Play On: The Indiana Shakespeare Club

Under the bare headline Local Items, a birth announcement of sorts appeared in the Indiana Democrat on December 4th, 1879:

“A select literary circle is being organized in Indiana.”

Unremarkable among 53 other one-liners, the note gave no name nor even the date of birth.  Who could have guessed the newborn would grow up to be a supercentenarian honored as “the oldest social and literary organization in Indiana County”?

Notwithstanding its little-noted beginning, the Amateur Social Club (as it was first christened) had as its parents “the choice and master spirits of the age,” as Shakespeare might say.  It was conceived by Josias Young, Chairman of Indiana Normal School’s language department, and its first complement of members included the likes of State Supreme Court Justice Silas Clark, Civil War General Harry White, Congressman Summers Jack and the grandparents of future actor Jimmy Stewart (see photo).  And while its purpose was the social integration of incoming Normal School faculty and their spouses, Professor Young’s choice of Shakespeare studies as the means to that end may have been prompted by a performance of Othello put on here by Pittsburgh’s Shakespeare Club the week before.

play on
SOME ORIGINAL  MEMBERS, L to R :  Standing – Augustine Purington, Anna White, James M. Stewart, Louisa Sutton, Silas Clark, Bela B. Tiffany, Summers Jack, Agnes Porter, George W. Hood, Edward H. Wilson.   Second Row, Seated – Eliza Purington,Thomas Sutton, Clarissa Clark, Harry White, Josephine Tiffany, John McWilliams, John W. Sutton, Mary Wilson.  Front Row, Seated – Ella Sutton, Margaret Jack (?), Cordelia Barr (?), Edward Sutton.

In any case, Professor Young and twelve others became charter members when that group met at photographer Bela Tiffany’s home on November 27th; thirteen more men and women were invited to become members the following day at the Club’s first formal meeting.  That number – thirteen married couples – remained the standard complement until it was increased to sixteen couples in the 1990s.

Membership was recruited from the academic, professional and commercial sectors of Indiana society, by invitation of existing members.  The seemingly narrow “couples only” tradition was in fact a progressive provision ensuring gender-balanced point of view on the varied and sometimes controversial topics to be addressed.  Spouses sat separately to encourage independent thought, and seating arrangements changed from meeting to meeting to avoid formation of cliques.

With the exception of Christmas week, meetings were held Friday evenings during the academic year (September-April) in members’ homes or at the Tea Room on special occasions.  Hosts and topics were scheduled a year in advance and printed in the Kalendar, a booklet given to each member.  After six years, the Club had gone through Shakespeare’s entire surviving folio, so they decided to pursue instead the popular Chautauqua course of morally-based adult education.  Many members “found it too much labor,” so when the course was completed in 1889, the Club stopped meeting.  But old members decided ambition should be made of sterner stuff; the Indiana Shakespeare Club reconvened in 1890, and has continued with remarkably few changes down to the present.

Tradition and stability have promoted the Club’s longevity.  There have been just eight presidents since its formation, from the redoubtable John Sutton (served 1879-1942) to second-generation member John Barbor.  Even little things contribute; chocolate and ice water have been served at the end of each program since the beginning, a holdover from when both commodities were expensive rarities.  And the Shakespearean tradition that the show must go on is upheld by the priority given meeting-attendance: the week of 9/11, members sang the National Anthem and headed to the Apple Theater in Delmont as scheduled.  Only World War II was allowed to interrupt, with just nine meetings held during those 45 months.

Some things have changed.  Perhaps due to the acceleration of life’s pace over the last century, meetings have gone from weekly or biweekly to monthly.  Men and women no longer retire to separate rooms to socialize after meetings adjourn.  And the Shakespeare Club has had five different names since its inception as the Amateur Social Club, including 1884’s Hyperion Shakespeare Club, a probable reference to the “quest for enlightenment” described in John Keats’ The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream.  But, what’s in a name . . .?

Examining the Kalendar of a particular year in its life gives us a good idea of the Club’s character and interests.  The booklet for the 1914-15 season is titled “The World’s Mine Oyster” on the cover and closes with the Club Toast, a parody of the song Maryland: “(W)ith cult of knowledge, love and mirth….”  Every page leads off with a quote from Shakespeare, Byron, Goethe, or the like.  Each week’s topic fits within the theme for that year – itself derived from current events – and is presented in a Shakespearean context when possible.  History, travel, science and civics are mainstays.  Some examples from that year’s Kalendar:

  • Count Zeppelin and his Inventions
  • Edison and his Achievements
  • Kaiser Wilhelm as Man and Father
  • Women in the Politics of 1915
  • Shakespeare and Democracy
  • A View of Socialism
  • Commercial Morality
  • The Shakespeare Tourist in Belgium, Serbia and Germany
  • The American Melting Pot

As you can see, the war in Europe and a comparison of America’s perspective with the combatants’ was that year’s theme.  Each host had months to prepare, and guest speakers with relevant experience or knowledge could be added at the last moment.  “Magic lantern” travelogues were a Club favorite.

At present as in past, one or more field trips may be made during the year.  Most are to theatrical or concert venues within a day’s travel, but in recent years the Club has even shown up at Pirates baseball games!  Perhaps the most memorable trip was in 1959, when the group traveled in a special Pennsylvania Railroad car to New York City.  There they attended a United Nations session and were given a guided tour of that institution by Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold’s executive assistant . . . who just happened to be club-member Ralph Cordier’s brother.

The Indiana Shakespeare Club was founded with the original intent of community integration and liaison, and that function is not absent today.  Members are drawn from every segment of society, and friendships forged between members tend to be lifelong and resemble family ties.  There is even an organizational sibling of sorts; the Ingleside Club, likewise founded in the 19th century, has many a literary interest in common with the Bard’s brood, and the two sometimes host each other’s meetings.

And so it goes.  Ah, but you ask how long the light of our Shakespeare Club will shine?  Ask not, for in Indiana County as in Stratford-upon-Avon, ignorance is the only darkness.  Say rather: How far that little candle throws its beams!

(How many hidden Shakespeare quotes canst thou  find in this script?)