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.
http://digital.lib.uiowa.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/tc/id/45353/rec/1 was the source for the above photo of Dean Dennis as well as the flyer for his talents as a Chatauqua speaker, both edifying and electrifying. His specialty was travel and culture, his style was the 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 www.Northbynorthwestern.com()
Looking back from 2012, it may be Dean Dennis' founding of the Summer Institute that impresses us more. www.northwestern.edu/nhsi 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” was in the beginning meant to be a tour of the glories of the world, a sharp inquiry into European colonialism, a sympathetic visit to 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. Sometimes funny and sometimes dismaying. By the end Dean Dennis has learned a lot about colonial hell and devilish oppressors. As he says, “The British world is a wonderful one -- for the British.” By that time he had been in trouble for calling a half-caste “brother” and for running out of money because of changes in banking rules due to the war. 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. Or what he took for those qualities. One of his favorite friends is Lew Sarett, poet and naturalist. 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 sit 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 (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 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 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 it.
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 admirably willing to visit shantytowns.
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.