The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 29.0147 Tuesday, 27 February 2018
Date: February 27, 2018 at 10:45:38 AM EST
Subject: The Passing of Homer "Murph" Swander
For those who may not be aware, Homer “Murph” Swander, professor emeritus at the University of California at Santa Barbara and founder of A Center for Theatre Education and Research (ACTER)/Actors From The London Stage (AFTLS) passed away on February 15th at the age of 96.
His impact on the way Shakespeare is taught in university classrooms across the country (and indeed the world) is inestimable. His impact looms large over generations of students and his passing is mourned throughout the realms of academia and performance. Our hearts are with his family today and all days.
His obituary is now online and can be viewed at:
To follow is a tribute to Murph written by his former student Tim Duggan, associate professor of Secondary Education at Northeastern Illinois University, for the Shakespeare Association of America. Coincidentally, AFTLS will be performing The Taming of the Shrew for the SAA at the annual meeting in Los Angeles in just a few short weeks, a performance we hope will honor his memory and pay homage to his enduring legacy.
Homer “Murph” Swander, 1921-2018
The world lost a titan in Shakespeare teaching and scholarship when Homer “Murph” Swander died on February 15 at the age of 96. According to his daughter, Susan, he died peacefully and without pain. His wife, Laura, died just over a year ago at the age of 93. They were married for 73 years.
Swander received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and spent his long teaching career at the University of California at Santa Barbara. While he leaves behind thousands of former students who benefited from his teaching, his reputation as a revolutionary thinker in Shakespeare pedagogy spread far beyond the campus of UCSB. For decades, he organized and led educational tours to London to attend productions and visit with the actors and directors whose work he admired. His collaborations with members of the Royal Shakespeare Company, most notably Sir Patrick Stewart, led to the formation of the Association for Creative Theatre, Education, and Research (ACTER) in 1975. The group, which brings professional actors to college campuses for week-long residencies, continues today as Actors
f rom the London Stage (AFTLS), housed at the University of Notre Dame. British actor David Rintoul, writing in Mary Zenet Maher’s collection, Modern Hamlets and their Soliloquys (University of Iowa Press, 2003), claimed that ACTER “has had the immediate and salutory effect of drawing closer together the research and teaching of Shakespeare at all instructional levels in the English-speaking world.” In 2015, the Shakespeare Guild in London honored Professor Swander and ACTER/AFTLS for their 40-year history of “extraordinary contributions to our understanding and presentation of classics by Shakespeare and other dramatists.”
One of the great privileges of my life was to be Murph’s student in two classes at UCSB in the early 1980’s. On the first day of class, he walked in, held up a small paperback version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and said something to the effect of, “This is not a play. This is a script. Inside this script are many plays, and your job is to find one that makes sense.” The key, he told us, was not just to read Shakespeare, but to “do” Shakespeare—to get inside the shoes of actors and directors. He gathered us into scene groups and set us to the task of mining the script for clues, or “signals” as he called them, that we could translate into performance. He prodded us to generate as many options as possible in rehearsal, and then to consider how those choices affected the story our scenes would tell. The term culminated in performances of the scenes and discussions of what each group had presented.
Murph was far ahead of the curve when it came to what is now called “student-centered” instruction. Attending his class was never like sitting in a typical lecture. As our groups worked on our feet, encountering textual problems through movement, voice, and gesture, he would watch, occasionally gathering us to observe one group as he pointed them toward some seemingly insignificant detail. We learned that for actors of Shakespeare, there are no insignificant details. We also wrote for him, but the papers weren’t typical thematic analyses built around some literary device or element. We would essay to defend performance choices we made based on the signals in the script, explaining how those choices illuminated the text for us. His approach transformed my thinking about Shakespeare, about reading, and about myself.
Despite his devotion to using theatrical methods in literature classes, Murph was not an actor; he was a scholar. Like many in his generation, he considered the original texts as the ultimate authority, encouraging students to examine quarto or folio facsimiles of the scripts and to be skeptical of editorial incursions in published versions. He dismissed bracketed stage directions as unnecessary and often inaccurate. “These people are editors, not actors,” he would say. In that sense, he was also an activist. He maintained an uncompromising bardolatry that may seem quaint today, but he never lost his passion for the work or his conviction that the text mattered. When I visited him and Laura at their home two years ago, I found Murph sitting in his living room chair, surrounded by his manuscripts. At 94, he was still furthering his ideas, with hundreds of typewritten pages and notes written in longhand. He leaves behind an unpublished body of work that I hope will see the light of day, for posterity.
I don’t know of anyone who did more than Murph to bridge the sometimes disparate worlds of the theatre and the academy. His academic descendants extend across continents, disciplines, and multiple generations. Many in the Shakespeare community knew him much better than I, as colleagues and as friends. I knew him as a professor who impacted my life and exerted a deep influence on my teaching. May flights of angels sing him to his rest.
Mary Irene Ryan Family Executive Director
Shakespeare at Notre Dame
230 DeBartolo Performing Arts Center
Notre Dame, IN 46556