On June 25, 1954, Professor of Drama Mary Virginia Heinlein ’25 received a hand-written poem from her student Kuni Marcus ’54. The piece—an assignment turned in very late, perhaps—concludes thus:
Professor! Do I know because I know?
Or, do I know because you told me so?
Heinlein began teaching at Vassar in 1942, returning to her alma mater after a wide-ranging career in academia and the arts. Born in 1903 in Bridgeport, Ohio, Heinlein never forgot her origins. As a young girl, she became enthralled with the theatre as a result of seeing traveling productions pass through her region of the Ohio River Valley. “I was a Republican the first four years of my life,” she told Anita Schuster ’45 in an interview in The Miscellany News. “Before elections they would have bright noisy torchlight processions down Main Street, and I wanted to be in them!” The “memorial minute,” written by four faculty colleagues and presented at a meeting of the faculty, noted, “she could bring generations of Bridgeport people alive for us with her reminiscences.”
In 1921, she entered Ohio State University, but she transferred to Vassar two years later. Entering as a junior, she immediately made an impression as a remarkable student. Professor Winifred Smith was “struck by her intuitive and vivid understanding of Elizabethan drama, unusual in students then or now; by her quick response even to the old-fashioned Elizabethan humor…which she could interpret in the medium of American rural dialect and slang.” President Henry Noble MacCracken said, “an obscure member (as we often let transfers be) of a brilliant class, with no toehold in her glass mountain, she climbed to the presidency of Debate Council, then the most favored of college sports.” The debate team occupied much of Heinlein’s time as a student.
In October 1924, Vassar hosted the University of Cambridge Debate Society, and the two sides sparred over the topic “Resolved: that modern democracy is not compatible with personal liberty.” Heinlein shone in the debate, but— although the audience was unquestionably swayed by the Vassar representatives—the judges awarded Cambridge the victory. One of Cambridge’s delegates was Richard Austin Butler, the future British Chancellor of the Exchequer and Home Secretary. Looking back after 30 years, “Rab” Butler recalled: “We found the earnest, logical Yankees easy to flummox, except for the Vassar girls, who ran circles round us.”
Graduating from Vassar in 1925, Heinlein followed her true passion, acting, at the Theatre Guild School in New York City, under the tutelage of, among others, Winifred Lenihan, Alfred Lunt, Helen Hayes, and Cornelia Otis Skinner. Here she steeped herself in the new acting techniques of psychological realism, the “method” pioneered by Konstantin Stanislavski—a style she honed for the rest of her career. Between those early days and 1929, Heinlein made a modest living performing with small stock companies, serving as a production assistant and a play reader, and directing one of her first professional productions with the Playgoers’ Theatre in Cambridge, MA. When the Depression hit, however, she returned home to Bridgeport to work in her father’s law office and to redirect her career by entering the law school at Ohio State. In 1933 Sarah Lawrence College invited Heinlein to introduce drama to its liberal arts curriculum, and she left law school, becoming instead a full-time teacher and director of dramatics at the Bronxville, NY, college.
When the renowned founder and director of Vassar’s Experimental Theatre, Hallie Flanagan Davis, moved to Smith College in 1942, Mary Virginia Heinlein was selected to replace her. The Miscellany News interviewed her in her first year about her experience teaching at Vassar: “The students are wonderful,” she said, “and I enjoy them immensely. But I was nearly knocked off my feet when I found that some cut a class.” She did not expect students, she declared, to cut class unless they were “at Death’s door.” This strict approach became Heinlein’s signature as a professor and director. One student said of her: “She behaved as if our naiveté were a fault we could shed if we chose; and she chose that we get rid of it fast.”
Heinlein’s role in the drama department consisted of chairing the department, teaching a playwriting class, and directing the three mainstage productions each year, which she took great care in. Participation in these performances meant enrolling in Dramatic Production, or “D.P.,” as students and faculty had been calling the course since Hallie Flanagan invented it several years earlier. “She was both revered and hated,” recalled Professor Emeritus of Drama Evert Sprinchorn, a colleague of Heinlein’s in his early years at the college. “She was a very difficult person. Flanagan and Heinlein were completely different theatre people. Heinlein worked intensively with actors who she thought had talent; she didn’t care much about the other aspects of the theatre besides acting.”
Heinlein’s first D.P. production was in November 1942, when she directed a rally for the War Chest Drive, written by drama students, English students, and other community members. Billed as a Vassar community event, the production comprised over 100 performers, including faculty members and local Boy Scouts, church groups, and servicemen. A reviewer in The Miscellany News recognized the work’s difficult challenge: “As a Rally whose practical purpose was to explain the meaning of a drive for money to those whose hard task was its collection, it was exceedingly successful…. The drive was a hard subject to dramatize, the results might have been trite, or at least usual. Yet, the material was written and staged naturally and beautifully, and with expert skill. Miss Heinlein may be justly proud of her debut.” The influential professor of English, Helen D. Lockwood ’12 also praised the production. “Mary Virginia Heinlein,” she wrote, “had the insight to go right to the heart of the community’s need, and she had the full support of the college staff and of men, women, children in the city…. The show helped to do what only the arts can do in unifying a community and freeing its will for action. This is high praise indeed and it is meant to be. For here are the seeds of new life.”
Heinlein’s job involved hiring a few professional actors from both Poughkeepsie and New York City to appear in Experimental Theatre productions. Following Flanagan’s tradition, she also invited faculty members to perform. President MacCracken and Associate Professor of Political Science C. Gordon Post, for example, portrayed, respectively, Prospero and Caliban, in The Tempest (1944). This strategy worked particularly well for important male characters and, according to Professor Sprinchorn, Heinlein’s casting choices not only added a professional sheen to her shows; they also embraced the Poughkeepsie community in a way subsequent drama department productions did not. Heinlein’s D.P. productions were great hits on campus. On several occasions, irritated students wrote to the editor of The Miscellany News, complaining about tickets selling out so quickly, and many students agreed with “the basic fact,” as one put it, “that more performances of D.P. productions should be scheduled in the first place,” since “every couple of years…the college community feels frustrated and annoyed at not being able to see a play.”
Heinlein chose plays across a wide range of genres, and Vassar audiences in the 1940s and 50s enjoyed an eclectic array of performances. Some highlights included: the American premieres of William Saroyan’s Elmer and Lily (1943) and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Mouches (1947); Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano (1958); Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (1945), e.e. cummings’s him (1944) and Lorca’s Blood Wedding (1945), along with several plays written by students themselves.
Professor Sprinchorn recalled acting in another one of her important productions, Chekhov’s Three Sisters (1956), and both her uncanny skill and her near-total absorption. Late in Act 1, Masha, who has previously announced her departure, listens to Vershinin’s idealist speech, and says, “I think I’ll stay for lunch.” A student was unsuccessfully following Heinlein’s instruction:
“Heinlein paced back and forth, saying ‘No, no, no! Do it again!’ Then Heinlein herself did the scene, and it was beautiful. And you realized she knew what she was talking about. She extracted a great performance. And what Heinlein did was explore that subtext—beautiful, expressive. She took a full cross of the stage, carrying an imaginary hat, and she walked across the stage to an imaginary mirror and pulled off an imaginary hat pin, and then said, ‘I think I’ll stay for lunch.’ But she wasn’t saying, ‘I think I’ll stay for lunch’; she was saying, ‘I’ve fallen in love.’ It came across. It was a kind of revelation to me—that such a simple line was made to convey that sense.”
Sprinchorn’s coupled his admiration for Heinlein’s dramatic abilities with the question of whether her technique served the pedagogical mission: “Was this the right way to treat that student?” he asks. “She exposed that student to humiliation because Heinlein herself wanted to show off and say, ‘You see how good I really am?’ ”
Mary Virginia Heinlein apparently did draw pride from her accomplishments. Unlike most faculty members’ biographical files, Heinlein’s is full to the brim with memos, letters, and correspondence sent to the college’s public relations division, announcing her new accomplishments. There is no ignoring, however, her serious contributions to theatre in America and the world: she served—to name just a few of them—as a member of the executive committee of the New York State Theatre Conference, a member of the National Theatre and Academy, a member of the American Theatre Educational Association, the American Association of University Women, and the American Association of University Professors; she was a Theatre Resource Expert for UNESCO’s National Conference of the United States Commission and a delegate to the National Theatre Assembly,
Her work at Vassar seemed to have a profound impact on her faculty colleagues, four of whom—an historian, a social scientist, a psychologist, and her drama department colleague Professor William Rothwell—praised it in the “memorial minute”:
“We all had a share in Miss Heinlein’s educational enterprise, even those of us who never appeared on her stage… We were her audience, whom she made feel as essential to the theatre, between curtain-up and curtain-down, as her cast. …. In the end every one of us had his own treasury of satisfying memories of her theatre; perhaps the power and the insights in her production of The Tempest; perhaps the sights and sounds of young women, so moving, against the stylized sets of The Mother of Us All; perhaps the perfection of The Blood Wedding, that ‘brooding folkplay of simple peasants, devoid of all décor but mere sunlight on plaster walls.’”
Mary Virginia Heinlein taught her last class at Vassar on December 20, 1961. She died of cancer on Christmas Day. She was survived by her brother, Joseph C. Heinlein of Bridgeport, and her two sisters, Mrs. Margaret Perry of Bridgeport and Lady Harmsworth of Lime Lodge, in Egham, Surrey, England. In the years leading up to the opening of the Powerhouse Theatre on campus, some drama alumnae wished the building to be dedicated to Hallie Flanagan, while others advocated for Heinlein. In the end, the naming of the Powerhouse Theatre went to Hallie Flanagan; but with the more recent inauguration of the Vogelstein Center for Drama and Film in 2004, the stage of the Martel Theatre, the center’s mainstage, is proudly labeled for posterity as “The Mary Virginia Heinlein Stage.” She might well have thought it appropriate.
“To Face Cambridge Team.” Miscellany News. October 8, 1924.
“Miss Heinlein, New Head of Theatre, Frowns on Students who Cut Classes.” The Miscellany News. October 10, 1942.
“First Production.” The Miscellany News. November 21, 1942.
“Torchlight Parades First Spotlight in Heinlein’s Varied Theatrical Career,” The Miscellany News, vol. XXVIII, no. 19, February 10, 1944.
“What Happened to Electra?” The Miscellany News. March 25, 1950.
“College Mourns Heinlein’s Death.” The Miscellany News. January 21, 1962.
“A British Victory at Vassar: Debating Team from Cambridge University, Which Beat the Girls’ Team on Their Home Territory,” The New York Times, October 26, 1924.
Untitled Poem. Kuni Marcus to Mary Virginia Heinlein. June 25, 1954. Biographical File. Folder 1. Vassar College Special Collections (VCSC).
“Mary Virginia Heinlein: 1903–1961,” Memorial Minute. January 1962. (VCSC)