Glenn Hughes, director of the drama program at the University of Washington for more than 30 years, gained international fame as the pioneer of “theater in the round.” His experiments in a friend’s penthouse apartment led to the construction of the Penthouse Theatre, the world's first modern arena theater. His innovative curriculum and state of the art facilities made the University of Washington’s drama program one of the best known in the nation. It was also one of the most profitable, with student productions running almost continuously, attracting audiences large enough to generate budget surpluses year after year. Near the end of his tenure, however, enrollment dropped, the quality of the productions declined, and faculty and student morale ebbed. Finally, in 1961, Hughes was forced to relinquish control of the school he had helped create.
The Legacy of Glenn Hughes
When Glenn Arthur Hughes arrived at the University of Washington as a teaching fellow in September 1919, the drama program was little more than an afterthought in the English Department. Students could study the history and theory of drama (classical, contemporary, or Shakespearean), but they had little exposure to the practical and technical aspects of theatrical production. The only facility available for student performances was the old Meany Auditorium, a cavernous space with 2,200 seats, a shallow stage, and poor acoustics.
Beginning with his appointment as head of a newly created Division of Drama in 1930, Hughes created a program that not only provided a quality education in theater for its students, but also became a significant part of Seattle’s cultural life. Revenues from student productions were used to build two unique on-campus theaters (the Penthouse and the Showboat) and to acquire and remodel a third (the Playhouse). The theaters had few dark nights. Most shows ran six nights a week for six weeks, and they were scheduled back-to-back.
Audiences flocked to the performances. The opening of a new play was invariably a gala affair, with the men in black tie and the women in long evening gowns and newspaper reporters on hand to record the event for the “society” pages. Tickets to the invitation-only openings were highly sought by the city’s social and business elite. Weekend performances were open to the general public, while weekday shows were often reserved for clubs and business organizations, which would buy all the seats in the house for their members. The available “club nights” were sometimes booked solid six months in advance.
Under Hughes’s directorship, the drama department presented more than 11,000 performances of about 600 plays. Hughes wrote some of these himself. A prolific playwright, he published at least 60 plays, in addition to numerous other works of poetry, translation, and theater history and technique. The School of Drama (the successor, in 1940, to the Division of Drama) also hosted scores of national drama conferences, maintained close ties with Hollywood talent scouts, and graduated hundreds of highly skilled students, many of whom went on to successful careers in theater and film. The school, and Hughes, “were lauded, imitated, and marveled at,” writer Marilyn Dale Bennett concluded in a 1982 doctoral dissertation about Hughes (Bennett, 287-88).
Although Hughes came under increasing criticism late in his career -- ironically, for clinging to the same policies that contributed to his early success -- he is widely acknowledged as a catalyst for the vigor and diversity of theater in Seattle today. “Some of the growth of theater in this town is due to a tradition he started and an audience he educated,” says Ann Stewart, production manager for the School of Drama. “His legacy of a strong, independent drama department carries on today, although with a very different style. I don’t think Glenn would recognize the shows at the Penthouse now or be very happy with them. He would be happy, however, with the vibrancy of the program and the influence it’s had on the professional theater here” (Stewart interview).
Hughes was born in Cozad, Nebraska, in 1894. His mother died two weeks after his birth. He was raised largely by his grandmother and an aunt until he was four, when his father, a merchant, remarried. His step-mother, a teacher, played a significant role in his life, introducing him at a young age to what she considered the pillars of a good education: an atlas, the collected works of William Shakespeare, and the Bible.
The family later settled in Long Beach, California, where Hughes attended Polytechnic High School. He was a bright student, with what his widow Cleta Hughes calls a “high correlation of abilities” -- making him as comfortable with math as with poetry and literature (Hughes interview). His acuity in math would serve him well when he began managing finances for the drama department.
After graduating from high school in 1912 as Class Poet, Hughes attended Stanford University on a scholarship. At Stanford, he majored in English and tutored other students in math to earn money. He graduated in 1916, at age 22, and took a teaching job at Bellingham State Normal School (now Western Washington University). He taught there for two years, served a brief stint in the Army at the end of World War I, and then moved to the University of Washington as a teaching fellow in English.
Hughes began graduate work in English under Frederick M. Padelford, then head of the English department, but he quickly took an interest in the department’s nascent drama program. He encouraged the department to expand the number of student productions, most of them sponsored by extracurricular clubs. In 1920, he acquired his master’s degree, the first to be awarded by the UW for creative rather than strictly scholarly work. His “thesis” was a book of poems. That September, he began work as an instructor in English, earning $2,000 a year and dreaming about the possibility of creating “a first-rate drama school” (quoted in Bennett, 14).
Two years later, Hughes took a leave of absence and traveled to New York City, for his first glimpse of Broadway. The experience fed his determination to take a more active role in what was at that point being called the Department of Dramatic Art. Over the next few years, he gained considerable control over the department, even though senior faculty members continued to serve as the titular department heads.
Foreign Films and “Chapbooks”
Hughes came to the University of Washington with a hunger for personal recognition and a seemingly endless capacity for work. In addition to maintaining a demanding daily schedule teaching classes and supervising rehearsals, he started several local literary publications, edited volumes of poetry and plays written by his students, and, with his first wife, Babette Plechner, translated French plays and monologues. He also launched Seattle’s first foreign film series -- the first to be sponsored by any educational institution in the United States.
Like many of Hughes’s enterprises, the film series was a profitable venture. During the six years of its existence (1926-1932), it made an average profit of more than $1,000 a year, most of which was used to buy books for the drama library. Films were shown at the Egyptian Theatre; admission was 50 cents, half price for students and faculty. Hughes selected all the films for the first few seasons, based on reviews of what was showing in New York, and often picked them up and delivered them to the theater himself.
The film series increased Hughes’s profile in the community, but it was a series of small pamphlets called “chapbooks” that brought him his first taste of international acclaim. Chapbooks (the word comes from the Old English “chapman,” for peddler) were popular in England and America in the early nineteenth century. In reviving the tradition, Hughes sought contributions first from University of Washington faculty members, and later from nationally prominent artists and writers. He found that "well-known men are delighted to contribute because the chap-books are popularly priced, inexpensively bound, and yet offer a permanency to their writings that the magazines and periodicals do not provide” (The Seattle Times, January 1, 1928).
The University of Washington Press published 49 chapbooks between 1927 and 1931, for a total print run of more than 45,000. The books garnered praise from throughout the United States and Europe. Typical was this comment, from the Post Dispatch of Houston, Texas, in 1927: “With the receipt of each succeeding issue of the series of Chapbooks which come to us from the U of W Press we grow more convinced that Glenn Hughes, who edits them, must be a remarkable sort of person. These little books, for which we take it he is largely responsible, are unusual, distinctive, often exquisite contributions to our current literature” (quoted in Bennett, 25).
On top of these successes came a Guggenheim Fellowship, which took Hughes to Europe for a year of study in 1928. He became acquainted with many well-known writers that year, including William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound, D. H. Lawrence, Sinclair Lewis, and T. S. Eliot, and later convinced some of them to contribute to his chapbook series. His studies of Imagist poets in Europe resulted in what he considered his most important scholarly work, a book titled Imagism and the Imagists: A Study in Modern Poetry, published in 1931 by Stanford University Press.
While still in Europe, Hughes was offered a position as a full professor at Scripps College, a small women’s school in Claremont, California, at nearly double the salary he was earning as an assistant professor at the University of Washington. Hughes notified the university, hoping for a counter offer. Instead he received “a pleasant note wishing me well.” He reluctantly accepted the position and spent a “pleasant but dull” year in Claremont (quoted in Bennett, 27).
Hughes and the Jameses
Hughes had been in Claremont just a few months when the University of Washington invited him back as head of the Division of Drama, with a full professorship and the freedom to undertake any artistic projects so long as they were self-supporting. In an unusual arrangement, he was given full control over all department revenue -- to make sure “It wasn’t going to disappear into anybody else’s cash box,” as Cleta Hughes puts it (Hughes interview).
Even before Hughes formally took over the department, in September 1930, he took steps to add Burton W. and Florence Bean James to the faculty. Hughes had met the Jameses shortly after they had been coaxed west from New York by “Miss Aunt Nellie” Cornish, who hired them to head the theater department in her Cornish School in 1923. Burton James had worked briefly with Hughes in the UW drama department in 1926. The three enjoyed “a mutually supportive artistic relationship” that lasted almost a decade (Bennett, 30).
Hughes remained in touch with the Jameses even after leaving Seattle for Europe and then California. When the Cornish board of directors ordered the couple to shut down a 1928 production of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author on grounds that the play was immoral, Hughes wrote a letter of protest to the board. He enthusiastically supported the Jameses’ decision later that year to leave Cornish and establish their own theater, the Seattle Repertory Playhouse. He subsequently joined the Playhouse’s board of directors as vice president.
In negotiating the terms of his return to the University of Washington in 1930, Hughes insisted on adding the Jameses to the faculty, even at the expense of firing other people. Among those he considered most expendable was John Conway, the technical director, whom he described as "somewhat of a problem" in a letter to a University of Washington dean (quoted in Bennett, 36). University officials eventually approved Hughes’s compromise proposal. Burton was appointed technical director with Conway as his assistant; Florence James was hired as director of acting. (Conway would later regain his position and go on to a distinguished career of more than 40 years as chief designer for the School of Drama.)
Hughes and the Jameses had envisioned a healthy alliance between the drama department and the Repertory Playhouse. After the Playhouse moved into its permanent home at 4045 University Way in 1930, Hughes regularly rented the facility on behalf of the department. The arrangement had advantages for both the department and the young Rep. Hughes was able to escape the stuffy atmosphere of Meany Hall, and the Jameses -- struggling to keep their theater afloat during the early years of the Depression -- received a modest income from the rentals. The Jameses also staged at least one of Hughes’s plays, Green Fire.
This amicable relationship ended in 1932, the result of increasing artistic differences and financial competition between Hughes and the Rep. According to Florence James, the “showdown” came when Hughes asked to rent the Playhouse for a production of Ibsen’s Ghosts with a retired professional actress in the leading role. “We realized that an Ibsen production with a non-student cast would be real competition and cause no end of confusion, so we refused the rental,” she wrote in her unpublished autobiography (James, p. 2). Hughes responded by making an attempt to buy or lease the Playhouse. This was the beginning of a bitter rivalry that would span nearly two decades.
After his failed offer to take over the Playhouse, Hughes left his position as vice president of the board and fired Burton (in 1932) and then Florence (in 1938) as instructors in the drama department. He also began an aggressive search for other spaces for his productions.
Theater in the Round
Hughes had long been frustrated by what he called “a fundamental weakness in our set-up” -- the fact that the drama department’s only theater was a large auditorium, designed for assemblies and concerts rather than plays. He wanted to create a more intimate atmosphere. He believed that theater could compete with the drama and immediacy of cinema only if audiences moved closer to the performers. “Modern audiences have become conditioned to the movies," he wrote, "and now, when they attend a legitimate performance they find the actor weak and ineffectual” (Hughes, 1, 8). His solution was to seat people in rows that were curved around the stage, like the rows in a circus arena.
Hughes began experimenting with arena theater in November 1932, when a friend offered him the use of an unfurnished drawing room in a new penthouse apartment on top of the Edmond Meany Hotel. He staged several plays in the penthouse, to enthusiastic audience response. Most were light comedies, but there was one exception: Ibsen’s Ghosts, presented in April 1933 -- the very production that the Jameses had refused the previous year. Hughes later decided that serious drama was a mistake in the arena format; his “Penthouse Players” never again veered from comedy.
By 1935, Hughes had established two theaters in leased quarters on 42nd Street near University Way (a block from the Repertory Playhouse): a proscenium-style theater called the Studio, which presented a wide range of selections, including classic and contemporary drama; and the arena-style Penthouse, devoted exclusively to light comedies and farces. Both theaters were closed and replaced by new facilities on campus after what Hughes called the “unpleasantness” of a student strike in April 1938 (Hughes, 21). The strike was precipitated by Hughes’s refusal to renew Florence James’s contract as a part-time instructor in the drama department. Students picketed the theaters on an opening night. Hughes immediately ordered them closed -- citing concerns about violence -- and they were never reopened.
Construction was already underway on the first of Hughes’s on-campus theaters: the Showboat, a faux Mississippi paddlewheeler, built on pilings on the shore of Portage Bay. The 220-seat theater, which opened in September 1938, was designed as a showcase for the kinds of farces that were popular in the 1890s, although it soon began to present more diverse fare. (The Showboat remained in use until 1984, when it was closed as a fire hazard.)
The Showboat was soon joined by the new Penthouse Theatre, completed in May 1940. Both theaters were built with labor provided by the Works Progress Administration; materials and other costs were paid for with department revenues. Designed by Hughes and UW drama professor John Conway, the 172-seat Penthouse consisted of an elliptical, dome-roofed central unit flanked by rectangular wings. It was an immediate success, attracting widespread media attention. Among its admirers was New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson, who concluded that Hughes was “landlord of the finest theatre in America” (New York Times, May 1, 1949). (The Penthouse was moved to another area of the campus in 1991; it remains in use as the Glenn Hughes Penthouse Theatre.)
Never a Dark Week
At the same time he was developing new facilities, Hughes was reshaping the drama department’s curriculum, focusing on the practical and technical aspects of theatrical production. His model was the Yale School of Drama, established in 1925. Seeking to create a major center for the training of aspiring theater professionals, Hughes added courses in makeup, puppetry, radio drama, scene design, stage lighting, and theater management, in addition to expanding the number of classes devoted to performance.
In an effort to give students more opportunities for performance, while generating revenue for the department, Hughes adopted a nearly-continuous production schedule. By 1935, most student productions were playing six nights a week for six weeks. Hughes believed six weeks was an optimum run: it gave young actors enough time to master their roles; provided time for word-of-mouth advertising to generate good attendance; and it was the minimum amount of time needed to mount a new show. It was a point of pride for Hughes that his theaters “never had a dark week” (Hughes pamphlet, 5). Theater-going, he said, was a habit, “and a habit must be fed frequently” (quoted in Bennett, 201).
Asked how it was possible for college students to perform six nights a week, rehearse a new show during the day, and still keep up their studies, his reply was “good students can do it because they learn not to waste time” (Hughes, 44). He did, however, advise his students to carry the lightest possible academic load.
Meanwhile, the rift between Hughes and the Jameses continued to widen. Hughes was unapologetic in his quest to please the public. "If enjoyment is not one of the objectives of the theatre, then I have misinterpreted theatrical history," he once wrote (quoted in Bennett, 74). Although the range of plays that he presented at the Studio and Showboat Theatres is broader than generally acknowledged, he became identified with the light-hearted comedies and farces that were the exclusive fare at the Penthouse. Explaining why he produced only comedies at the Penthouse, he said, simply, "The actual reason why we do not present tragedy is that our audiences wouldn’t like it as well" (Hughes, 47).
The Jameses, in contrast, paid less attention to popular appeal than to artistic merit. "It is fatal to compromise your insights in order to acquiesce to the demands made on you," Florence James wrote. "Otherwise you will be producing plays written about nothing for nobody" (James, box 1, folder 22, p 17).
At the Repertory Playhouse, drawing-room comedies shared the bill with demanding works by Shakespeare, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Goethe, and other heavyweights. The voice of the working class could be heard in productions such as Clifford Odets’ “Waiting for Lefty.” “In our theatre, for the first time as far as we know anywhere, the Philippino national anthem was sung on stage,” Florence James recalled. “We had every racial group, including the Indians, the Japanese, the Chinese…We had a wonderful Negro theatre…. So every group was involved, people from the waterfront up to people who used to come in their limousines….” (Florence James interview, part 3, p. 21).
While claiming a higher artistic purpose, the Playhouse was still dependent on good box office revenues. Florence James’s personal papers show increasing frustration over the years with what she saw as the competitive advantages held by the drama department. She noted, for example, that the University of Washington theaters did not have to pay their own utility and maintenance bills -- those expenses came out of general university funds. “Although these theatres were ostensibly ‘educational’ theatres,” she wrote, “they were to become one of the most serious competitive threats, responsible not only for economic difficulties which arise when private enterprise is forced to compete with state enterprise, but also difficulties involving the lowering of public taste to the level of student productions” (James, box 4, folder 4, p. 55).
The Canwell Hearings
The Jameses’ willingness to present provocative plays, along with their visible commitment to the cause of the “common man,” put them in a vulnerable position when the Washington State Joint Legislative Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities began to investigate communism at the University of Washington in 1948.
Headed by Albert Canwell, a farmer and freshman legislator from Spokane, the committee convened in Seattle for what proved to be a series of highly-charged hearings. Forty University of Washington professors were subpoenaed to testify (although only 11 were actually called before the committee), along with the Jameses and Albert Ottenheimer, their partner in the Repertory Playhouse. The three Playhouse associates were the only non-university people to be brought before a committee that was ostensibly concerned only with uncovering Communists at the university.
Six people, including the Jameses and Ottenheimer, were eventually convicted of contempt of the Legislature for refusing to tell the committee whether or not they were or ever had been members of the Communist Party. Florence James was fined $125 and given a 30 day jail sentence, which was suspended; the other five were fined $250 and sentenced to 30 days in jail. Burton James appealed his jail sentence; it was finally suspended, on medical grounds, three years later.
The convictions of three of its directors fatally damaged the reputation of the Repertory, which Canwell branded “a recruitment center for Reds” (The Seattle Times, February 6, 1977). During a six-month period in 1948, 36 clubs and organizations cancelled reservations for more than 6,500 seats in the Playhouse. Gross income dropped nearly two-thirds over the next two seasons. In what one writer called “a last desperate effort at survival during its final years,” the Playhouse was reduced to staging the kind of lightweight, noncontroversial fare that the Jameses had long disdained (Skreen, 12). Audiences continued to dwindle. By 1950, the Playhouse was bankrupt.
Despite the ongoing rivalry between Hughes and the Jameses, there is no evidence to suggest that he played any role in focusing Canwell’s attention on the Repertory Playhouse and its founders. He was, however, quick to take advantage of the outcome.
In the early 1940s Hughes and his staff had begun making plans for a “laboratory theater” to produce “artistically important older plays” of limited popular appeal (quoted in Bennett, 90). The plans were put on hold during World War II, but in October of 1948 the Board of Regents budgeted $115,000 for the project. Bids for the construction of a new theater far exceeded that amount. Hughes would have preferred to build a new theater rather than remodel an old one, but in July 1949, he notified one of his supporters that the Playhouse could be acquired at a reasonable price.
The Jameses had tried to buy the Playhouse in the early 1930s, but had been forced to quit-claim their deed to a sympathetic buyer, Sam Fritz. In the summer of 1949, agents for the university made Fritz an offer for the building. He refused. The agents then threatened to condemn the property, warning that condemnation would lead to a much lower, court-ordered sales price. Facing those options, Fritz sold.
On January 1, 1951, in what Burton James called "an act of cultural vandalism," the University of Washington took possession of the property (The Seattle Times February 6, 1977). The theater reopened as the University Playhouse on November 29, 1951, with a production of "The Madwoman of Chaillot." Burton James died two days later, at age 63. His wife said he died of a broken heart. (After remodeling in 1967, the theater was renamed the Glenn Hughes Playhouse. It became simply the Playhouse in 1991; it remains in use as a university theater.)
The School of Drama under Glenn Hughes was at its peak in the late 1940s and early 1950s, with two and later three theaters running full tilt and frequent productions in other venues, including the Washington Athletic Club and the Rainier Club. Some of these presentations were simply good public relations but many were profitable. Between 1945 and 1955, the school earned net revenues of $8,000 to $10,000 a year. Hughes managed the money shrewdly, using it to remodel facilities, expand the drama library, and provide assistance to drama students through employment and tuition scholarships.
Hughes continued to maintain an almost feverish personal schedule. In one month alone (March 1953), three of his plays were in production: On the Side of the Angels at the Penthouse; Tightwad at the Showboat; and The Magic Apple (a children’s play) at the Music Hall. In the middle of the month, he read some of his sonnets and other poetry at a drama recital at the University Playhouse. A week later, he announced that he would be writing the libretto for a comic opera in collaboration with a professor in the School of Music. In reporting all this, Seattle Times theater critic Louis Guzzo commented that Hughes was “in the midst of one of the most productive periods in his career as a writer” (The Seattle Times March 22, 1953).
At the same time, there was evidence of strain. The relentless pace of production was taking its toll on Hughes’s associates and students, and possibly on himself as well. His first marriage (to one of his students) ended in divorce in 1946. In 1950, at age 55, he married another of his students, 20-year-old Cleta Rogers. Always sociable and fond of gala events, Hughes began to drink heavily. In the mid-1950s, he spent time in a treatment center for alcoholism. His drinking ultimately cost him his marriage to Cleta. “It was impossible to live with him,” she says. “Glenn was one of six kids, and all but one of them died from alcohol. The only one who didn’t was the one who didn’t drink” (Hughes interview).
By the late 1950s, students and faculty were in near-revolt. Enrollment declined. The quality of the student productions diminished. Critics increasingly objected to what Louis Guzzo of The Seattle Times now called “assembly-line production.” A demoralized faculty complained that Hughes had become “a prince holding court,” too removed from daily operations to give proper attention to the growing fatigue and dissatisfaction in the department (quoted in Bennett, 248).
In 1960, Hughes was 65 and due to retire as director of the School of Drama. He showed little inclination to do so, however, and the university administration did not force the issue. At that point, faculty members took matters into their own hands and convinced the administration to appoint an Academic Policy Review Committee.
The committee’s report, issued the following year, concluded that the extended run policy was too inflexible and demanding and that the curriculum’s focus on the technical aspects of theater was too limiting. It recommended, among other things, that productions be presented only on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, with no performances during exam weeks (for the benefit of the students) or during the entire month of September (for theater maintenance); that “club nights” be discouraged; and that commercial appeal be a minor consideration in the selection of scripts.
Hughes, under pressure, resigned his directorship on June 30, 1961. He was replaced by Gregory Falls (the founder, in 1965, of A Contemporary Theater). Under the new regime, the university comptroller took full control of the drama school’s budget.
In August 1963, the American Educational Theatre Association gave Hughes an Award of Merit, praising him as “Teacher and administrator, playwright and poet, builder of one of the most distinguished Drama Schools of the United States” (quoted in Bennett, 283). He died six months later, on March 21, 1964, after several weeks in a Seattle hospital. His family told the press that death was due to complications of influenza.
During the Glenn Hughes years, as Marilyn Bennett has pointed out, the curriculum expanded, the facilities multiplied, and the production machinery seldom faltered. However, Hughes was in some ways a victim of his own success. His resistance to change, coupled with his increasing ill-health, left him an outsider in the school that had once been his own.