After a controversial three-month engagement with the Federal Theatre Project in 1937, which culminated in the giant success of “The Cradle Will Rock,” an avant-garde musical with a pro-Union political slant, John Houseman, the director of the musical, found himself without a job. Hallie Flanagan, the leader of the Roosevelt Administration’s Federal Theatre Project and director of the Experimental Theatre at Vassar, informed Houseman that the FTP, a pet peeve of conservative Congressmen, seemed doomed. While Flanagan would fight until the FTP’s eventual dissolution in 1939, she offered Houseman her own job at Vassar for one year, and he gladly accepted the position.
Technically a member of the English department from 1937 to 1938, Houseman taught courses in the history of drama, but focused largely on directing plays for the Experimental Theatre. His 1937 production of Jean Cocteau’s The Infernal Machine (1934), a reimagining of the Oedipus story, stirred up the campus and the pages of newspapers with discourse.
In The Miscellany News, Madeleine Leliepvre, a visiting lecturer in the French department, praised the “very competent direction of Mr. John Houseman,” yet doubted the play’s closing tableau: Jocasta, Oedipus, and Antigone “should have disappeared, faded away, after having accomplished their terrible destiny” offered Leliepvre. ”I think that their coming forward…and their too natural exit through a door…somewhat broke the spell of the very beautiful and original ending.”
“A mournful chasm yawned between the feminine and masculine performances,” Alison Bruere ‘38 observed in The Miscellany News. Nonetheless, she conceded that despite the male actors’ deficiencies and a lack of sufficient rehearsal time, “Mr. Houseman has pulled a pictorially satisfying and frequently exciting performance out of his second-best hat.”
Houseman also had reservations about Vassar. Speaking to The Miscellany News, he said he was “surprised at ‘the extreme lack of social consciousness’ among girls who take D.P. [Dramatic Production] at Vassar.” Still, he seemed to like and respect his students, and supported their theatrical endeavors to the best of his ability. Houseman also encouraged his Vassar students to see his professional work. He arranged discounts for Vassar students to see his productions at the Mercury Theatre in New York City; a student could see the musical The Cradle Will Rock for just 65 cents in the spring of 1938.
Perhaps John Houseman’s greatest legacy to Vassar lies in the Dutchess County Players. In the spring of 1938, Elizabeth Walling ‘38, obtained Houseman’s help in launching “a serious co-operative venture for young men and women interested in one or all sides of the professional theatre” to be housed “on the Vassar campus, entirely independent of college supervision,” as she told The Miscellany News. Walling’s project gained financial sponsorship from, among others, Vassar President Henry Noble MacCracken and from Houseman’s Mercury Theatre partner, Orson Welles.
Working alongside professional technicians and actors from the Mercury Theatre, Vassar students and Poughkeepsie locals participated in a successful summer season. The Dutchess County Players performed three plays in 1938. The first, Eugene Scribe’s A Russian Honeymoon, included a lavish set design imitating an imperial palace and hand-made Russian costumes brought up from New York City. Louis Simon directed A Russian Honeymoon, as well as the second play: the premiere of John Milton Caldwell’s Tree of Heaven, which featured Marion Haase, who, according to the Miscellany News, so impressed a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer talent scout in the audience that he offered the young actress a screen test with the prominent Hollywood studio. John Houseman himself handled the third production, S.N. Behrman’s Serena Blandish, which particularly delighted crowds for its onstage use of a live monkey, who played the role of the Countess Fleur de Folio’s pet. Offstage, Guy Kingsley, a Mercury Theatre actor, “very much pampered” the animal.
Houseman’s “best hat,” no doubt, was the Mercury Theatre, which he and his friend Orson Welles had founded early in 1937. Consequently, he juggled his schedule between New York and Poughkeepsie, which often involved his waking up at dawn and making countless trips back and forth, a routine that grew tedious for him and led to Houseman’s departure from Vassar after just two years, allowing him to focus entirely on his groundbreaking work at the Mercury Theatre.
In his memoir, Unfinished Business, he remarked of his brief stay at Vassar:
If I brought them [his students] anything, it was the exciting sense of big-time professional theater which I carried with me from New York as I came roaring onto the campus twice a week and slid to a screeching stop before the Experimental Theater building.
After his brief experience teaching in Poughkeepsie, Houseman resumed a long and varied career in the arts. In 1938 he partnered again with Orson Welles, this time on the famous radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, which many American listeners allegedly found so believable that it threw much of the country into a momentary panic. Three years later, in 1941, Houseman, at Welles’ urging, oversaw the writing of the screenplay for Welles’ most well known film, Citizen Kane. Houseman, among other contributions, made sure that Herman Mankiewicz completed the film’s script in time.
In 1973, at the age of 71, Houseman became a household name with his starring role in The Paper Chase, a film that earned Houseman both a Golden Globe and an Oscar. The film inspired the nine-year hit television show, also named The Paper Chase, in which he reprised his stage role as the daunting Harvard Law School Professor Charles Kingsfield. During this time, too, Houseman founded the Drama Division at the renowned Julliard School. Of this achievement, he confided in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin: “My great claim to fame now is not that I spent 50 years in the theater arts, but that I was Robin Williams’ teacher at Julliard.” Houseman passed away in 1988 at the age of 86.
- Documents and information concerning the Federal Theatre Project can be found in the Library of Congress’s American Memory project.
“From Disaster, a Distinguished Career.” TV News. Oct 21, 1978.
Houseman, John. Unfinished Business: Memoirs, 1902–1988. New York:
Applause Theatre Books, 1989.
Polier, Rex. “Interview with John Houseman.” Evening Bulletin. December 29,
Vassar College Special Collections. John Houseman Biographical File. Folder 1.