1883 – 1918: Kenneth Sawyer Goodman and His Legacy

Next: 1922-1931

 

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Today’s Goodman Theatre traces its roots back to the early years of the 20th century, when the “Chicago Renaissance” heralded pioneering activities in all forms of the arts. One of the leaders of that movement was Kenneth Sawyer Goodman, a young Princeton-educated scion of a wealthy lumber baron.

 

 

A multifaceted artist—in addition to his theatrical activities, he headed the Prints Department at the Art Institute of Chicago— Goodman was most passionate about playwriting, creating works in a remarkable variety of styles, from realism to expressionism to commedia-style farces. Many of these plays premiered in Chicago’s “little theaters,” small private companies that eschewed commercial fare in favor of new, often more controversial theatrical voices: Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, Eugene O’Neill, or local writers such as Goodman and his sometime collaborator, Ben Hecht. The successes of these enterprises convinced Goodman that Chicago was now ready for a major “art theater,” a resident company which would produce both new and classic works with resources not always available to the “little theaters.”

 

In the summer of 1915, he approached the leaders of the Art Institute of Chicago with a proposal for such a company, to be run in tandem with a training program for drama students, both housed at the Institute, thus creating, in Goodman’s words, an “art university.”

Next: 1922-1931

1922 – 1931: The Founding of the Goodman Theatre

Previous: 1883-1918     Next: 1931-1969

 

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World War I cut short the writing career of Chicago playwright Kenneth Sawyer Goodman, who had ambitious plans for a theater at the city’s Art Institute that would be dedicated to both new and classic works. Joining the Naval Reserve in 1917, he died the next year at the age of 35, a victim of an influenza epidemic.

 

Goodman’s parents soon took up Kenneth’s cause, and in 1922 pledged their financial support for a theater that would be a living memorial to their late son. Ground was broken, and in the fall of 1925 the Kenneth Sawyer Goodman Memorial Theatre opened its doors.

 

 

For a few years, the two-fold mission of creating both a professional theater and school that Goodman had envisioned was a success. Student artists learned the techniques of stage performance and design, while a professional repertory company brought to the Goodman’s stage a heady mixture of classical drama, premieres of European experimental works (including Georg Kaiser’s expressionistic sensation Gas), new plays (most successfully Tour du Monde, adapted from Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days) and even a series of short operas.

 

But by 1930, the dawning Great Depression brought financial challenges to a program still highly subsidized by the Art Institute itself. Finally, in the spring of 1931, the Institute announced that it was suspending the Goodman’s professional company; for the foreseeable future, the Goodman Theatre would be the Goodman School of Drama.

 

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