No one seems to object to the transcriptions and posting of AK’s comments which are at I’m putting comments and analysis on a separate blog, this one, so that people who don’t want to read such things don’t have to. This blog is set to accept anonymous comments, but I read them all and won’t tolerate flame wars. None have started.

Some of the most interesting and useful feedback on this material is coming in emails, some shared and others not shared, which I don’t want to post with names attached unless I have permission. I’m just going ahead to name the people AK named in her notes -- it’s been half a century since then, after all. Indeed, some of the email comments are arriving from people in that time period as well and those of us who know each other can probably guess who said what.

In good “discussion” mode, I’ll try to separate the issues from the people.

1. It is most moving that after fifty years the memory of personal relationships with AK have the status of love affairs, magical relationships that have inspired people for decades. They do NOT want that interfered with. Who would?

2. Likewise, there were a few people deeply wounded by past misunderstanding and schism and they, too, still hurt. To some this might be a reason to shut down, but to me it’s a reason to continue.

3. One opinion is that AK’s teaching methods are obsolete now. Students will no longer tolerate the confrontive and sometimes invasive tactics she used then. Indeed, some people wouldn’t accept them then, but they quietly went elsewhere. Is it a loss or a gain to give up the auteur model of teaching? Stanislavki was, after all, a Russian like the famously dictatorial ballet masters.

4. Is it true that academic theatre is nothing like professional theatre? You can still be tough on professional actors? (If Equity allows it.)

5. Some feel that theatre is totally different now. Whatever was important then is NOT important now. Or, to the contrary, theatre, esp. repertory theatre, is entering a renaissance that is vital and thriving across the country with new companies still being founded.

6. AK’s life trajectory is not really understandable without considering the time periods, the place, the administrators, sexism, and so on. No different from understanding a character in a play. (I confess -- this is my opinion.) All this happened before the Derrida Deconstruction craze, but we understand that, don’t we?

Mary Strachan Scriver

(Prairie Mary_

Friday, September 28, 2012


Here in my hand is a little booklet entitled “A Report from Dean Dennis from the School of Speech.”  It is the equivalent of a blog, meaning that it is the collected letters that Ralph Dennis wrote, mimeographed, and sent to a list of friends while he traveled around the world on sabbatical.  As it happened, the time period coincides with the period of my gestation (B. October, 1939) which is totally irrelevant compared to the other coincidence:  the beginning of WWII, which cut short the trip.  This is what made the “posts” significant enough to be underwritten by Washington Flexner, a Chicago patron of the NU community.  I’m grateful, because it allows insight into Ralph Dennis, who had much more to do with Alvina Krause as teacher of acting than did Stanislavsky.  It was Dean Dennis who hired and supported AK through many challenges.

one can see a photo of Dean Dennis as well as  flyer for his talents as a Chatauqua speaker, both edifying and electrifying.  His specialty was travel and culture, his mode was Mid-Western practical idealism of a Harry Truman sort.  Not that he wasn’t capable of whimsy.  Consider the following:

McCarthy was a well-known entertainer, whose Chicago-based radio show, The Edgar Bergen/Charlie McCarthy Show, aired on NBC from 1937-1956. In August 1938, during an appearance on the show, School of Speech dean Ralph Dennis awarded McCarthy an honorary “Master of Innuendo and Snappy Comebacks” degree. What’s so strange about that, you ask? Well, McCarthy is a dummy. No, I’m not insulting his intelligence–McCarthy was actually a ventriloquist’s doll.  McCarthy’s creator, Edgar Bergen, discovered at a young age that he had a talent for throwing his voice. So while attending high school in Chicago he created a dummy, named Charlie McCarthy and modeled after a local newsie, and began performing as a ventriloquist. In the 1920s, Bergen came to Northwestern originally to study medicine, but soon decided to transfer to the School of Speech and eventually dropped out to pursue his career in entertainment.   (From

Looking back from 2012, it may be the founding of the National High School Summer Institute that impresses us more.   Sentimental, idealistic, romantic, and calling its participants “cherubs,” the whole thing might strike us as almost unbearably twee if so many good consequences hadn’t come from it when the cherubs grew up.

This “blog” of a tour was in the beginning meant to be a visit to the glories of the world, a sharp inquiry into European colonialism, a sympathetic investigation of the world of the -- well, the “Third World” before it was called that.  Lots of shipboard conversations with ex-pats after the sun had sunk below the yardarm -- and all that.  But by the end Dean Dennis has learned a lot about hell and devilish oppressors.  As he says, “The British world is a wonderful one -- for the British.”  By that time he has gotten into trouble for calling a half-caste “brother” and has run out of money because of changes in banking rules due to the war.  He would have been jailed except for intervention by one of those Brits.  His patience wore thin.  

But his reaction was not to “oppose slings and arrows.”  Rather, he became a defender of isolationism, an appreciator of Evanston, Illlnois, as a center of civilization and intelligence.  He’s more progressive than liberal.  His eyes are opened.  He says,  “I do not believe that we are so holy, so righteous, that it is our duty to arm to the teeth and preach sermons abroad. . . I do not believe that our democracy is challenged by the war in Europe.  I believe that our democracy is challenged by its own internal weaknesses.  I believe that it is our job to make democracy work here and to let the other nations of the world govern themselves as they see fit.  I do not believe that God wants the United States to be the moral policeman of the world.”  

Alvina Krause was not inclined to be a revolutionary or a radical, though she could accept innovative theatre on its own terms.  Like the Chatauqua society of her times (like Harold Bloom, a bit of a throwback), she appreciated the good old Greeks and Elizabethans and the well-known standards, the well-trodden boards of Ibsen and Chekhov.  I can’t remember her talking about attending Broadway plays or even Chicago touring companies.  (Maybe she did and I didn’t know about it.)  I have no idea what she would have made of the theatre companies (like BTE, now) who use circus skills, multi-media, and group-written scripts.  I never heard about her traveling anyplace, though she would refer to Oregon now and then, where she taught as a young woman.  I think that as a very young woman she may have done a few Chatauquas herself.

I don’t know why she and Lucy settled in Bloomsburg, though it is clearer why Eagles Mere seemed a good summer repertory location.  It was just decayed enough to make room for a lodge full of actors and a barn full of plays.  Enough summer people still came to form an audience, though much of it was year-round local.  She was proud when they saw the relevance of the Great Dramas to their lives, but there was a little bit of patronizing in that.  

I could find no biography of Dean Ralph Dennis on Google in spite of his MAJOR contribution to the Northwestern University School of Speech.   He has no entry in Wikipedia. The time between the World Wars goes unremarked, except for the Depression which has suddenly become interesting again.  Someone with access to the NU archives should get to work.  In the meantime, I am glad to have acquired this booklet in 1960 -- I have no idea how or where -- because it is such a window, sometimes in ways Dean Dennis could not have anticipated, though he’s remarkably non-sexist and bravely willing to visit shantytowns.  

As he goes, he reads conscientiously and chats up the locals, but is very glad to get home where they can brew a proper cup of coffee and keep the rooms warm, let alone the plumbing functional.  Somehow, I have a feeling that his “cherubs” were precursors of the Peace Corps.  But a woman in those days was not likely to take off on a tramp steamer with a backpack.  I don’t know whether AK would have done it if she could have.

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