The Ides of March: BJU and Shakespeare

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Photo of the 2018 production of King Lear in Rodeheaver Auditorium (Photo by Derek Eckenroth)

Founding Principles

The expression “Beware the Ides of March” comes from Act I, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The line is the soothsayer’s warning to Julius Caesar about Caesar’s imminent death on March 15.

I wonder how many Americans know the quotation, its source or its significance. E.D. Hirsch lamented the loss of such unifying cultural knowledge in his influential book Cultural Literacy (1980). But Bob Jones was five decades ahead of Hirsch in advocating that we retain and promote the best of culture through the education of youth. He founded Bob Jones College in part to counteract the loss of refinement and cultural literacy among the evangelical Christians of his day.

The BJU charter states that the school’s purpose “shall be to conduct an institution of learning for the general education of youth in the essentials of culture and the arts and sciences, giving special emphasis to the Christian religion and the ethics revealed in the Holy Scriptures . …” Dr. Jones said in a 1949 chapel session, “[W]e wanted to build a college that would neutralize in the minds of the public the idea that culture does not go hand in hand with the old-time, conservative, Christian approach, and so we started off on that basis.”

Early Days

Bob Jones College’s integration of culture and biblical Christianity prompted the founder’s son, Bob Jones Jr., to form a Shakespearean repertory theatre troupe in 1929 called the Classic Players. The following year, the Classic Players presented their first production at Bob Jones College, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, with the 18-year-old sophomore Jones portraying Shylock. Over the next 90 years, the Classic Players would mount hundreds of productions of Shakespeare’s plays and other classical texts, including plays by Rostand and Sophocles, as well as adaptations of novels by Dickens and Austen.

The Classic Players soon became a central feature of college life at Bob Jones College. Even the first volume of the Vintage (1935) is Shakespearean. The Bard is pictured on the cover, and the preface of the book says, “So for this first Vintage . . . we have selected as the motif that wonderful story of friendship, true and victorious over malice, ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ and have illustrated the book with scenes from the comedy as produced by the Bob Jones College Classic Players, and currently in their repertoire.”

Without question, Bob Jones Jr. had the most profound impact on the development and promulgation of the arts at BJU. During the summers of 1934 and 1935, Jones spent several weeks at Stratford-upon-Avon in England studying with members of The Shakespeare Company of the Memorial Theatre.

The Troupe Matures

During the formative years of BJC in Florida (and eventually in Cleveland, Tennessee), the Classic Players developed into a sophisticated and well-respected production company. After the school’s move to Cleveland, the troupe’s original five-play repertoire expanded to include most of Shakespeare’s major works.

The 1944 written program for King Lear summarizes the troupe’s productivity in the early years: “In the fifteen years since their inception, the Classic Players have done thirty-eight different productions of seventeen plays of the Bard. Judged on the basis of the number of productions which the Classic Players have given it, The Merchant of Venice is the most popular of the plays, having been produced by them in six different years. Hamlet is second in popularity having received five productions. Othello follows with a record of four productions. Macbeth, King Lear, and The Taming of the Shrew have each been produced three times by the Classic Players.”

Dr. Jones played the lead role in most of these productions.

See Also: Get the Most Out of King Lear

Shakespeare Comes to Greenville

When Bob Jones College outgrew the Cleveland campus after World War II, the school relocated to Greenville, South Carolina, and became Bob Jones University. The central feature of the new campus was Rodeheaver Auditorium, a facility Bob Jones Jr. envisioned as a major preaching center as well as a venue for fine arts productions. BJU filmed a fascinating documentary on Rodeheaver Auditorium, a fully functional theatre space and the home of Classic Players since 1948. The new facility enabled the Classic Players to create elaborate productions on a grand scale.

The actors flourished, but so did the artisans and designers. Robert and Laura Pratt noted, “The members of the Classic Players include many more people than the actors of the stage. There are the designers, carpenters, painters and seamstresses who create the beautiful and imaginative sets and costumes. There are the stage crew who are responsible for setting lights, changing set pieces and properties. Then there are make-up artists to complete the characterizations with wigs, beards and make-up techniques. A thousand details are attended to by many dedicated hands.”

My Personal Journey

Personally, the Classic Players has been an important element of my professional life at BJU. I’ve been a member of the troupe since matriculating to BJU in 1972—performing in 43 Classic Players productions and directing another six shows.

Dr. Bob Jones Jr. was in many ways a father figure to me, especially in the formation of my views on drama and the inculcation of a Biblical perspective of the dramatic arts. He saw the world (and the Scriptures) as inherently dramatic. I heard him say once that drama “can be the fold of a garment, the light through a window, a passing shadow . . . It can be music, the tensions between people, or a certain color.” He called the Bible “the most dramatic book in the world.” He viewed the book of Job as the “greatest single drama ever written.” He argued that the life of Christ is filled with “more dramatic incidents than that of any mere man.”

He considered drama to be one of God’s good and perfect gifts (James 1:17) and a lovely and virtuous object for Christian meditation (Phil. 4:8). I pray the Classic Players will continue to serve our campus family and the Greenville community by giving them “a taste of that which is genuine, good and noble.”