TOWARD A 'CATHOLIC' THEATER : The Legacy of Gilbert Hartke

By Alleva, Richard | Commonweal, June 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

TOWARD A 'CATHOLIC' THEATER : The Legacy of Gilbert Hartke


Alleva, Richard, Commonweal


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 Moliere 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. …

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