As I gathered my thoughts about the role of the academic theatre in Boston, I found myself pondering again a certain fact that's rarely spoken aloud along the banks of the Charles, but which I call "the Harvard gap."
Egad, you say, dear sir, Harvard has no gaps! It is a perfectly smooth edifice of perfection! Uh-huh. I admit, the place is dazzling, but anyone can see said edifice isn't perfectly smooth - there's at least one gaping hole where the School of the Arts is supposed to be. Now there's nothing wrong with that per se, I suppose. Does a great university have to have a School of the Arts? Perhaps not.
Still, Harvard acts as if it had such a school, and everybody else around here acts as if it did, too. And for a long time that charade worked pretty well, because - and here's what's interesting - a lot of great artists happened to go to Harvard, all the way down from such titans of nineteenth-century American culture as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry James to post-war giants like Norman Mailer, Leonard Bernstein, and John Ashbery.
But for some reason, great artists don't go to Harvard any more. I'm not sure why, really, but it's obvious no major artistic figure has emerged from the college in what, thirty years? Indeed, the career of Peter Sellars - who was supposed to be a bearer of the Harvard arts flame, but who obviously lacked the genuine chops - perhaps marked the death knell of the whole phenomenon. As far as theatre goes, you might have to go all the way back to Arthur Kopit for the last Harvard man of any real significance. And it's telling that one of the last Harvard composers, Elliott Carter, has in recent years been lionized locally almost beyond belief. It's almost as if they know he's the last one.
So in a way Harvard ends up looking like a rarefied trade school (leading to its premier adjuncts, the Schools of Business, Law and Medicine), with, of course, a brilliant program in pure science as well, and a highly developed critical and analytic culture - but with little in the way of actual artistic ferment or presence. (This, to me, is clearly reflected in the stance of the A.R.T., but more on that later.)
Has Harvard come to terms with that reality, however? I'd argue no, and of course few people in the local area have the cojones to call the $40 billion elephant in the room to account. We still reflexively grant them the prestige of a hegemony they long ago lost. But some adjustment in the university's self-image may finally be in the offing. President Drew Faust recently called a task force together to review "the place of the arts at Harvard." Apparently someone realized the arts actually didn't have much of a place at Harvard, given the size, scope, and influence of the institution. But can Harvard ever re-attract artistic genius to its halls? It's an open question - and an interesting problem.