As I mentioned in my first blog post for this year, my CAP project is to go through all of the dissertations, and bachelor’s and master’s theses written by Michigan State students about Michigan State University during its entire history as an institution of higher education. Doing this has granted me access to previous students’ hard work about something they believed in and wished to make known to someone other than themselves and their advisor. The goal of this project (of which I will share more of my results later on) is to find and identify any information that can help supplement the complex and rich histories that we dig up in our excavations.
However, sometimes you come across sources that paint such a rich history, but unfortunately have left no (as yet identified) archaeological trace. I came across one such instance a few weeks ago while reading a master’s thesis in the MSU Special Collections room of the library. Written by William Gibson Butt in 1947, the master’s thesis A History of Dramatic Activities at Michigan State College to 1937 reveals the humble beginnings of the Drama Club on campus and traces its first few decades of history as it became a staple in campus life.
Butt (1947) writes that the Drama Club started in 1910 at the behest of student who wished to put on performances on campus as there was no Department of Theatre at the college at that time. The student put on the play The School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan in the Spring of 1910 to great success. Since there was no stage on campus at the time, the students were required to build their own stage at the old Armory (located where the Music Building is now) but could only construct the stage the day of the play and were required to tear it down that evening after the performance. Sylvester King, a faculty member at MAC, agreed to help the students put on the play. Having a background in theater, King was able to acquire costumes for the production from New York City. After the first production, the club was officially recognized by MAC and put on at least two productions every year.
Once they started doing two productions per year, the Drama Club began putting on plays outdoors in a wooded area just east of where Howard Terrace used to stand. This building was demolished in the early 1920s to make room for the Home Economics Building which still stands today, now called the Human Ecology Building. This would place the location of this outdoor performance area somewhere around where the parking ramp between Human Ecology and Olin Health Center. The Drama Club’s first performance outdoors was As You Like It by William Shakespeare. Again, this performance was so successful that the club started putting all of their Spring plays in this same area, and always performed a work by Shakespeare. Due to these annual plays, this wooded area became known as the Forest of Arden, a setting in As You Like It.
Despite all of this well-documented history showcasing MSU students, it is also quite humbling for an archaeologist such as myself. As an archaeologist, I use artifacts that I unearth to try and understand the lives of those who created or used those artifacts. The object drives the narrative, informs the narrative, and is itself then re-informed by the narrative. In many archaeological settings, the story cannot get told or even discovered if there is no artifact with which to start the conversation. In the case of the storied past and early beginnings of the MSC Drama Club, no artifacts to date have been found or associated with this sect of campus life. The area of campus where The Forest of Arden once stood is now occupied by a parking ramp. Additionally, these outdoor performances were intended to be temporary – the players would have picked up any props or potential artifacts relating to theatrical production. It is in instances like this that we must look at our own limitations and recognize that no matter how much we dig up and even rely on archival resources, we can never encapsulate the entire story.
There are some stories that are archaeologically invisible. Fortunately in the case of the Drama Club, the MSU Department of Theatre, the MSU Library, and the MSU Archives have records and documentation of this history. These stories get to be rediscovered and retold in the future. Other stories sadly get erased through time and leave no material record behind. Thus, we are fortunate to belong to an institution that cares about its own history and allows us to access those memories in whatever way we can so that we can pass along great stories such as these. By understanding that we cannot tell the whole story, we become better story-tellers because the belief that we know everything only closes us up to other voices. We must use as many resources and listen to as many voices as we can so that we can better understand ourselves and our school’s proud history.
Butt W.G. 1947 A History of Dramatic Activities at Michigan State College to 1937. Master’s thesis, Michigan State College, East Lansing, Michigan.