The cast of "Julius Caesar" with director Curtis Canfield (center), 1949. Archives and Special Collections

If you were watching television on the evening of Sunday, April 3, 1949, chances are you were choosing between two programs: WATV’s broadcast of a western film or NBC’s broadcast of Julius Caesar, performed by the Amherst College Masquers dramatic society.

Broadcast from the Folger Shakespeare Theater in Washington, D.C., Amherst’s production was the first nationally televised performance of a Shakespeare play. Records in the College’s Archives and Special Collections show that only two programs were being broadcast at the time in the United States, and that more than 40 percent of television-owning households in the New York area tuned in to the broadcast. (Around 35 percent tuned in to the western film; the rest were listening to the radio.)

As part of this year’s Reunion programming, Michael Kelly, head of Archives and Special Collections at Amherst, presented “Julius Caesar: 1949,” a look back at the remarkable performance. His talk incorporated some of the College’s archival materials from the production, including a full-length video recording of the televised play.

Before delving into the history of the performance, Kelly profiled Henry Clay Folger, Amherst class of 1879 and founder of the Folger Shakespeare Library, where the televised play took place.

It’s well-known that after his graduation from Amherst, Folger began to build what was to become the world's largest Shakespeare collection. But perhaps less well-known, Kelly says, is that Shakespeare was not part of the curriculum during Folger’s time at Amherst. “Students were not reading Shakespearian plays, Kelly says, and they were not studying Shakespeare as part of their course work.”

So how, then, did Folger foster an interest in the late playwright? “Biographers of Henry Clay Folger all point to February 1879, the winter of Folger’s senior year at Amherst, when he attended a lecture by Ralph Waldo Emerson,” Kelly says. Though Emerson did not speak about Shakespeare in that lecture, the talk led Folger to explore Emerson’s essays, including “Shakespeare; or, the Poet.” As Kelly puts it, “This is where Folger caught the bug.”

A decade later, in 1889, Folger purchased a copy of Shakespeare’s Fourth Folio (1685), and the rest, as they say, is history.


Henry and Emily Folger | Folger Shakespeare Library Portraits
Portraits of Emily Jordan Folger and Henry Clay Folger by Frank O. Salisbury. (Folger Shakespeare Library)

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“Meanwhile, back at Amherst,” Kelly says, “there’s a growing presence of Shakespearian productions in the classroom and in student life.”

As far as Kelly can tell from the Archives, the first full-length Shakespeare play to be staged at Amherst was The Taming of the Shrew in 1908. “By the time we get to the 1949 production of Julius Caesar,” Kelly says, “we’ve got a solid group of both students and faculty who are working on making these things happen.”

Kelly credits F. Curtis Canfield, Amherst class of 1925, professor of theater and dramatic arts, and director of Amherst’s Kirby Theater, as being responsible for bringing Julius Caesar to the Folger. Under his direction, the Masquers performed Julius Caesar at Amherst before the telecast performance in Washington. Though they originally intended to give just 6 performances at Amherst, a seventh performance was added because demand for tickets was so high.

“There was something special about this group, and this production of Julius Caesar,” Kelly says, “and we can credit Canfield for taking this group of 19 and 20 year old men and turning them into proper actors.”

Arranged by NBC network vice-president Charles R. Denney, Amherst class of 1933, the play featured about fifty students in the cast and stage crew. The Daily Hampshire Gazette, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, as well as Life and Time magazines all reported on the success of the performance. “This is really a fascinating moment in history,” Kelly says, “when all these new things—Shakespeare in the classroom, television and mediacame together to celebrate something very oldShakespeare.

Folger stage
The Amherst College Masquers, performing “Julius Caesar” at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 1949. Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

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In 2012, Archives and Special Collections featured the 1949 performance of "Julius Caesar" on their blog, The Consecrated Eminence.

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