In 1642, the Roundhead Parliament closed the theaters of Britain, thus depriving William Shakespeare, among other playwrights, of a place on the stage for 18 years. Last week Werner Gundersheimer, an alumnus of Amherst College thrust into prominence through his appointment as director of the Folger Shakespeare Library by the Amherst trustees, announced the closure of the Folger Theatre at the end of its current season. The Puritans cited licentiousness as their reason for closing the theaters. Gundersheimer pleaded poverty: the Folger, with its $28 million endowment and $4 million in income in 1984, ostensibly cannot afford the theater's annual deficit averaging $150,000 per year.
As a founder of the Folger Theatre 15 years ago, I cannot pretend to be disinterested. But apart from my concern that the Folger Theatre as an artistic force in the Washington community should not be allowed to die, I am concerned about the Folger Shakespeare Library and about the potential effect the destruction of the theater will have upon the library as a great institution and a force in the city.
The theater has been a major reason that the Folger, during the capable and imaginative administration of O. B. Hardison, was able to undertake a renovation that relieved pressure on the reading room, secured favorable climatic conditions for the storage of books and manuscripts, and made the library a place more conducive for scholars and theater people to work on Shakespeare.
Gundersheimer has asserted, in dizzying contradiction of the facts, that (presumably because of the theater) the library's acquisition budget has remained constant since 1967. Untru. In 1978, for example, the library acquired at considerable cost one of the greatest collections of Reformation books in the Western Hemisphere, over 600 books printed before 1550, by such people as Martin Luther and John Calvin. Apart from the brilliant success of the Collector's Club under Armida Colt, the library's 50th anniversary saw Eric and Mary Weinmann lead the library to the acquisition of over $250,000 in books and cash gifts to buy books above the annual acquisitions budget in one year alone.
Both these dramatic acquisitions and the physical improvements in the library were undertaken largely because, under Hardison's leadership, a wide and responsive public had come to feel the excitement of the Folger as a place of living scholarship. This new perception came about in part because of the Folger Theatre Group. With feeble aid from the Amherst trustees ($250,000 in contributions), Hardison raised $8.5 million for a new reading room, a sorely needed climate control system and stacks or expansion of the collection. From $1.57 million in available revenues in 1974, the Folger leapt to $5.69 million in 1984. The value of the plant and collection more than doubled.
The Folger has been a model of the virtues of entrepreneurial private philanthrophy, modest but important public funding, and service to the community. Hardison maintained a sound financial base for the institution and allowed a small but influential theater company to serve a public eager to come to the Folger to see the works of the man whose name the library bears.
An anomaly of the Folger bequest is that the library is administered by the trustees of Amherst College. In my years at the Folger, Amherst College took a hefty share of the income from the Folger endowment, paying us in return an occasional state visit from the Olympus of Amherst, Mass., and providing financial and development aid that could have been had less expensively and more effectively from our own resources.
Gundersheimer laments last year's loss in the theater of $251,000 -- in reality $179,000. He does not add -- he comes to his post as an Amherst man -- that the Folger in the same period paid Amherst College $226,000, technically legal under a particularly loose interpretation of the Folger will. The ratio of contributions by the Amherst trustees to the Folger Library each year compared to the gift to Amherst College from the Folger endowment will be politely passed over, save to say that in this example of cultural colonialism the money is traveling in one direction: north to Amherst. Absent the Folger's certainly generous and partly gratuitous payment to Amherst, you have a solvent Folger Theater.
What is at serious question is whether the Folger will return to the old insular days when it was not an effective voice in the city. It is, of course, essential that an institution in central Washington with an endowment the size of the Folger's serve more than the readers and fellows toward whom Gundersheimer wishes to redirect those of the Folger's funds that do not trickle up to Amherst.
The school buses that line East Capitol Street on a matinee day at the Folger Theatre attest to an impact on education and young people that would be praised by both Marva Collins and William Shakespeare.
Several days ago I spoke to one of the legislative fathers of the $350,000 annual subsidy paid to the Folger Theatre by the National Park Service. He expressed great puzzlement that the library would choose to forgo $350,000 given because (and only because) of the public service of the Folger Theatre in order to save $150,000. The math does not make sense. It makes even less sense t a time when the D.C. government is casting a baleful eye on the real estate tax exemptions of private institutions.
It is important to save the Folger Theatre as an entity. Hasty acts can be reconsidered, and a new relationship between the library and the theater administration developed. It would probably be good for the Folger Theatre to inhabit the Folger but to be a separate legal entity from the library, receiving its own agreed-upon percentage of the endowment and responsible for its own deficits. Given a modicum of imagination and good will on both sides, this problem admits of a positive solution.
The Folger does not belong to Amherst College. Henry Clay Folger made his generous bequest to the American people. What is now important for those of us who care about the library is to look carefully at its governance, its service to the living works of Shakespeare, its dual role as an important research library and as a theater, and its place in the Washington community.