The Wellesley College Shakespeare Society is the oldest, continuous society on Wellesley’s campus. The Founder of Wellesley College, Henry Fowle Durant, created the Society in April, 1877 as a branch of the Shakespeare Society of London. It was Mr. Durant’s belief that a well-educated Wellesley graduate would be conversant in the works of the greatest English playwright, and this Society would capture the best ideals of Wellesley College: scholarship, activity and comradeship in a community of women.
In 1877, Mr. Durant handed over the task of organizing the society to a professor of English, Louise M. Hodgekins. The first members met in College Hall on the fifth floor, known as “Society Hall.” Early members were nominated by the English Department, and only Seniors were allowed to be members. The early Society was closely allied to the English Department, with faculty from other departments counting themselves members. Professor Manning led the monthly meetings much like a seminar, where the members studies the plays, wrote and presented papers, and read from scenes. This eventually was expanded to “productions” (full play readings) done in “Open Meetings”. By 1890, the Society had moved to the Farnsworth Art Building. Miss Hodgekins and the members, tired of being moved from place to place, decided they needed a “home” of their own, and petitioned the College to be able to erect their own building on campus. Miss Hodgekins contributed the first $50 to the building fund.
“The Trustees (of the College) were consulted to grant us land, and then began the first ‘Drive’ in the history of the College, “she later wrote to the Society. Members had voted and chosen to build an Elizabethan cottage (similar to Anne Hathaway’s house in Stratford-Upon-Avon), and thus they had to raise “a great deal of money” – approximately $4,761.20. During the middle 1890’s, the Undergraduate members sold Wellesley College spoons and hired themselves out to their fellow classmates, doing odd jobs. In 1898, Miss Hodgekins laid the cornerstone. She wrote, “What a patient joy we had building the Shakespeare House, for which I had the honor of suggesting the plan, giving the first check and finally laying the cornerstone. Generations of Shakespeare girls built the house!” More than 115 years later, generations of Shakespeare women have enjoyed the fruits of these labors – the beautiful House and the Society’s works enacting the plays.
After the cornerstone was laid, the next two decades saw continued fundraising to finish off the House, which was just a shell when the members “moved in”. The stage on the second floor was built after the turn of the century. A committee was formed to insure that duplicate gifts would not be given, and that everything in the House would remain in the Elizabethan style.
In 1936, the House hosted a historic event – the retirement/farewell party of President Ellen Pendleton (she was an early Undergraduate member and President of the Society, and remained devoted all her life). She was dressed as good Queen Bess, and Ellen Pugh, the Undergraduate President, was dressed as William Shakespeare. More than 80 alumnae from across the country came dressed as Shakespearean characters or people in Elizabeth’s court to pay tribute to President Pendleton. Dinner was an elegant feast, followed by scenes from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Tempest.” In her thank you note to the Society, President Pendleton wrote, “There were diverse songs in the House that night, but one refrain. It was ‘a word from the Master’s lips’ that welcomed us to his fellowship, and that still ‘binds the true to his fellowship’.”
In the first decades of the College’s history, Wellesley had a ban on students attending theatre in Boston, but Shakespeare Society members insisted on presentations of scenes and plays, in these “Open Meetings” of the Society at the College. In Shakespeare’s day the actors were all male troupes, the Wellesley College Shakespeare Society felt an all female troupe of players would be a clear expression of their Wellesley education. By the time the Wellesley College Trustees voted to allow students to attend theatre in Boston in 1895, the Shakespeare Society had already presented public performances of “The Taming of the Shrew” in the Gymnasium in 1886 (Ellen Pendleton’s year as Undergraduate President of Shakespeare Society!). However, they were not dressed in costume, but the “appropriate” attire – their Victorian long dresses. No doublet or hose, no pasted on facial hair for the male parts – but they were acting the parts. Billie Swormstedt Mansfield (Class of 1918) noted that at the beginning of the Society, members “had to combat the strong stand of the College against the stage – parents did not approve of theatre.” Shakespeare Society members simply did not take “no” for an answer.
Most legendary of this maverick mentality was the 1898 production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in what was known as Rhododendron Hollow on Wellesley’s campus. In the audience was Wellesley College President Irvine, who had just shown the Undergraduate President Helen Capron, the site designated for the House, at the foot of (then) College Hill. Sitting next to her was Professor Louise Manning Hodgekins (the English Department Chair who organized the Society), Ellen Pendleton (Class of 1886 and now a faculty member of the English Department, Professor of English Katherine Lee Bates (Class of 1880 and author of “America the Beautiful”), as well as Professor Sophie Jewett. To the shock and surprise of everyone, the Undergraduate actresses appeared not in their Victorian long dresses, but in Elizabethan costume – those playing male parts in doublets and hose. As the story has been passed down for generations, it was said from one of the English professors to another, loud enough so President Irvine would hear, “I am so glad that silly rule about not wearing costumes has been disbanded.” Whether or not that is just legend, the rule was changed at Wellesley shortly thereafter, costumes were allowed for the plays, no one was suspended or expelled, and the English Department did give a beautiful silver hunting horn to the Shakespeare Society to commemorate the event. The small card read: “June 16, 1898, The English Literature Department, loving you for loving Shakespeare, begs leave to contribute a hunting-horn to the Athenian nuptials. If Puck does not bewitch it into mischief, it will sound our joyful praise.”
Unfortunately, twelve days later, an article appeared in the Chicago World newspaper: “Horrifying Spectacle Presented by Good-Looking, Well-Shaped Ladies….College Girls Play Shakespeare In Tights.” No matter how the article portrayed the event, the Society continued to perform the plays, now in costume, and, as has been the tradition for many, many decades, performed one play per semester, or did scenes one semester and a full play the other semester. In recent decades, modern dress productions are done more often than traditional Elizabethan dress productions. But, our earlier members broke through the rules for future generations.