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News & Press: In Memoriam

In Memoriam: Don Wilmeth (1939-2020)

Sunday, February 23, 2020   (0 Comments)
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Don Wilmeth, who served ASTR as President from 1991-94 and then as Secretary/Treasurer until 2002 ably assisted by his wife Judy, passed away on February 7, 2020. Dr. Wilmeth was Professor Emeritus at Brown University and a tremendous influence upon students and colleagues not only at his own institution but across the field as a whole. The obituary is available at https://www.legacy.com/obituaries/providence/obituary.aspx?n=don-b-wilmeth&pid=195388651, with the opportunity to leave messages of condolence. 

“The Final Curtain”
Laurence Senelick, Professor Emeritus, Tufts University

Don Wilmeth and I have been so closely linked over the years that I have to make an effort to remember when we first met. We probably became acquainted as members of ASTR some time in the mid-1970s, and since we both had long tenures at universities only an hour away from one another, the opportunities for gatherings were many.

Don was my benefactor in many ways. While working on his bibliography of popular entertainment, he asked if I knew of one devoted exclusively to British music hall. This inspired me to fill the gap by undertaking to compile the first. He also sponsored a performance at Brown of my translation of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, directed by John Emigh. This was the beginning of a series of invitations to come to Providence and speak, the very last time for the lecture series he had founded. He put me on the advisory board of the American theatre history series he was editing for Cambridge University Press and recruited me as a contributor to the Cambridge Guide to American Theatre. He was also one of those who recommended me for the College of Fellows of the American Theatre.

Such generosity was characteristic, especially to the profession at large. He was a mover and shaker in ASTR, serving as its president and on its executive board for many years. When in 1992 an annual conference in Cambridge fell through at the last minute, he showed great ingenuity and organizational skill in moving it successfully to Newport. His wife Judy served as unpaid secretary for many years, recording the minutes of meetings. The two of them were among the first in our field to master the laptop, and I can recall many meetings accompanied by the “ping” from Don’s Macintosh.

If it had an acronym, Don was a member: UCTA, TLA, IFTR, ATA, ATHE, ATDS, ANTA, NETC. Don was indefatigable in undertaking projects: encyclopedias, book series, special issues, exhibitions, and benefit performances, as well as editing periodicals or their book review sections. For many years, he served as a judge for book award competitions and rarely refused to sit on doctoral dissertation defenses. When I went on sabbatical, I convinced him to teach a graduate seminar at Tufts on Bernard Shaw, one of his specialties.

Although Don’s first important monograph was on the British tragedian Cooke, his real field was the history of American theatre. In depth and breadth of knowledge, awareness of sources, openness to such phenomena as circus, tent shows and the Wild West, he was without peer. Many of the most durable biographies, reference books and monographs on these subjects are of his devising. No wonder he was often sought after by documentary makers to be an articulate talking head.

He also was one of a group of American theatre scholars invited to Moscow in 1989, as glasnost made itself felt. Unfortunately, he travelled on a different flight from the rest of us. His bags were lost and every morning he had to be driven out to Sheremetevo airport to see if they had turned up. In the meantime we outfitted him from our wardrobes and toilet kits.

Don was a jovial and boisterous companion, replete with anecdotes and theatre gossip, delivered in a booming basso that could reach to the farthest ends of an auditorium. Since we were both avid collectors of theatricalia, we would meet at book and ephemera fairs, occasionally competing for the same item. He, however, limited himself to Anglo-American material, with a special interest in Charles Mathews and caricature. He also was an assiduous promoter of Brown’s magic collection and tried never to miss a performance of Ricky Jay.

When I first joined ASTR back in the early 1970s, the field of theatre history seemed to be populated by giants: Kalman Burnim, Harry Pedicord, Oscar Brockett, Brooks McNamara, William Appleton among them. Don soon joined that pantheon, and I like to think of him gathered with them around some Olympian bar, arguing the finer points of theatre past.

Christopher Bigsby, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Society of Arts, Professor Emeritus, University of East Anglia

I had the pleasure of knowing Don for many years. We worked together on the History of the American Theatre. There is a reason his name appears before mine as editors. It was because he was smarter than I am, knew more than I did or do, and did more work than I did. Somewhere there is a photograph of us and our CUP editor, wearing cowboy outfits, him staring out like a cold-eyed gunslinger and the CUP editor, Sarah Stanton, wearing the outfit of a bar girl. The actor in him was never far below the surface. I treasure our meetings in England, Canada and the US and for the hospitality and kindness he and Judy showed to me at Brown and Keene. I treasure the memory of their incontinent dog, loved by them, though not for its incontinence and I confess not by me who had evidence of its incontinence as I got up in the middle of the night in their house to pee. Don was a wise man, an inspiration, a serious scholar even as he had an infectious sense of humour. Unlike me he was thoroughly organised, knowing where every book in his study was to be found. I only believe I do. Without his thoroughness and application I would have been lost when we worked together. I would call him up for advice. No calls any more, alas. But he has left his mark as few do. He certainly has on me. I am thinking of Judy who supported him through his illness and will be feeling bereft. There is, though, a time for us all. Arthur Miller spoke of Willy Loman as a man trying to write his name on a block of ice on a summer’s day. Don wrote his name on something far more substantial, and I am not just speaking of his books. He wrote it on the memory of all who knew him.

Joseph Donohue, Professor Emeritus of English, University of Massachusetts Amherst

I first came to know Don Wilmeth in 1974, at a conference on Victorian theatre and drama at the University of Massachusetts Amherst organized by me and a colleague, where he read a paper on the English tragedian George Frederick Cooke. By 1980 his research on the subject had issued in a full-length study, George Frederick Cooke: Machiavel of the Stage, the second volume published in the fledgling series I was editing for Greenwood Press, Contributions in Drama and Theatre Studies. I was all set to join him as a fellow scholar in British theatre history. What did I know? As subsequent events and book titles from his hand would indicate beyond doubt, his uncommon breadth of interest and coverage came to center on American drama and theatre and, beyond that, in an ever-widening circle, on American popular entertainment as well. Prolific as he was, the consistent rigor and extended vision of his approach to this polymorphic subject was what distinguished his work and organized his life. Living hardly more than an hour away from his retirement home in Keene, New Hampshire, I and my wife Judy managed to visit him and his wife Judy twice in just a few years. Now, I have a lot of books, but Don’s library, an oversize presence in that house, dwarfed mine, overflowing bookcases, piled successively step-by-step up the stairs, and making the dining table quite impossible for dining. And he was wonderful to talk to. He had a slightly reticent manner that made you think he was going to hold back the full truth, the complete details, but then he went ahead and came out with them anyway. It was as if we were picking up where we left off, somehow in the middle of our last conversation, the intervening time having caused no apparent loss of continuity or detail. It was sad to see him in decline, and we knew what was ahead, but we had the happy mutual benefit of some fine years of collegial friendship—one of the best of all, in my experience.

Bruce McConachie, Professor Emeritus, University of Pittsburgh

I have a few more images of some personal interactions with Don to add to our store of memories: His advice to me at an ASTR meeting about Edwin Forrest in the context of other antebellum US tragedians, his visit to the College of William and Mary to evaluate the theatre program when I working there in the 1980s (and his follow-up conversations with the chair at the time about the need to pursue more academic rigor), his knowledge of Russian circus clowns and aerialists when several members of IFTR went with us to the Moscow circus, his openness to new ideas for framing the early, pre-Columbian history of the US theatre when I was working on the overarching essay for volume 1 of the Cambridge History of American Theatre, his advice about when and how to pursue new members for ASTR soon after I took office as ASTR president, and a dinner with Don, Judy, and my wife shortly after his retirement from Brown where we discussed the perilous future of ASTR. For 30 years, from the mid-1970s into the mid-2000s, Don as advisor, editor, confidant, and friend was a significant presence in my life. I will miss him.

Jorge Huerta, Professor Emeritus, University of California, San Diego

I will never forget standing next to Don in an elevator around 1998, during one of our (many) meetings somewhere, and he asked me “what are you working on, Jorge?” and I told him about my next book. And that became Chicano Drama: Performance, Society and Myth (2000) under his editorial leadership at Cambridge University Press. I know there are many, many other stories from our colleagues around the world who owe so much to this brilliant, unassuming and generous man.

May this Giant in our field rest in peace.

Thomas E. Postlewait, Affiliate Professor, University of Washington

Don Wilmeth was perhaps the most distinguished scholar on American theatre history during my lifetime. His commitments to the study of popular entertainment provided leadership and mentorship for our discipline. Like so many people, I have followed his guidance on several scholarly projects. For example, I am beholden to him for selecting me to write the overview section of volume two of The Cambridge History of American Theatre that he and Christopher Bigsby co-edited. It was an honor to work with the two of them on this historical study that featured over thirty theatre scholars. In addition to this major accomplishment, Don wrote, edited, and co-edited over a dozen books. He also served as editor of a book series that published a very impressive range of scholarly studies. And because I also edited a book series, Don and I were able to complement one another in our editorial support for many of our contemporaries in the field of theatre history. And our careers had another vital parallel: we both served as Presidents of ASTR. My term in 1994-97 followed after his couple of terms. And yet another benefit was that I worked closed with Don and Judy Wilmeth during my presidency because Judy was serving as treasurer during that period. In many positive ways, my career benefitted from Don Wilmeth's accomplishments. Indeed, I was not alone, for Don guided the scholarship of a whole generation of theatre historians.

Marla Carlson, Professor, University of Georgia, ASTR President

Don Wilmeth published my first book as part of his Palgrave series and did so at a point when I was ready to give up. His encouragement was invaluable to me: without his belief in that project, I doubt that I would have a career in our field.


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