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...

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About the Author

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.