A Plastic Bag of the Occult

Remembering Daniel Gerould (1928-2012)

[Many wonderful reflections on Dan Gerould’s life have turned up in recent days; for a thorough accounting of his professional achievements, see the writings by Robert Simonson for Playbill.com, Yale University’s Krystyna Lipińska Iłłakowicz, and Superfluities Redux.]

[Update, March 1, 2012: I worked with some colleagues from the CUNY Graduate Center on a wikipedia page for Daniel Gerould, which you can now read and augment here. Special thanks to Frank Episale for jump-starting the idea.]

“The art of transformation is the talisman or open-sesame of my entire output. Theatre for me is the art of metamorphosis. Changing one’s skin and shedding one’s old self is fundamental to the dramatic impulse.”
–Daniel Gerould, Introduction to Quick Change, 2011

When I began the Graduate Center’s Theatre program (where Dan was a professor for forty years), I kept my part-time job as a script analyst for Vox3 Films, an endeavor to which I was dedicating hours every weekend; I remember sitting up until two in the morning one night, reading a bizarre film script about a corset-maker who gets stranded on a beach– at a loss for how to create a summary coverage for it. I was also teaching two sections of Introduction to Public Speaking, and on many other evenings I would sit up drilling the finer points of introductory communications theory into my head, taunted by the readings for three graduate courses that were still left to be read. Some of these were new challenges that I didn’t fully apprehend;  I ended up truly loving the adrenaline rush of teaching public speaking (an odd sentence, I know), but some days– especially those long afternoon “Symbolist Theatre” seminars, my mind was elsewhere.

At those moments, I would look to the front of the table and see Daniel Gerould sitting there; a man of unknown age but dapper looks and a sly, crafty humor, his pert bowtie always done up just so, his heavy tweed jackets sitting atop a thin frame. Amid the chaotic pace of running between teaching, reading Maeterlinck, and writing abstracts of short stories for my director-boss, I was often a fresh mess by the time I arrived at his seminar. And yet the calm that emanated from the head of the table was almost uncanny; Dan was so much at home in the seminar space, in the teaching realm– it was truly his habitat, and we were but invited guests, always treated with hospitality, dates, and tea. Most students who encountered one of Dan’s classes in the last two decades or so would have become acquainted with the large, yellowed note cards he occasionally referenced during class, or his excitement as he clutched a rare LP of an Alexander Scriabin opera. He had an easy lecture style, weaving gingerly between the points that he really wanted to get across about Lesya Ukrainka’s wood fairies, or Ibsen’s masterful building. (And who could forget the way he pronounced “Villiers de l’Isle-Adam”?)

Dan used to bound back and forth between his office in the Segal Center and his office in the Theatre Program next door; buoyant on the balls of his feet, he would fetch a few essential texts and cart them back to his Segal Center lair, where I spent much time shifting uncomfortably on the couch. As a colleague of mine smartly described it, in conversation with Dan, “you were never sure if a pause was his way of asking a question for you to complete, or just a moment where he filed through the entire history of the French Revolution to find the perfect way of phrasing a point.” This was true especially when you were launching a project or paper idea about which you weren’t quite confident; Dan was particularly encouraging of my interest in researching the unpublished plays of Lewis Mumford. This itch had grown out of a long, meandering inquiry into the collisions between urban development and theatre, one that took me through readings on ecology, gentrification, the city, the town, the country, the universe. I was all over the place– but Dan always listened and encouraged, and occasionally interjected with a little verbal smelling salt to bring me back to center.

When I applied for a grant to read these plays by Mumford, Dan nudged me in his very respectful manner, sprinkling our conversations with reminders that I not pre-judge what I would find in the archives, but see what the plays told me. This, I realize, was part of Dan’s strength as an educator; his ability to not judge the student, an essential cushion for many of us newbies groping through the first semesters in the doctoral program. It was for Dan that I had to write my first paper; I was tinged with anxiety, but his squiggly comments on the finished essay were probing and helpful, and I had the sense that he knew that he was letting me know that it was all fine; I could be in the club and sit at the table.

After I visited the Lewis Mumford archives, Dan would calmly dispense small tidbits about how to approach scholarship, and, more importantly, how to assert one’s own voice in the process. When I would express a sense of awe at the sheer volumes of published work by Mumford and about Mumford, Dan would wave it all away with his graceful, thin hands. He possessed a powerful ability to explain– concisely– why certain work was of value. Indeed, when I eventually presented a paper on this topic at a conference, I felt the guiding push of Dan’s mentorship, and recognized its steam. I recently came upon an old email he sent me about one draft of my book proposal on Mumford’s playwriting: “My primary suggestion for revision,” he explained, “would be to give yourself a somewhat larger authorial presence and louder and more committed voice.” This likely sums up the subtle way in which Dan shaped the authorial voice of so many people, inching and encouraging.

Even after I jumped a few steps afield from that project to pursue something different for my dissertation, Dan was still forwarding me copious emails that he thought related to my interests. Mid-January, an email flashed on my screen, an announcement for an exhibition in Slovenia looking at the historic residues informing current histories of ‘the urban.’ Dan, at 84 years-old, was constantly attending, archiving, curating, and informing, all with a gracious curiosity. Now, reading the introduction to his most recent book, Quick Changes, I understand more the foundations for Dan’s abiding and unflagging passion for the work that he championed:

“For the most part I have chosen to write about the underrated, the ignored, and the forgotten rather than the overexposed and universally celebrated. I have never been much concerned with whether an artist was a major or a minor figure, a canonical or non-canonical artist, since these valuations are constantly shifting and highly unreliable.”

Recent conversations have confirmed my prior assumption that this was not especially unique to my experience, but rather it was the very nut of being Dan’s student. And so we know how it felt to be gripped by an urge to thank him, for the simple, easy-going kindnesses he would dispense. I once brought Dan a bottle of wine after the close of one of the two independent studies I completed under his guidance; a small group of us had spent the semester reading up on eco-theatre, through which Dan was an ever-understanding and low-stress companion. He had encouraged us to organize a mini-conference on Eco-Theatre at the Segal Center as part of their Earth Day programming, and it was an endlessly worthwhile experience for us all.  I presented the gift somewhat sheepishly– was he even a wine drinker? He accepted it with his usual bright-eyed look, stashing it behind a stack of files, moving busily around his office, sorting papers and magazines so that there might be room for me to sit. One of the other students presented him with a Russian dessert, which charmed Dan to no end– he stopped for a moment, stooping over the Tuperware, drawing out each syllable in a deep octaved exclamation, before he placed it on his desk and resumed: “Alright…..” We thanked him for his generosity and flexibility all semester, but he just pushed on as if it was a moot point, ready for our reports from another two weeks of research.