Beginning in 1910, Philo began a 20 year run of dramatic productions that were rivaled only by the Varsity Show in their regularity and consistency.
On April 26, 1816, the society discussed the question “Should Theatrical Productions be Encouraged?” As summarized in the November 1920 issue of Varsity magazine, an argument was made on the affirmative side on the grounds of the instructional merit of plays, that “A play, like a true friend, exhibits both our virtues and our faults, and, by upholding one and discouraging the other, tends in a high degree to promote morality.” However, it was observed on the negative side of the argument that “If the theatrical exhibitions do promote morality, why are players not influenced by them? ...it is a notorious fact that the theatrical performers compose the most profligate and abandoned part of society.” The president of the Society, Samuel L. Steer ’16 decided in favor of the negative side of the argument and the issue was buried for nearly a century as Philo pursued more debate-centric activities for the remainder of the 19th century.
The first real step towards the new enterprise began in December 1909, when the president of the society appointed a committee “to look into the matter of a serious dramatic performance.” After 107 years of debating and oration, the gentlemen of Philo were looking to stir things up. The following spring William Neely Ross ’11 was appointed manager of a possible show and things were under way.
Under the guidance of Professors Brander Matthews, Ashley H. Thorndike, and Henry Morgan Ayers, and the coaching of Professor Algernon Tassin, the society put on a production of Nicholas Udall’s “Ralph Roister Doister”, considered to be the first English Comedy and dating from the era of Queen Elizabeth. Dixon Ryan Fox ’11, president of the society and actor in the lead role, recalled years later that “When it was proposed that Professor Algernon Tassin be invited to this piece, “Ralph Roister Doister” (the first English comedy, 1542), there was some misgiving: Would not a college professor be too academic? The event proved how ill-based were such doubts. The success of this and many performances that followed were in large part due to his competent and severe but friendly rule, and every Philo man of those generations would go through thick and thin to do him homage.” (Spectator, 15 Jan. 1932)
The play was indeed a success. Held in Brinkerhoff Theatre of Barnard College, it was the first showing of the work in New York, and was such a hit that the NY Times noted “the event proved so successful that it may possibly become an annual feature.” (November 18, 1910) It proved to be a prescient observation. “Roister Doister” is the story of “Ralph, who is a wealthy braggart, [who] imagines he is a favorite among the women, and accordingly tries to make love to Christian Custance, a lady already affianced to Gawyn Goodluck. Merygreke, a jolly good-for-nothing, gets Ralph into trouble by changing the punctuation of a love missive sent by the latter to Christian. Ralph later tries like Romeo to carry off his lady love, but the attempt is thwarted by her father. Finally Goodluck and Christian are reconciled and their marriage brings the play to a happy end for everybody but Ralph, who, of course, doesn’t deserve any better fate.” (NY Times 11/18/10)
Of particular note is that Roister Doister is the first of a series of Elizabethan productions that precede the work of Shakespeare. In fact, Ralph “exemplifies the rioutous, dissipated, swaggering fool whom Shakespeare portrayed in several oh his plays; notably in the character of Falstaff.” (NY Times) It is also said to be the first college play ever written, since Udall was a schoolmaster who wrote the piece for his students.
“The Sun” of NY described a moment that a Philo of any era can relate to, noting “The students overdid themselves in the buffoonery of the piece and rolled around the stage as if they thoroughly enjoyed.” (11/18/10)
Even the University took notice, commending the society in the December 1910 “University Quarterly.” “The Philolexian Society is to be congratulated upon its presentation of Ralph Roister Doister, not only for setting a much needed example of the kind of dramatics which should be fostered in an academic community, but for giving the amusing old play so excellently.”
The following March the players put on a benefit performance of the piece at the Hillside Grammar School in Montclair, NJ for the benefit of Mountainside Hospital, as reported in the March 12, 1911 “The World” of NY under the auspices of the Ladies’ Auxuiliaries of the Hospital who afterwards provided the students with dinner and an informal dance was held after the performance. According to the show managers, the performance netted 1500 dollars in ticket and program sales that would go to the hospital.
To following fall the society set its sight on another Elizabethan play, Robert Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay.” Once again under the guidance of Professor Tassin with the assistance of Professor Matthews, the Lexians bodly dove into their next effort.