Dramatist remembers controversy surrounding performance of Shakespeare in the early ’60s

Elaine Hunter performs as Lady Macbeth in May 1962. This photo was on the front page of The Weather Vane.

I was a student at Eastern Mennonite College for the 1961-62 school year, fulfilling a desire to spend some time in a Mennonite academic setting. Since I already had a bachelor’s degree, I was enrolled in the seminary for that year.

As the school year came to a close, I was asked to direct a performance of several excerpts from three of Shakespeare’s plays for the annual Fine Arts Festival in May. What I didn’t know at the time was the college’s policies forbade the performance of any secular plays in their entirety, but excerpts were permitted.

I took the role of Lady Macbeth for one of the scenes, but I was told I could not say her famous words, “out damn spot,” from her best-known speech. Instead, I was to say “out dread spot.” Such was the conservative bent at EMC at the time.

Since I was aware that women had to have their heads covered at EMC, and I didn’t think Lady Macbeth should be wearing a Mennonite headpiece, I made myself a different covering for the performance.

We rehearsed and finally presented scenes from Othello, King Lear and Macbeth in a performance titled “The Wheel Has Come Full Circle” and arranged by a senior student.

I found out later that evening before the public performance was given that the students who had planned the event appeared before a faculty committee to defend their daring idea, assuring that it was indeed excerpts and not a complete play and that the theme was a fitting one for EMC. Having majored in speech and drama at a secular institution, I was both shocked and amused at the controversty stirred up.

But I’m thankful for my year at EMC and I’m glad that drama now has a significant presence at Eastern Mennonite University.

After EMC

The summer of 1962, after leaving EMC, I married Dick Stoltzfus ’59 at the Mennonite House of Friendship in the Bronx, and we moved to Philadelphia, where Dick attended medical school and I taught at a suburban elementary school. After that we took an MCC assignment to Haiti for 3 years, where our first child, Jill, was born. We returned to Pennsylvania for a year, Dick began his internal medicine residency, and I had our second child, Mark.

Next, we went back to Haiti for another 3-year term. After that, Dick completed his residency in 2 more years and we moved to Harlan, Kentucky, where he joined a clinic practice and I did adult literacy teaching as well as hospice volunteering. During our last 24 years in Kentucky, I worked as a health educator in a rural clinic in Harlan County. Our children both eventually graduated from EMU and then went on to different graduate schools, our daughter finally settling in Pennsylvania and our son in Virginia.

Dick and I retired in 2011, having decided to leave our dear Kentucky community of 35 years in order to be closer to our children. We moved to Dayton, just outside Harrisonburg, in July of that year. We already knew several people in the area and have enjoyed getting to know many others since living here. We’re thankful to be members of Community Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, and thankful for the many opportunities available to us in the wider community. God has blessed us in many ways.

—Elaine Hunter Stoltzfus

To read the May 11, 1962 issue of The Weather Vane in which coverage of the 1962 Shakespeare performance occurs, click here.

Posted on July 14, 2016