxist Odets has his Waiting for Lefty characters shout "Strike!" and also when the Christian conservative T. S. Eliot has his Thomas Becket wrestle with his conscience. Within this wide spectrum of deep humanism, the particularities of political partisanship dwindle. Hartke would have been at ease with either Lefty or Murder in the Cathedral on the boards of the theater that bears his name.

But he would not have felt comfortable with, say, Genet’s The Balcony or many other works by modern playwrights usually labeled "absurdists." And I believe he would have felt distinctly at odds with several noteworthy recent plays, such as Angels in America, Albee’s recent The Goat, or scarcely anything written by the whole recent wave of youngish British playwrights such as Caryl Churchill and Howard Benton. How well I remember Hartke snarling his displeasure at the fact that his beloved Olney Theater was presenting an excellent production of Brecht’s Happy End. It wasn’t Brecht’s Marxism per se that bothered him (staunchly anti-Communist though he was) but rather that the Brechtian ethos of "first grub, then ethics" unleashed a snarling materialism, derisive of any transcendence, onto the stage, just as Genet, with his homosexual worship of male muscle and genitalia, glorified a neopaganism. If Ionesco’s absurdist Rhinoceros found a place on the Hartke stage, it was because its message of anticonformity seemed humanistic, but most of the so-called Absurdists never bothered to light just one little candle in the darkness of existence because cursing the darkness had become their poetry. Thersites occupies center stage while Priam and Andromache wander forever in the wings. There is still plenty of full-blooded deep humanism on the New York stage but it tends to manifest itself in revivals of classics rather than in new plays. (In fact, revivals of Arthur Miller, Noel Coward, and Turgenev now dominate Broadway.) Under the influence of European absurdism, the climate of contemporary American theater has shifted. And since American writers are always more unruly, more extreme, more raucous than Europeans, our playwrights have managed to transform European nihilism into American raunch and grunge-not exactly the ethos Hartke had in mind when he decided to train artists for "the one universal theater," a concept that seems almost derisible in today’s theater culture.

Beyond doubt, Father Hartke chose the braver, more adventurous path of training his students to work with the culture at large rather than develop the more parochial vision of the Blackfriars. However, a young actor or playwright leaving Catholic U’s drama department today, convinced of his faith and trained in his craft, isn’t just embarking on an adventurous career but is committing an act of subversive cultural infiltration.

Published in the 2002-06-01 issue: 
Tags

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

Also by this author
A lion, even in winter

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Culture
Books
Books
Collections