Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight

Absurd to the Wise (2001)
Frank Wojciechowski

“I am the answer to a maiden’s prayer.”— Ivan

“I am an atheist.”— Sonia

Napoleon Passes, 1927 Triangle Show

One of the odder experiences tangential to writing a history column is the discovery of people from the past whom I feel like befriending, despite never being able to meet. By coincidence, my very first excursion here into Princeton’s past involved the art history legend Alan Marquand 1874, who not only created his department, but earlier was an enthused undergrad; he had been class president, a track star, and even had a huge personalized beer goblet for those moments not eaten up with DaVinci or wind sprints. Cheers!

Another we’ve met before was Jinks (or Jinx? — oddly, none of his large devoted following seemed quite certain) Harbison ’28, at first glance not a prime candidate for a warm and fuzzy friendship. The valedictorian of the class, an officer in both Phi Beta Kappa and the Philadelphian Society (the Chapel Fellowship and Student Volunteers Council of its day), he was summa cum laude in the Princeton history department before writing a Harvard Ph.D. dissertation that won the American Historical Association’s Adams Prize. He also was a devout Christian whose scholarly focus was the Reformation, so you may envision him as the priggish Professor Kingsfield of The Paper Chase, waiting to pounce. Instead, he was a teaching and mentoring legend at Princeton for 31 years whose portrayal of multiple historic characters in his legendary “Renaissance and Reformation” course was worthy of theater cognoscenti. His final lecture in 1964 was carried verbatim in PAW as a memorial. Where did this creative ebullience come from in a religious academic? Well, you certainly might start by considering he spent as much undergrad time being Triangle president as he did in the bowels of Pyne Library.

READ MORE Tradition, Tradition

At 125, Triangle Club is celebrating — and considering whether its cherished kickline needs to be changed

Now, when you say “Triangle president” within a few miles of McCarter Theatre, any Princetonian tends to imagine an alumnus on the exotic model of Cecil Terwilliger of The Simpsons or Scott Fitzgerald 1917 rather than Harbison or intimidating Edmund Wilson 1916, the erudite critic and 20th-century intellectual. But Fitzgerald and Wilson wrote The Evil Eye together in 1915. The 125-year history of Triangle is replete with as peculiar a mix of first-rate intellect and fizzy ostentation as any organization on the planet.

Erik Barnouw ’29 and Jinks Harbison ’28: Tours de Farce
Nassau Herald

In case lingering doubts persist, let’s advance to the very next year following Harbison’s production of Napoleon Passes. Here we find not one but two great personalities I would love to hobnob with, jointly writing the show Zuider Zee. The first is Erik Barnouw ’29, a fascinating double threat of an author-scholar whose singular career at the crossover between theater and broadcasting had significant impact across multiple media for half a century. He got the Triangle gig via a bright satire of student life, Open Collars, written for Theatre Intime the year before. In his spare time before graduation, he was a co-founder of the University Players, a group of young actors who gathered in the summers on Cape Cod; in their short five-year lifespan they generated an acting roster that even a present-day Second City would be hard pressed to match: James Stewart ’32, Henry Fonda, Margaret Sullavan, Mildred Natwick, Aleta Freel, Barbara O’Neil, Myron McCormick ’31, Charles Arnt, Norris Houghton ’31, Karl Swenson, and Frieda Altman. After writing his English thesis on the theater — “The Growth of Stage Directions Beginning with Richard Brinsley Sheridan” — Barnouw graduated to the then-equivalent of a gig at Saturday Night Live, writing radio scripts, first for CBS, then NBC. A gift for analysis got him into organizational roles, and so during World War II he founded and ran the education division of Armed Forces Radio out of Washington, winning a Peabody Award in the process for his documentaries. This in turn got him hired after the war at Columbia – among the first schools to realize the import of radio on the media world in general – in dramatic arts, There he taught and wrote, produced public-service campaigns, and was elected chair of the Writers Guild of America. This is where I first encountered him, because his main academic interest — certainly understandable giving his background — was to be a pioneer in a new area of study, in the same way he had been there to begin the University Players and the Armed Forces Network. His three-volume magnum opus, A History of Broadcasting in the United States, was later described by a New York Times writer as “what everybody who writes about television steals from.” The first volume, A Tower in Babel, hit the shelves in 1966, simultaneously with the most important works of media theorist Marshall McLuhan. Together they made up the backbone of my graduate broadcasting and film education in the 1970s, when Barnouw’s third volume, The Image Empire, was new and semi-sensational for its pungent critique of the way commerce had come to dominate the electronic media. Barnouw, McLuhan, and Federal Communications Commission Chair Newton Minow were the crucial intellectual forces behind the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which resulted in NPR and PBS. Even the Smithsonian got in on the deal; in 1978 it decided to create a new division of Motion Pictures, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound. To absolutely no one’s surprise, the Smithsonian hired Erik Barnouw to design and run it.

From left, Jimmy Stewart ’32, Joshua Logan ’31, and Marshall Dana ’32
Princeton University Archives

My other wannameet, his dedicated, if not fixated, Zuider Zee partner — they spent virtually the whole summer of 1928 closeted together writing it — was Joshua Logan ’31, eventually Triangle president, also a member of the University Players, and very soon to be a directing force on Broadway and in Hollywood. Barnouw was a bit unnerved by Logan, an Army brat from far- away Culver Academy in Indiana who had been desperate to go to Princeton for only a single reason: Triangle. This theatrical fixation continued unabated to the extent that, given the opportunity to study with Konstantin Stanislavski in Moscow in 1931, he cut a deal to stay until his president’s term and his final musical, The Tiger Smiles, had finished the holiday tour, then leave before graduating. The show (starring Logan and Stewart) not only opened the new McCarter Theatre that year but got the best Triangle reviews in decades, since it was an organic musical making direct fun of Princeton’s foibles (as Barnouw’s Open Collars had) rather than relying on some exotic location for novelty. As for his success with Stanislavski, by age 29 Logan was back on Broadway, directing I Married an Angel for Rodgers and Hart and George Balanchine. Only 10 years later he won five Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize (as co-author) for South Pacific alone, and it can’t be a coincidence that Lt. Joe Cable, the musical’s tragic paragon of racial understanding, is written as a young Princeton alum. For decades Logan created memorable shows like Charlie’s Aunt (with Jose Ferrer ’33), Knickerbocker Holiday, Mister Roberts, Picnic, and Annie Get Your Gun, and even came in as a play doctor on Ferrer’s historic production of Cyrano de Bergerac. Unusual among theater directors of the day, he was also a considerable success in Hollywood, winning Golden Globes for directing Picnic and Bus Stop, being nominated for three Oscars, and had Camelot, Paint Your Wagon, Sayonara, Mister Roberts, Ensign Pulver, and the wide-screen big-budget South Pacific to his credit as well. For decades, he was a spokesman for the treatment of bipolar disease (a dark secret in those days), from which he suffered and credited with some of his creative ability.

And related to today’s discussion, he wrote the forward to Donald Marsden ’64’s addictive tribute to the 75th anniversary of Triangle in 1966, The Long Kickline, which includes the following, just as apt today as the shaved-legs alums gather to celebrate their 125th:

… it is a place to sing, to do pratfalls,

to thumb one’s nose at authority, to test the last liberties of adolescence,

to taste the true wine of being an American.

VIEW Photos from more than a century of Triangle Club shows

I suspect we usually see Triangle through the aura of its showbiz graduates, Fitzgerald (the social butterfly), Logan (the director), Stewart, Ferrer, Wayne Rogers ’56, Clark Gesner ’60, Jeff Moss ’63 (one of Princeton’s 25 most influential alumni), David E. Kelley ’79, Brooke Shields ’87, and Ellie Kemper ’02 among many. That certainly aligns with such wonderful numbers as “Tables for One” (1984), or the legendary kickline itself. But “The McCosh Walk” (1930), “That Ivy League Look” (1957), “Woodrow Wilson” (2007 — far more sinister in view of last year’s student demonstrations) — or my personal guilty pleasure, Orange Bubble (2003) show that Logan’s “true wine” involves a great deal of gray matter, sharp teeth, and cultural insight, the legacy of Booth Tarkington 1893, Fitzgerald (the social critic), Wilson, Harbison, Barnouw, Logan (the Pulitzer-winning author), author Scott Berg ’71, Rhodes Scholar Adam Mastroianni ’14, and dozens of other serious thinkers, whose infective insouciance has succeeded in making Triangle as alluring to students in the age of Saturday Night Live as it was in 1891, when Carnegie Hall opened and Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-Dee-Ay was published. Princeton stands out as a place where, with your thesis, you can stretch your mind even as you begin to mature; Triangle uniquely offers the alluring chance to do a great deal more of the former without worrying at all about the latter.  After all, as Clark Gesner’s muse in You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, Lucy van Pelt, once observed, once you stand up and you start to walk, you’re committed for life.