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University of Texas at Austin

John Gassner:

An Inventory of His Collection at the Harry Ransom Center

Creator: Gassner, John, 1903-1967
Title: John Gassner Papers
Dates: 1894-1983 (bulk 1950-1967), undated
Extent: 151 document boxes, 3 oversize boxes (65.51 linear feet), 22 galley folders (gf), 2 oversize folders (osf); uncatalogued material: 3 document boxes (1.26 linear feet)
Abstract: The papers of the Hungarian-born American theatre historian, critic, educator, and anthologist John Gassner contain manuscripts for numerous works, extensive correspondence, career and personal papers, research materials, and works by others, forming a notable record of Gassner’s contributions to theatre history.
Call Number: Manuscript Collection MS-54109
Language: Chiefly English, with materials also in Dutch, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish, and Turkish
Access: Open for research. Researchers must create an online Research Account and agree to the Materials Use Policy before using archival materials. Part or all of this collection is housed off-site and may require up to three business days’ notice for access in the Ransom Center’s Reading and Viewing Room. Please contact the Center before requesting this material:

Administrative Information

Acquisition: Purchases and gifts, 1965-1986 (R2803, R3806, R6629, G436, G1774, G2780)
Processed by: Joan Sibley and Amanda Reyes, 2017 Note: The Ransom Center gratefully acknowledges the assistance of the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, which provided funds to support the processing and cataloging of this collection.

Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin

Biographical Sketch

John Gassner was a noted theatre critic, writer, and editor, a respected anthologist, and an esteemed professor of drama. He was born Jeno Waldhorn Gassner on January 30, 1903, in Máramarossziget, Hungary, and his family emigrated to the United States in 1911. He showed an early interest in theatre, appearing in a school production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in 1915. Gassner attended Dewitt Clinton High School in New York City and was a supporter of socialism during this era.
He earned two degrees at Columbia University, a Bachelor of Arts (1924) and Master of Arts (1925). Shortly after graduation, Gassner married Mollie Kern in 1926; the couple had one daughter, Caroline, born in 1929.
After earning his masters, Gassner first lectured at the Labor Temple School (1925) and the Columbia University Home Study Division (1927) before teaching different aspects of literature, theatre, and drama at Hunter College (1928-1945), Queens College (1948-1956), and the School of Dramatic Arts at Columbia University (1949-1956). He was appointed Sterling Professor of Playwriting and Dramatic Literature at Yale University in 1956 and remained there until his death in 1967. He served as a summer faculty member at the prestigious Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference (1937-1941) and was also head of Playwriting and Theatre History at Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop at the New School for Social Research (1940-1950). He also lectured at John Hopkins University (1946), the University of Montevallo (1953), the University of Michigan (1954), Harvard University (1965), and at many other American, British, and international colleges and universities.
While Gassner was working in the world of academia, he also embarked on a prolific and successful writing and editing career, starting as a book reviewer at the New York Herald-Tribune (1925-1928). Gassner contributed regularly as a critic or editor to a number of publications including New Theatre Magazine (1934-1937), The Forum (1937), Time Magazine (1938), Direction (1937-1941), One Act Play Magazine (1937-1941), Forum and Column Review and Current History Newsletter (both 1941-1949), The Survey (1951-1952), Theatre Arts (1951-1954), Educational Theatre Journal (1951-1967), and Tulane Drama Review (1957-1967).
Gassner was also in-demand as a critic and reviewer in other media and served as a drama critic for the radio shows Broadway Talks Back (1945-1948), Author Meets Critic (1945-1948), Invitation to Learning (1947-1963), Books on Trial and reviewed New York plays for WQXR radio (1947). He also appeared on the television shows Camera 3 and Accent (both 1959) and was an editorial advisor for Omnibus and Excursion (both 1952-1954).
John Gassner’s efforts as an author, co-author, anthologist, editor, and co-editor led to a lengthy and distinguished publishing career. His works included A Treasury of the Theatre (with Burns Mantle, 1935, enlarged and revised in 1951 and 1960), Twenty Best Plays of the Modern American Theatre (1939, the first of nine volumes of his Best American Plays series), Masters of the Drama (1940, revised and enlarged in 1945 and 1954), Producing the Play (with Philip Barber, 1941, 1953), a popular college textbook, Our Heritage of World Literature (with Stith Thompson, 1942), Twenty Best Film Plays (with Dudley Nichols, 1943, plus two later volumes), Best Plays of the Modern American Theatre (1945), Twenty-Five Best Plays of the Modern American Theatre (1949), The Theatre in Our Times (1954), Form and the Idea in Modern Theatre (1956; revised as Directions in Modern Theatre and Drama, 1965), Twenty Best European Plays on the American Stage (1957), Four Great Elizabethan Plays (1959), Theatre at the Crossroads (1960), Ideas in the Drama (1963), Introducing the Drama (with Morris Sweetkind, 1963), The Nature of Art (with Sidney Thomas, 1964), Theatre and Drama in the Making (with Ralph Allen, 1964), and Best Plays of the Early American Theatre (1966), among other writings.
Gassner also worked as a play reader, editor, and finally head of the play department for the Theatre Guild (1929-1944) and headed up the Bureau of New Plays (1938-1944) with Theresa Helburn, which gave early sponsorship to Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, among other playwrights. He also created and managed a play department for Columbia Pictures (1944-1947). He himself adapted several plays over the years, including Versailles by Emil Ludwig (produced by the Theatre Guild as Peace Palace, 1931), Jeremiah by Stefan Zweig (1939), Minnie and Mr. Williams, which he also co-produced on Broadway (1948). Gassner was also a playwright in his own right, penning The White Whale (1934) and dramatizing Robinson Jeffers’ Tower Beyond Tragedy for a California production starring Dame Judith Anderson (1940).
Additionally, Gassner served as a judge for many awards, most notably on the Pulitzer Prize drama panel from 1957-1963, encountering controversies when the advisory board passed over their recommendations. This occured with both Lillian Hellman’s Toys in the Attic (1960) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee (1963), causing Gassner and his colleague John Mason Brown to resign from the jury.
Gassner himself received many awards and honors during his career, among them an honorary M.A. from Yale University (1956) and the American Educational Theatre Association award of merit (1959). He was busy working on an anthology of his own writings (Dramatic Soundings) at the time of his death on April 2, 1967. It was completed by his wife Mollie, and published posthumously in 1968.


Harbour, Charles Clayton. “John Gassner: Drama Critic,” dissertation, The University of Texas at Austin, 1970.
“John Waldhorn Gassner.” Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2002. Accessed 16 December 2015.

Scope and Contents

The papers of the Hungarian-born American theatre historian, critic, educator, and anthologist John Gassner (1903-1967) contain manuscripts for numerous works, extensive correspondence, career and personal papers, research materials, and works by others, forming a notable record of Gassner’s contributions to theatre history. Many of Gassner’s colleagues are represented in the papers, including fellow critics, editors, educators, publishers, and theatre professionals, as well as noted performers and playwrights, students, fans, and family members, most notably wife Mollie Kern Gassner who often assisted her husband and continued this role after John Gassner’s death.
The papers span 1894-1983, with the bulk dating from the period from 1950 until Gassner’s death in 1967. The papers are organized into five series, I. Works; II. Letters; III. Recipient; IV. Miscellaneous; and V. Additional Materials. The John Gassner papers in Series I.-IV. (boxes 1-87) were previously described only in a card catalog. This finding aid replicates and replaces that description. Please see the explanatory note at the end of this finding aid for information regarding the arrangement of those manuscripts as well as the abbreviations commonly used in the descriptions. Gassner’s papers were formerly part of the Ransom Center’s Theater Arts Manuscripts Collection, but now form a separate, discrete collection.
Manuscripts, notes, and proofs for Gassner’s writings make up Series I. Works, 1926-1969, and represent his output of anthologies, articles, book reviews, columns, criticism, introductions, lectures, play adaptations, play reports, poetry, and speeches. The materials are arranged alphabetically by title. Dominant among the works are his various Best Plays volumes, "Broadway in Review" column, Directions in Modern Theatre and Drama, work toward Dramatic Soundings (posthumously published), Elizabethan Drama, Our Heritage of World Literature, and A Treasury of the Theatre. Also present are Gassner’s lectures for his Drama 126 class at Yale University, 1962-1964, as well as extensive notes on a variety of literary and theatre figures and subjects. All titles are represented in the Index of Works in this finding aid.
Series II. Letters, 1941-1967, contains outgoing letters written by Gassner that are arranged alphabetically by the recipient’s name. This is a small (1 box) gathering because much of Gassner’s outgoing correspondence was kept interfiled with his incoming correspondence in Series III. Recipient. There is an Index of Letters in this finding aid that lists all correspondent names represented in this series.
Gassner’s sizeable incoming correspondence is located in Series III. Recipient, 1925-1976, and is arranged alphabetically by the author’s name. A number of letters are accompanied by return correspondence, usually written by either Gassner or his wife, Mollie. The correspondence helps to demonstrate both his career activities and personal relationships with numerous colleagues and friends over many years, both individually or in connection with businesses or other organizations. His correspondents include fellow critics, educators, and theatre professionals; performers, playwrights, and other writers; publishers, presses, and journals; theatre-related organizations; colleges, universities, and foundations; and students and family members.
Among the many notable correspondents are Edward Albee, Stella Adler, Dame Judith Anderson, Robert Anderson, Brooks Atkinson, Julian Beck, S. N. Behrman, Eric Bentley, Marc Blitzstein, John Mason Brown, Stanley Burnshaw, Witter Bynner, E. P. Conkle, Clifton Fadiman, Angel Flores, Mordecai Gorelik, Paul Green, Theresa Helburn, Lillian Hellman, Glenn Hughes, William Inge, Robinson Jeffers, Margo Jones, Elia Kazan, Armina and Lawrence Langner, Arthur Miller, Sean O’Casey, Clifford Odets, Arvid Paulson, Elmer Rice, George Bernard Shaw, Ellen Terry, Audrey Wood, and Louis Zukofsky. There is also substantial correspondence with publishers, including Bantam Books, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, Crown Publishers, Inc., Dover Publications, Dryden Press, and Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. An Index of Recipients in this finding aid lists all authors of correspondence to Gassner.
Noteworthy items include a 1957 personal reference letter Gassner wrote for Arthur Miller following Miller’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (folder 64.5), and a file concerning the Southern Literary Festival in 1964 (folder 70.3), with letters from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Series IV. Miscellaneous, 1921-1979, comprises Gassner materials that are not his own writings or correspondence, but instead are works by persons other than John Gassner, Gassner personal papers, or correspondence between others, arranged alphabetically by creator.
John Gassner materials in this series include agreements and contracts, personnel records, and a wedding announcement for daughter Caroline, along with other notes and items not related to specific Gassner works or to unrealized projects.
Much of the correspondence is written to or from Mollie Gassner after John Gassner’s death in 1967, including condolences, permissions requests, and letters from former Gassner publishers, colleagues, and students. There is also material for an anthology of plays edited by Mollie Gassner, and writings about Gassner by others, such as eulogies and memorial tributes.
Other items of interest include Theatre Guild-related correspondence (a 1921 letter from Eugene O’Neill to Lawrence Langner) and play reports for the Guild (written by Anita Bloch, Harold Clurman, Courtenay Lemon, Ludwig Lewisohn, and Louis Migliorini). There are also a few letters and cards (one is a facsimile) written by George Bernard Shaw to various persons, likely collected by Gassner, who was a member of the Shaw Society.
Series V., Additional Materials, 1894-1983, is comprised chiefly of printed or near print items withdrawn from the Gassner papers (Series I.-IV.) or library when originally arranged and described. Materials in this series are generally magazine and newspaper clippings or tearsheets, flyers, pamphlets, programs, and other printed ephemera. Additional materials in this series represent a few acquisitions received after card catalog description was completed, much of it additional printed materials received from Mrs. Gassner. Most of this material was arranged by subject or genre by Theatre Arts Collection staff and later described at box-level in a preliminary inventory (2002). For this new finding aid, the materials in this series are now arranged into six subseries: A. Works; B. Career and Personal Papers; C. Plays; D. Programs; E. Subject Files; and F. Works by Others.
Subseries A. Works, 1923-1975, is divided into Books, Articles, Plays, Poems, and Projects, and each group arranged alphabetically by title. This subseries contains printed clippings or tearsheets of Gassner writings or reviews of his works, forming a valuable adjunct to the manuscripts in Series I., Works. For that reason, the title index information for this subseries has been incorporated into the Index of Works in this finding aid.
Among the Books, one especially valuable group of clippings is present for Dramatic Soundings, representing Gassner writings such as columns grouped by journal title. There are also some other formats related to Gassner’s books, such as advertisements, publicity, dust jackets, and tearsheets, or even printed copies of Gassner works, with his handwritten markup for subsequent or proposed editions.
The Articles segment includes clippings of Gassner’s book reviews, columns, essays, introductions, lectures, prefaces, reports, speeches, or transcripts of broadcasts. There are a few typescripts present, most notably a 1940 play report for Arthur Miller’s Children of the Sun.
The Plays represent plays adapted, produced, or translated by Gassner and are chiefly documented by programs, review clippings, and some incomplete play texts. The Poems include clippings of poems by Gassner, which are among some of his earliest published writings. The Projects segment includes printed source materials gathered for unrealized projects on various topics, including playwriting, Shakespeare’s characters, speech, and two anthologies, one of poetry, another of science plays.
Subseries B, Career and Personal Papers, 1911-1983, mainly comprises printed materials concerning Gassner’s career that are arranged by categories that document his activities, such as awards judged or received, biographical and bibliographic data, teaching and other employment (particularly for Yale University), the Gassner papers and library acquired by the University of Texas, membership in various organizations, photographs, and travel (especially a 1962 international trip).
This subseries also contains a later acquisition of Gassner family correspondence, including early letters to his wife Mollie and a slightly larger group written to his daughter Caroline. The letters were usually written by Gassner while traveling and often detail where he was and what work he was doing. There are also two letters outlining his funeral wishes in 1961 and 1964. Index entries for the Gassner family correspondence have been added as appropriate to the Index of Letters, Index of Recipients, or Index of Miscellaneous.
A group of posthumous materials collected by Mollie Gassner includes obituaries and memorial tributes, works and papers by a few of Gassner’s students, and documentation of a number of awards given in Gassner’s memory by several different institutions.
Subseries C. Plays, 1894-1964, contains published play texts in the form of tearsheets removed from books or journals, now arranged alphabetically by title. These were most likely used by Gassner while compiling anthologies and many include his markup or annotations. Some, such as Sartre’s The Flies and Strindberg’s A Dream Play, provide good examples of Gassner’s working method. Also of note is a Stage for Action typed mimeo script of "You’re next!: A political playlet" by Arthur Miller, circa 1946. There are also a few bound playscripts as well as other typescripts of plays, usually mimeo or other reproductions. Separately published plays that were complete were removed and transferred for addition to John Gassner’s other books held at the Ransom Center.
Subseries D. Programs, circa 1920-1973, gathers programs and souvenir programs, chiefly for theatre productions, but also for some dance, opera, festivals, and other performances. These are arranged by theatre. A number of these seem related to Gassner’s international trip in 1962, with eleven representing productions in Turkey. There are also several programs for Theatre Guild productions. A few of the programs postdate Gassner’s death in 1967 and were collected by Mollie Gassner. Most other programs received from Gassner were absorbed into the various Playbills and Programs Collections in the Theater Arts Collection some years ago.
Subseries E. Subject Files, various dates (bulk 1920s-1960s), comprises printed research materials filed into two groups: Theatre and Other. These are mainly newspaper clippings and tearsheets from magazines, and occasionally entire issues or publications. These were probably compiled and used by Gassner for writing, teaching, or anthology work. Other formats present in the files include a small amount of correspondence, academic catalogs, offprints, memorial booklets, notes, reports, announcements, brochures, flyers, press releases, pamphlets, printed visuals, and book ads. A few subject files include photographs, and the theatre files occasionally include theatre programs.
The Theatre files are broken down into a series of geographical and topical files that are arranged alphabetically, with the bulk of the geographical files focused on American and British theatre plus additional files for other countries and regions around the world. The topical files include materials on subjects such as acting, dance, design, a few specific theatre organizations, (including the Theatre Guild), and a few individual playwrights (such as Samuel Beckett). There is a sizeable group of files concerning outdoor regional theatre in America as well as documentation of theatre education at academic and other institutions.
The Other files reflect Gassner’s wide-ranging interests in a variety of non-theatre topics, chiefly art and literature. The files are arranged alphabetically and major topics are frequently broken into subtopics by author, era, genre, country, or region. Also represented, though to a lesser extent, are history, philosophy, politics, and the social sciences. The subject files on radio include programs for number of plays broadcast on Theatre Guild on the Air (1945-1951) and a large group of photographs of radio performers (bulk 1937-1938) depict actors, band leaders (Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman), comedians, musical groups (The Mills Brothers), news commentators, and singers.
Subseries F. Works by Others, 1923-1972, contains works by others—many of them Gassner colleagues or students—such as articles, reviews, and contributions to books. The works are present as typescripts or duplicated typescripts, offprints (sometimes inscribed or signed by the author), tearsheets from publications, and clippings. These often bear Gassner’s markings, some of which may be due to his editorial duties for journals and publishers such as Bantam. Some of the works are post-1967, reflecting posthumous items collected by Mollie Gassner. Because these works are similar to the third-party works in Series IV. Miscellaneous, they have been indexed in the Index of Miscellaneous.
A fifth index, the Index of Additional Materials, includes index entries for special format items located in the Plays, Programs, and Subject Files (Theatre Guild programs and photographs of radio performers only).

Related Material

There are additional letters from or to John Gassner found in other several other collections held by the Ransom Center: the Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Records; Stanley Burnshaw Papers; Ellsworth P. Conkle Papers; Contempo Records; George Macy Companies, Inc. Limited Editions Club and Heritage Press Records; Lillian Hellman Papers; Robert Downing Papers; Robinson Jeffers Collection; Elmer Rice Papers; Audrey Wood Papers; and the Louis Zukofsky Collection.
The Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University also possesses John Gassner Papers (MS 560) related to his activities as a professor of playwriting. Yale’s Theatre Guild Archive (CAL MSS 436) at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library also includes a significant amount of Gassner materials.

Separated Material

The Ransom Center’s Performing Arts Collection contains photographs, programs, and clippings that originated from the Gassner Papers in its Musicians Collection, Playbills and Programs Collection, Production Photographs Collection, and Theatre Biography Collection. It is also home to a large collection of Theatre Guild Records, which may contain Gassner-related materials.
The Center also holds additional materials obtained from John Gassner in its Book Collection (over 700 book and periodical titles); Personal Effects Collection (5 boxes); Photography Collection (113 items in the John Gassner Photography Collection); Sound Recordings Collection (26 recordings); and Vertical File Collection (3 folders).

Index Terms


Albee, Edward, 1928-2016.
Anderson, Robert, 1917-2009.
Gassner, Mollie.
Jeffers, Robinson, 1887-1962.
Loney, Glenn Meredith, 1928- .
Miller, Arthur, 1915-2005.
O’Casey, Sean, 1880-1964.


Yale University.
Yale University. Department of Drama.


American drama -- 20th century.
Drama -- History and criticism.
Ibsen, Henrik, 1828-1906 -- Criticism and interpretation.
O’Neill, Eugene, 1888-1953 -- Criticism and interpretation.
Shaw, Bernard, 1856-1950 -- Criticism and interpretation.
Theater -- Great Britain -- 20th century.
Theater -- History.
Theater -- New York (State) -- New York.
Theater -- Study and teaching.
Theater -- United States -- 20th century.
Theater critics.
Theatre Guild.

Document Types

Galley proofs.
Plays (performed works).
Theater programs.

Container List