William Alfred (1922 – 1999)

July 26, 2016

Lot 330 Alfred

This month we celebrate the life of American playwright and poet William Alfred, who wrote The Curse of an Aching Heart, Agamemnon, Who to Love, Nothing Doing and who was Abbott Lawrence Lowell Professor of the Humanities, Emeritus at Harvard University.

Alfred was the son of a Brooklyn bricklayer and a telephone operator, who attended parochial school and served in the Army tank corps during World War II before attending Harvard where he studied English, earned a Ph.D. and soon after joined the faculty as a full professor in the early 1960’s.

A specialist in Beowulf and early English literature, Alfred was known to many students as, simply “The Professor.”

Alfred portrait-001Chairman of Harvard’s Standing Committee on Dramatics for many years, Alfred was a beloved professor who taught popular courses in playwriting while working himself as a playwright. According to the Harvard University Gazette, Alfred often felt conflicted about dividing his time between academics and the theater.  “I feel a kind of double guilt,” he said in a Gazette profile, as if the divide between each pursuit hadn’t allowed enough time for either endeavor.

Students nevertheless adored Alfred and many went on to make their own significant impact in the world of theater and in the motion picture industry – including Stockard Channing, John Lithgow, and Tommy Lee Jones.

Playright William Alfred with friends, actress Faye Dunaway and musician Peter Wolf

In the mid-1960’s, Alfred’s lyrical play, Hogan’s Goat, about turn-of-the-century Brooklyn-Irish politics, featured a breakout role for actress Faye Dunaway – who in addition to Robert Lowell, Seamus Heany, Gertrude Stein, Archibald MacLeish – afterwards remained a lifelong friend of the playwright.

In addition to several plays, Alfred served on the poetry panels of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award committees, was the recipient of the New York Drama Desk Award, penned of a book of poems called The Annunciation Rosary and was a member of the Dramatists Guild, the Medieval Academy of America, the ASCAP, and the Modern Language Association.

Alfred is buried in the Harvard Corporation Lot on Amaranth Path at Mount Auburn Cemetery. The large granite lawn marker bears an image of the sun with the words “Death is undone by love.” Below the sun is a description of Alfred’s career: “Playwright ▪ Poet ▪ Teacher” followed by a selection from the last verse of Henry Vaughan’s (1621-1695) poem “The Night:” There is in God (some say) / A deep but dazzling darkness- / O for that night! where I in him / Might live invisible and dim.

Alfred monument

7 Comments

  1. Susan Siris Wexler says:

    I was introduced to William Alfred when I first came to Cambridge. He was kind enough to read one of my manuscripts. It was a privilege to get to know him. Will there be or has there been a gathering to celebrate his life with some readings of his work?

    Susan

    • Jennifer Johnston says:

      Hi Susan,

      We have no plans for a celebration of William Alfred at the moment, but you are welcome to visit his grave any time you would like. We recently did a major rejuvenation of Harvard Hill where he is buried. Currently, Lot 330 is the final resting place for 62 Harvard-affiliated people. Over time the lot had fallen into disrepair, so in 2014 Mount Auburn Cemetery in partnership with Harvard developed a plan to revitalize the lot’s landscape.

  2. Walter Skold says:

    Hi Jennifer, That top image is stunning! Is that of the stone? It almost looks like the design the stonecutters used. Also, I love the font. Do you have any idea what font was used?

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