Howard Stein, first permanent chair of the Oscar Hammerstein II Center for Theatre Studies and head of the playwriting program at Columbia University, died in October. He retired from Columbia in 1991, and is still noted as one of the most important playwriting teachers of the past half-century.
In 1991 I had the unenviable task of replacing Stein as chair of the Hammerstein Center—unenviable because he was, in truth, irreplaceable. Howard was sui generis and a force of nature with a passion for theatre that he exuded in everything he said and did. His energy and fervor was reminiscent of Harold Clurman and that whole generation from what Clurman termed the “fervent years.” I know of few people today who are as unreservedly enthusiastic about the theatre as Stein was, and virtually no one who expresses that enthusiasm with such zeal. His importance, of course, was his position as one of the most important and influential teachers of playwriting of his time, having mentored several generations of writers at Iowa, Yale (where he was also associate dean of the School of Drama) and Columbia—playwrights who have gone on to shape the American theatre.
At Columbia, Howard helped resurrect the Theatre Division from the ashes, as it were. Almost entirely eliminated at the start of the 1970s, theatre was nurtured back to life by Bernard Beckerman, and then through the 1980s Howard Stein built it back into a program with a national reputation. He worked with limited resources and support and was known to joke on occasion that it was called the Hammerstein Center because its purpose was to “hammer Stein.” But Howard made up for the institutional shortcomings with a personal commitment to every one of his students—in whom he took enormous pride.
Until a few years ago, when he could no longer travel, Howard would be on campus at least once a semester, often more, participating in a range of activities, and he would always stop by to bring me and others up to date on the work and accomplishments of alumni. In the past few years, the visits were replaced by regular phone calls—conversations I always eagerly anticipated. Without Howard Stein there would be no Theatre Program today.
I never had the privilege of taking a formal class with him, but I nonetheless feel that I was part of the Howard Stein school. Those conversations, whether in person or on the phone, usually included discussions of current productions, in which Howard would provide stunning analyses of the plays and, most important, the way in which a particular production served—or did not serve—the text. I have been teaching for well over 30 years and I have never met another person with Howard’s deep understanding of plays.
A final anecdote that will probably bring a smile to those who knew him at Columbia: I had been told that Howard’s office was always piled high with scripts, but when I arrived the office was virtually empty. Someone had done a good job of cleaning. So I opened the desk drawers to start putting away some of my own files and supplies and discovered that the drawers were filled with files. Looking through them, I quickly discovered that none was more recent than 1980. These were all Bernie Beckerman’s files! As far as I can tell, Howard never opened his desk—everything he needed was out in the open. Where it counted.
Arnold Aronson is a theatre professor and former theatre program chair at Columbia University, on whose website an earlier version of these remarks appeared. Contributions in Stein’s honor may be made to Columbia’s Howard Stein Fellowship or Yale School of Drama’s Howard Stein Scholarship.