Winchester College, College St, Winchester SO23 9NA
University of Cambridge, 4 Mill Ln, Cambridge CB2 1RZ, UK
Fine Arts Building, 410-418 S Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60605
Maurice Browne (12 February 1881 – 21 January 1955) was best known as a theater producer in the United States and the UK. The Cambridge-educated Browne was also a poet, actor, and theater director. He has been credited, along with his then-wife Ellen Van Volkenburg, with being the founder of the Little Theatre Movement in America through his work with the Chicago Little Theatre. Browne and Van Volkenburg went on to found the department of drama at the Cornish School in Seattle in 1918, now Cornish College of the Arts. Browne's greatest triumph came in 1929 when he produced Journery's End, by R. C. Sherriff in London.
Browne was born in Reading, England, on February 12, 1881, the first of four children, to Mamie and Frederick Herbert Browne. The latter served as head-master and pastor at a preparatory school in Ipswich until his death by suicide when Maurice was fourteen years old. Thereafter, the mother supported the family by opening and operating a number of private schools in succession. At boarding schools from the age of eleven, Browne distinguished himself as a student of classical languages, and, after serving briefly in the Boer War, he entered Cambridge University in 1900.
At college, Browne developed a passion for poetry that stayed with him for the rest of his life. Although he stopped writing verse shortly after his graduation, with honors, in 1903, his poetic values greatly informed his career in the theater. After eight years of teaching, tutoring, traveling, lecturing, and for a short time publishing his own and others' poetry at Samurai Press, which he cofounded with Harold Monro, Browne met Ellen Van Volkenburg, a gifted American actress, at a restaurant in Florence. Almost immediately he embarked with her on a life in the theater.
Engaged to Nellie Van, as she was called, within days of their meeting, Browne joined his fiancée in her native Chicago, where after their marriage they founded the Chicago Little Theatre in 1912. His leadership of this innovative amateur company during its five years of operation earned Browne his reputation as father of the American Little Theater movement, as hundreds of little theaters appeared across the country between 1912 and 1920. Browne protested this popular designation, for it overlooked the important contributions of others, such as Laura Dainty Pelham's work with the Hull House Players, which dated back to 1907.
Fine Arts Building, Chicago
But the influence of the Chicago Little Theatre was particularly widespread due to its practice of touring productions to other cities and to the publication of articles by Browne on the company's work. In characterizing Browne's influence on other theaters, Bernard Dukore states that he "advanced the ideas of a non-commercial dramatic literature, a non-professional theatre, unity of production under the guidance of a single directing mind, and the new stagecraft". In The New Movement in the Theatre, Sheldon Cheney asserts that Browne "has whipped into shape an organization which stands to-day as one of the most vital expres-sions of the new dramatic spirit in America".
Following the disbanding of the Chicago Little Theatre in 1917, Browne spent a decade restlessly moving around the United States, teaching sporadically, directing, and, increasingly, producing theater. Browne and Nellie Van divorced, after years of his infidelity with other women, though they continued to work together professionally for many years. A second marriage, to Ellen Janson, proved short-lived after the birth of a son, whom Ellen raised in California after Browne returned to England in 1927. Two years later, Browne produced R. C. Sheriff's Jottrney's End, and with that play's extraordinary success, which was followed by others in the West End, he became one of London's preeminent theatrical producers. He continued to produce until 1942, when poverty and ill health required him to withdraw from the theater. Over the course of his career, several of his own plays were produced, including The King of the Jews (1916), at the Chicago Little Theatre, but none significantly enhanced his reputation. In the last years of his life, he became a devout Christian and wrote an autobiography, posthumously published as Too Late to Lament, in which he frankly relates his sexual history, including a homosexual past. Browne maintained that sexual desire had played a dominant role in his life, describing it as "that evil-good which from puberty to impotence had been my curse and my ecstasy". Throughout most of his adult life, he was both heterosexual and promiscuous; the two periods of homosexuality discussed in his autobiography occurred in his youth and early manhood. The nature of the link between his youthful homosexual experiences and his later work in the theater, while certainly present, remains difficult to determine without additional factual information.
Writing of his years at Winchester (1894-97), a preparatory school for boys, Browne describes the practice of being "tarted" by an older student, explaining that "tarting did not necessarily imply sexual activity; it meant merely an elder's favorable regard". But sexuality was often part of the boys' relationship, and Browne mentions having desired some of his fellow students. He also relates the occasional outrage he and others suffered through homosexual rape by an older student and his "cronies." Following one assault when he was fourteen, Browne recalls his anguish in the third person, writing that "in a paroxysm of rage and pain he shakes his fists at a hypothetical heaven and curses aloud the parents who gave him life and the hour in which he was born".
Browne's experience of rape did not lead then, nor later, to an ill-disposition toward homosexuality. At college, he sometimes had sex with other boys, referring to it as a release of sexual desire "in the public-school manner". Not until his second year at Cambridge did he have his first heterosexual encounter, which he describes as "a furtive business in a back street". A misdiagnosis caused him to believe for several years that he had contracted gonorrhea from the woman and led to a "flight toward homosexuality for two or three years, through fear of further infection or of infecting others".
In his autobiography, Browne treats his homosexual past as an early phase in the development of his adult heterosexuality. Perhaps the distinction between his homosexual and heterosexual experiences, which he rather neatly categorizes as youthful experimentation versus mature behavior, reflects his later thinking, when as a Christian near the end of his life he wrote of his years at Cambridge. His homosexuality as a young man does not seem to be adequately described by the word flight, and his failure to provide further information on this period effectively excludes it from the otherwise detailed narrative of his early years. Nevertheless, Browne's insistence on including not only an admission of his homosexual past but the narration of scenes of it, at a time when such confessions in memoirs were virtually taboo, demonstrates his validation of that past as a significant facet in the revelation of his identity. He died on January 21, 1955.
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