John Louis Bonn, the Bard, and Boston College Theater in the 1940s

Five actors in costume, including King Lear, Cordelia, Regan, and Goneril, and the Fool

Boston College performers in the 1941 production of King Lear, Box 31, John Louis Bonn, SJ papers, BC.1986.014, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

 

"The Boston College Dramatic Society (1866-1941), December Sixth, Jordan Hall, 8:30 will present a benefit performance for its new workshop in Cardinal O'Connell Hall in memory of Mr. Joseph Willis with Paul Good in Mr. William Shakespeare's tragedy of King Lear. From the original text with a powerful cast including: Constantine Pappas, Edward Myers, Barrett Murphy, John McNaught, Robert Lacy and Richard Ward. Directed by John Louis Bonn with production supervised by Eliot Davey."

Playbill for the 1941 Boston College production of King Lear, Box 31, John Louis Bonn, SJ papers, BC.1986.014, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

 

 

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.)

 

Two pages from scrapbook, one containing a floorpan of stage noting actor's marks, the other containing an annotated page from the script.

Stage notes for King Lear in Bonn’s scrapbook, John Louis Bonn, SJ papers, BC.1986.014, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

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. 

Actor in costume as Edmund.

Leo Murphy BC ’42 in costume as Edmund, John Louis Bonn, SJ papers, BC.1986.014, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

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.

"Leading characters in cast of King Lear: Standing, left to right: William Dunn as Regan, Paul Good as Lear, and Joe Dever as General. Seated: Francis McMahon as Cordelia."

Photo of cast from the front page of The Heights, The Heights, Volume XIII no. 9, Friday December 5, 1941, https://newspapers.bc.edu/?a=d&d=bcheights19411205&e=——-en-20–1–txt-txIN——-

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.

"The audience found further amusement in Joseph Dever's interpretation of General. In all fairness to Mr. Dever we realize that he was not consciously at fault. He tried, even struggled to be convincingly feminine, but the effort was useless. We fear that he will never make an actress."

Excerpt from review of King Lear, The Heights, Volume XIII no. 10, Friday December 11, 1941, https://newspapers.bc.edu/?a=d&d=bcheights19411212&e=——-en-20–1–txt-txIN——-

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
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