The tradition of student theater on campus was launched with satiric laughter. Among the earliest student dramatic productions were a Washington's Birthday Souvenir mocking the founding of the University and The New Cosmology portraying prominent faculty members in the guise of Greek gods.
Musical comedy made its debut in 1899 with The Deceitful Dean, an entertainment featuring such familiar campus characters as Registrar A. Bludsucker, Examiner Lawrence Lowmarker, and Tabitha Teachem, the dour head of Mary Jane House. The east of The Academic Alchemist (1900) followed with a still more elaborate comic production focused on United States President William McKingly, University President William Brainy Driver, Secretary to the President H. E. Runsitall, and Uriah Wiley, the mysterious Head Professor of Alchemy
Some of the most popular shows were the original musical comedies presented by the Blackfriars, an all-male troupe founded in 1903. Inspired by collegiate groups such as Harvard's Hasty Pudding and Pennsylvania's Mask and Wig, the Blackfriars membership included one man from each fraternity and any actors "fitted for amusing themselves and others." Their early productions established the Blackfriars as masters of campus burlesque, with men playing all the roles. The exotic Eastern setting of The Rushing of Boxes (1906) recalled the University's Egyptian Expedition undertaken by Professor James Henry Breasted. Sure Enough Segregation (1907) provided a mordant commentary on the brief experiment with classroom separation of men and women in the Junior College.
Blackfriars shows became increasingly sophisticated after 1910, and in the 1920s directing, costuming, and staging were placed entirely in the hands of professionals. The tradition of handsome males and more handsome females was sustained through productions including Wallie, Watch Out! (1926), an exuberant skewering of flappers, fraternities, and the Florida land boom; Mr. Cinderella (1929), which introduced the infectious Midway Shuffle; Captain Kidd, Jr. (1931), starring lithe Joseph Salek (PhB 1932) as Zee Zee; topical shows such as In Brains We Trust (1935) and Fascist and Furious (1936); and the torrid Mexican romance of Love Over the Line (1939).
The Blackfriars tradition,
neglected during World War II, sprang back to life in 1957 with
a production of Gamma Delta Iota. Alternating between presentations
of original comedies, Broadway musicals, and revivals of earlier Blackfriars
hits, the revived company has produced such shows as The Boys from
Syracuse (1967), What U. C. Is What You Get (1973), and Publish
or Perish (1976.)
The Blackfriars, though popular for much of the University's history, was hardly the first or only student theater group. The tradition of original, student-inspired drama was established in 1895 with the founding of the Dramatic Club. Like most student organizations, the Dramatic Club was created without any active encouragement from the University administration. After 1900, Dramatic Club productions like Miss Flim Flam were joined by a wide variety of other plays ranging from light melodramas to recognized classics.
In 1923 proliferating student theater groups were brought together under the Dramatic Association, a coordinating organization which helped arrange scheduling and production details. Each component of the Association was allowed to retain its own distinctive identity: the Gargoyles (the descendant of the Dramatic Club) admitted both men and women; the Tower Players admitted only men; while the Mirror Review, a group responsible for staging spectacular chorus-line musicals each spring, was composed entirely of women. By 1936 , the Dramatic Association had an impressive total of 300 members and listed among its alumni professional actors and actresses such as Milton Sills (PhB 1931, JD 1932 ), Frances Dee (Ex 1931), Emily Tart (PhB 1919), Marie Adels (Ex 1926), Margaret Letitia Ide (G 1926 Lab School), Lucite Hoerr (PhB 1930), James Carlin Crandall (PhB 1920), Frank Parker (PhB 1923, AM 1927), Fred Handschy (PhB 1926), Will Geer (SB 1924), and Fritz Leiber (PhB 1932).
Drama at the University
of Chicago expanded again in 1946 with the formation of University Theater,
founded by George Blair. University Theater, like its numerous dramatic
predecessors, placed an emphasis on innovative and professional productions.
But UT's emphasis on interpretations of classical drama from Shakespeare
and Marlowe to T. S. Eliot differentiated it from the wildly original
scripts of the Blackfriars. UT was also considered to be a literary
theater, distinguishing it from the more popular fare of the Dramatic
The postwar years were also a fruitful time for student comedy. In 1950, students organized a new theatrical venture, Tonight at 8:30, led by a group that included Paul Sills (Ex 1952), Severn Darden (Ex 1950), Ed Asner (Ex 1948), and Mike Nichols (Ex 1953), and began the series of stage experiments that soon moved to off-campus locations. The Playwright's Theater, the Compass Players, and eventually the Second City improvisational troupes were the famous progeny of this student enterprise.
Student drama took another important step in 1955, when Hutchinson Court was converted into a summer performance space under the name Court Theatre. Through the 1960s, Court presented a succession of plays drawn from the classics and staged by a resourceful group of students, amateurs, and a sprinkling of professional actors. In the 1970s, Court Theatre was transformed into a year-round professional and resident ensemble, and in 1981 it moved info permanent quarters in its new building al the north edge of the campus. On other stages, student theater retained its vitality with continuing productions of University Theater in Reynolds Club and new experimental ventures such as Off Off Campus.