Brander Matthews was one of the purist theatrical geniuses we’ve had in, and around, the intellectual American Stage. Brander rightly believed a play only existed in performance and that the performance and the text must be evaluated separately. He was also one of the first professors at an American University — Columbia University in the City of New York starting in 1892 — to promote, and foster, the idea that Dramatic Literature was just as important a field of study as any historic cave wall painting or artistic sculpture or aesthetic structure. He believed in the power of the Playwright to form the world.
Brander Matthews was born into a wealthy family — so he never wanted for money — but the fact that he dedicated his life to learning and education and to teaching others speaks a lot to the method of the man.
Here’s a bit from the Brander Matthews official Columbia University biography:
Regarded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as America’s leading authority on drama, Brander Matthews believed that performances, rather than texts, provided the key to proper understanding of the art form. An influential critic and writer who became the nation’s first professor of dramatic literature, Matthews established his scholarly bona fides with the 1881 publication of French Dramatists of the Nineteenth Century. Beginning in 1871 he adapted and wrote several plays, two of which—A Gold Mine (1887) and On Probation (1889)—enjoyed success around the country. Over his lengthy career he wrote additional books, numerous reviews, short fiction he called “sketches,” and an early (and popular) literature text for high school students. As a member of numerous literary clubs, Matthews advocated for (and in 1893 was publicly feted by) realist writers like William Dean Howells and Mark Twain; he also served as president of the Modern Language Association (1910) and the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1913), and chancellor of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1922-1924). His autobiography, These Many Years, appeared in 1917.
I was absolutely lucky to happen upon — and then purchase! — a couple of genuine photographs of Brander Matthews.
Here’s the first one, dated November 23, 1923, and the caption reads:
PROF. BRANDER MATTHEWS IS ILL: MAY QUIT COLUMBIA
Photo of Professor Brander Matthews who is seriously ill at his home in New York City and present his condition indicates that the will not be able to resume his duties at Columbia University before February. It is believed that he may not resume teaching in the future. Prof. Matthews recently published a book on “Playwrights on Playwriting” which he says will be his last. 11.23.23
It’s an amazing experience to hold a 1923 photograph in your hands. You can smell the paper and remember the years it took to age between your fingers.
Here’s a delightful view of some of Brander Matthew’s work in “Playwrights on Playwriting.”
Here’s the second astounding, and immensely elegant, image of Brander Matthews I purchased — appearing wan and blind, the ancient and dying King in repose — as he lasted six years more beyond his imminent death in the first photograph. Dated April 5, 1929, the caption for this photo reads:
Author and educator who died at his home on West Eighty-seventh Street, New York City, March 31, in his 77th year, the immediate cause being due to influenza contracted the previous week.
Few people know Brander Matthews, but now, perhaps, you know a bit more than you knew yesterday, and that’s a lovely and a good thing — because we need to understand our pioneers, and we deserve to be aware of all our originators, and every one of our path-blazers — for they are the bravest among us who risked every acceptance against the ordinary to create new thought and understanding that did not exist before their existence.