THIS EVENT HAS TAKEN PLACE
The February meeting of the Society was fascinating in that it brought together a number of people who have been actively concerned with the establishment of the study of theatre in British universities. Few of those involved in the very early days survive, but the four panellists and a number of speakers from the floor shared memories of the ways in which the earliest departments were established and how their approach to this new academic discipline developed.
The first university department devoted to the study of theatre in Great Britain was set up in 1947 at Bristol, and then only as part of a joint degree with a foreign or classical language, or as a 'general arts' degree with drama as one of three subjects. Those beginnings were recalled by Professor Michael Anderson, who, though not there at the very beginning, described early days in Bristol as a student and then lecturer, before he moved on to Bangor and Kent. Former Society Secretary Derek Forbes, himself a Bristol graduate, added a reminder of the role of Thomas Taig in bringing the department into being. As a former lecturer in the English department Taig found himself at a disadvantage when the Professor of English (who openly admitted to a suspicion of performance-orientated studies) was appointed Head of the new Drama Department. 'Tommy' Taig's frustration led to his resignation in 1950. By this time Glynne Wickham (later for many years President of our Society) had joined the staff. Professor Anderson related how the new department then forged ahead under Wickham's leadership, supported by a sympathetic Vice-chancellor and an enthusiastic titular head of department in Professor H.D.F. Kitto, and with the aid of new colleagues in George Rowell and George Brandt. In time Glynne Wickham became Head of Department and the university's first Professor of Drama.
Professor Jan McDonald, who was in at the beginning of the University of Glasgow drama department, spoke of how the charismatic Professor James Arnott, with McDonald in staunch support, managed to bring it in to being. Professor Donald Roy, an unexpected and welcome addition to the previously advertised panel, described the establishment of the drama department at the University of Hull.
Manchester University's drama department was the second to be established after Bristol. Its renowned leader, Hugh Hunt, actually preceded Glynne Wickham as the first Professor of Drama in this country.
Professor Peter Thomson, who chaired the panel, spoke of the difference between teaching students of theatre, compared with his first academic post as a college fellow in English at Cambridge. He went from teaching English at Cambridge to join the drama departments at Manchester, Swansea and then Exeter.
He found that students of drama brought an active enthusiasm and asked provocative and wide ranging questions of a kind that he never encountered at Cambridge. The same spirit of personal engagement and the same investment in the practices of theatre, he suggested, still pervades in the drama departments of the twenty-first century. For the teaching staff, the commodification of 'research' - no longer a disinterested pursuit on the model of the STR - is a major, inimical change.
From their accounts of the early days speakers went on to consider what has happened in drama departments and the situation today. As Professor McDonald put it, with the growth of film and media studies, university theatre and drama departments (of which there are now over seventy) have become established institutions. There has been a shift from 'drama' towards an assertively anti-historical study of 'performance' in some of the new universities (formerly polytechnics); and it may be that Glasgow is not the only 'old' university that finds it has been nurturing a 'worm in the bud' by fostering film and television studies - greedier of resources than Drama, which used to be the costliest of Arts subjects. There is a constant need for University drama departments to reappraise their role.
A more detailed report will appear later.
Lecture Reports Index
Mander & Mitcheson Theatre Collection (News: Dec 2010)
22nd May 2008