Professor Vera Mowry Roberts, 1913-2010

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Professor Emeritus Vera Mowry Roberts has died at the age of 96. You may not have heard of her if you’re unaffiliated with academia, much less theater academia, but Professor Roberts is a legend. I was a member of the last class that she taught at Hunter, when she was but a spry 91.

I’d been encouraged — exhorted, really — to take Professor Roberts’ class (History of Theatre I) by graduate advisor Mira Felner, who made sure I realized that more than a half-century of important work, in and out of the scholarly theater realm, rested atop the professor’s monumental shoulders. She was tiny — certainly not five feet. When she came to class, she sidled over to her end of the room, sat down, and the table came up so high on her diminutive figure that I swear she resembled a talking head.

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And what a brilliant talking head it was. Opening a folder, she delivered a two-hour lecture without ceremony. There was none of that “Let’s go around the room and introduce ourselves” or “Let’s all get comfortable” touchy-feely stuff that arguably goes on far too often at every level of contemporary education. She was the repository of knowledge, we were there to hear it, consider it and absorb it, and thus it was delivered. It amazed me at the time what she knew, when she knew it, how she knew it. True, some of her testing methods struck me as outdated (our final exam was written in blue books, and I do mean written in long-hand), but her mastery of the subject — any subject — was astounding.

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I was to relate a personal story about Professor Roberts before I publish, below, the email notice sent by the Hunter College Theatre Department announcing her passing.

We were at the end of a two-session class on medieval theater — Miracle Plays, Bible Plays, Passion Plays, etc. — and was it ever eye-opening. I’m not a medieval theater scholar, but Professor Roberts turned a centuries-long era of what secular folk regularly view as cultural and social nothingness into a endlessly curious, fascinating era.

At the end of the second session, following an in-depth lecture on pageant wagons and the like, Professor Roberts took a breath and wrapped things up by saying something to the effect of, “All right, so you all understand this. You all know what this was. You can all see yourselves there.”

And I realized, as a Jew, I could not. The whole discussion of standing room and seats, of how towns and guilds were solely dedicated throughout the year to the staging of these works — sure, all of that made sense. But surely the Jews weren’t helping to produce Miracle Plays or Bible Plays or Passion Plays (again, pick your grouping). So I raised my hand and said, “Where were the Jews?”

Now, this is a professor who had been teaching for 50 years. Hadn’t she heard it all, seen it all? The look on Professor Roberts’ small but wonderfully expressive face was really quite telling. It was as if a half-century of pedagogy passed before her eyes — and the eyes of the class, which laughed more or less in unison. I know how to make a room laugh, but in this case my question was quite serious.

Professor Roberts took another breath and said, most directly and bluntly, “Hiding.”

The class laughed again. But the professor insisted that while her knowledge of the Jews during the Middle Ages was not that of a medieval scholar, that was probably the case.

Now, our final paper could be on any topic we liked, as long as she had touched on this in the syllabus. I used to visit Professor Roberts during her office hours very frequently, partly because she had a great love of the late-19th-century American theater (she especially loved the work of Charles Hale Hoyt) and therefore I could use the name “Clyde Fitch” in a sentence and she would know what I meant. But in this case, I asked if I could investigate where the Jews were — in other words, where did they physically go — when religious plays were performed during the Middle Ages. She agreed, and do you know what the answer basically was?

Hiding.

Professor Roberts, thank you. You were remarkable and I was blessed to study with you.

Now, the announcement from Hunter:

Dear Hunter College Graduate Theatre Students,

I am very sad to announce the news that Professor Emeritus Vera Mowry Roberts, founder of our department and our MA program in Theatre at Hunter College, passed away on the night of January 31st at the age of 96.

Some of you knew and took classes from Professor Roberts, who continued teaching in our department into her early 90s. Professor Roberts was an extremely energetic, forthright, and generous person, who contributed to the field of theatre, our department, and the personal and academic growth of her students in countless ways. The Roberts Fellowship, offered to our top incoming graduate student each year, is just one of the many legacies of her generosity and commitment to students. Professor Roberts was a pioneer in numerous areas– establishing American theatre as a field for scholarship in the US, setting a model for a women in academia, writing one of the earliest theatre history textbooks, helping to found The Journal of American Drama and Theatre, The Arena Stage in Washington D.C, our own theatre programs and the PhD program at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Her professional contributions and our memories of her as a friend, colleague, and mentor will be with us for a long time to come.

A memorial service will be held for Professor Roberts at Rutgers Presbyterian Church–236 West 73rd Street– on Sunday, February 14, at 5:00.