In 1949, the Amherst College Masquers dramatic society was at the center of a group of Shakespearean firsts. Their production of “Julius Caesar,” directed by Professor Curtis Canfield (AC 1925), became the first play ever produced on the Elizabethan-style stage of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.  This was also the first modern production of “Julius Caesar” to reproduce the play “as it might have been staged in Shakespeare’s time.”* It followed the text from the original 1623 First Folio, the first published collection of Shakespeare’s plays, and the costumes were Elizabethan–“not even slightly Roman,” wrote Canfield (most modern productions were treated as Roman period dramas). And on April 3 of that year, their performance was the focus of an experimental broadcast by the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) from the Folger Library’s stage, becoming the first nationally televised, full-length performance of a Shakespeare play.

The Amherst College Masquers, performing “Julius Caesar” at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 1949. Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

In 1949, network television was still developing. Full-scale commercial television broadcasting did not begin in the United States until 1947, and there were not yet full networks to the West Coast. The Masquers’ production of Julius Caesar proved that live theater on television could be done well, and that it could draw an audience. In the New York area, over 40% of television-owning households were tuned into the broadcast.

“Julius Caesar” television script for 1949 broadcast. Amherst College Archives and Special Collections.
audience at the NBC broadcast performance of “Julius Caesar” by The Masquers

The telecast profiled the Folger Library and its founder, Henry Clay Folger (AC 1879), and included appearances by Amherst College President Charles W. Cole, and Louis B. Wright, the Folger’s Director from 1948 to 1968. An article in the Folger newsletter of March 1, 1949 suggested, “The amount that this is costing the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company [the broadcast’s sponsor] and the time that the NBC engineers are devoting to technical problems alone prove that big business must have tremendous faith in the cultural appeal of William Shakespeare.”

Their faith was not ill-placed. The broadcast was a huge success, and was covered by most major newspapers. The on and off-stage activities of the Masquers were photographed by Gjon Mili for Life and Time magazines.

The Chicago Tribune reported that the broadcast proved two things: “1) Shakespeare makes a high order of television program, and 2) Amherst knows how to train actors.”

Despite the successful run of The Masquers’ production, plays would not be regularly produced at the Folger until 1970.

Materials related to the Masquers’ 1949 Folger performances and the NBC broadcast can be found in the Amherst College Dramatic Activities Collection, and the F. Curtis Canfield Papers.

film documentation of the 1949 telecast of The Masquers in “Julius Casear” at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Amherst College Archives and Special Collections
 * Amherst College Department of Dramatics announcement addressed to U.S. schools, written by Curtis Canfield. Julius Caesar telecast scrapbook, Amherst College Dramatic Activities Collection.

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