John Louis Bonn, SJ, who taught theater at Boston College between 1930-1949 and directed the School of Dramatic Arts from 1937-1943, made a lasting impression on Boston College’s theater culture. Bonn directed many student plays and documented these performances in his scrapbooks, which we hold as part of the John Louis Bonn, SJ papers. They include photographs, playbills, and scripts complete with stage directions, edits, and additions.
Bonn directed the December 6, 1941 production of King Lear. He adapted Shakespeare’s play and selected the cast from members of the BC Dramatics Society. At the time, Boston College only admitted men and, in this play in which women play vital roles, the female roles were filled by male actors. (In other plays, women from neighboring colleges and dramatic societies sometimes appeared in the cast.)
One scrapbook contains Bonn’s notes about the production with edits of the script, stage directions, notes about music, entrances, and props, stage layouts, and so on. For a pivotal early scene, in which Lear asks each of his daughters to describe their love for him, Bonn mapped out the entire stage with character positions. He annotated the script on the facing scrapbook page heavily with extra stage directions, including where music should come in, what the performers should be doing during certain lines, and lines that he would cut or modify.
There are even photographs of the cast in costume, including a group shot of Lear and the female characters and headshots of other characters. Edmund, played by Leo Murphy BC ’42 looks very dashing and Errol Flynn-esque.
While the play made the front page of The Heights before its performance, it did not get similar coverage in the next issue the following week. Sadly that was due to the Pearl Harbor attack merely one day after the play. Consequently, the December 12, 1941 issue of The Heights has a very different tone. Almost every article covered Pearl Harbor, the US’s looming entrance into World War II, and retrospectives on BC students’ participation in World War I. Tucked away deeper inside the paper, there is a not-entirely-positive review of King Lear.
Bonn’s papers–these scrapbooks and other items–bring to life this time period in Boston College history and illuminate the early days of the College’s theater program. Bonn would later be memorialized in the “Bonn Studio Theater,” which is still in use today. Actor Leonard Nimoy would remember Bonn fondly as someone who gave him an early break in local theater by inviting teenaged Nimoy to attend a summer class on the BC campus.
If you’re interested in the history of theater at Boston College, please come in to take a look at the John Louis Bonn, SJ Papers at the Burns Library reading room.
- Annalisa Moretti, Archives Specialist, John J. Burns Library