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The Delaware Opera House was the site of the 1885 scandal that rocked the campus of Ohio Wesleyan University.
Photo courtesy of the OWU Historical Collection.

Ohio Wesleyan Heritage Day Event Highlights 1885 Theatre Scandal
Students Skipped Chapel to Attend Delaware Opera House Performance

October 14, 2010

DELAWARE, OH – In 1885, 60 Ohio Wesleyan University students were suspended for skipping mandatory chapel and attending a performance of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” at the Delaware Opera House. This event will be dramatized, and the history of the OWU Department of Theatre & Dance will be profiled during OWU’s 2010 Heritage Day event: “Stand and Be Counted: Risking It All for the Stage.”

Heritage Day will be held at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 11 in Gray Chapel in University Hall, 61 S. Sandusky St. The public is invited to attend this free event, which will be streamed live, and archived afterward, at StreamOWU.

During the 1800s, many American church leaders considered theatre to be “the Devil’s playhouse.” As a result, the faculty at Ohio Wesleyan determined that theatrical performances were “detrimental both to the scholarship and to the morals of our students, therefore, no students will be permitted to attend any entertainment belonging to the above-mentioned class.”

But on Oct. 29, 1885, at least 59 Ohio Wesleyan students defied campus authority and went to the Delaware Opera House to see a performance of “Richard III” by celebrated Shakespearean actor, Fredrick Warde. After campus administration learned its order had been defied, the students were required to state whether they attended the event. The resulting controversy included the suspension of 59 male senior students, who were told that they could remain at the university only if they re-signed their matriculation cards along with a confession of wrong doing and a pledge to follow college regulations in the future.

In the years following, theatre was accepted and performed at Ohio Wesleyan, with the first public performance of a Shakespeare play, “As You Like It,” in 1905. The 2010 Heritage Day event also will explore the evolution of theatre at Ohio Wesleyan through today.

“It is truly ironic that this scandal occurred at Ohio Wesleyan,” said Bonnie Milne Gardner, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Theatre & Dance and a member of the Heritage Day Committee. “Shakespeare has been such a rich tradition in our drama program here. For most of the 20th century, one of his plays was performed here each and every year. And since the early 1980s, our department has sponsored an annual trip for our students to attend the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada.”

The Heritage Day celebration is sponsored by the OWU Student Involvement Office, the Heritage Day Committee, and the Department of Theatre & Dance. Heritage Day is held each year on or around Nov. 13, the first day of classes when Ohio Wesleyan opened its doors. Each year, an event, building, or theme of historic interest is highlighted during the celebration.

Ohio Wesleyan University is one of the nation’s premier small, private universities, with more than 90 undergraduate majors, sequences, and courses of study, and 23 Division III varsity sports. Located in Delaware, Ohio, just minutes north of Ohio’s capital and largest city, Columbus, the university combines a globally focused curriculum with off-campus learning and leadership opportunities that translate classroom theory into real-world practice. OWU’s close-knit community of 1,850 students represents 45 states and 52 countries. Ohio Wesleyan earned a 2009 Presidential Award for Excellence in General Community Service, is featured in the book “Colleges That Change Lives,” and is included on the “best colleges” lists of U.S. News & World Report and The Princeton Review. Learn more at www.owu.edu.