Herbert Blau will be remembered as a theater innovator and scholar who introduced American audiences to avant-garde playwrights such as Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and Bertolt Brecht. A member of the University of Washington faculty since 2000, Blau died Friday, May 3, at the age of 87.
Blau’s six-decade theater and academic career was extraordinary for a Brooklyn-born plumber’s son who studied engineering as an undergraduate and attended not a single play while growing up.
He earned both a master’s degree in speech and drama and a doctorate in English and American literature from Stanford University. Though a longtime professional theater practitioner, Blau was ambivalent at best about academic theater departments.
A stage experimenter, Blau co-founded and co-directed the Actor’s Workshop of San Francisco from 1952 until 1965 with partner Julius Irving, overseeing a famous production of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” at California’s San Quentin State Prison.
He co-directed the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center in New York until 1967. After a brief stint as provost of the then-new California Institute for the Arts, Blau founded another experimental theater group called Kraken, borrowing the name from a letter Herman Melville wrote to Nathanial Hawthorne.
At the UW, Blau was the Byron W. and Alice L. Lockwood Professor of the Humanities and professor emeritus of English and comparative literature, with an adjunct appointment in the School of Drama.
He was annoyed by productions that played “Godot” for laughs, and preferred it when the audience didn’t know what to expect.
Interviewed by A&S Perspectives in 2011, Blau said, “I often say to my students, ‘When I know what I think, I couldn’t care less. It’s when I don’t know what I think, when I’m utterly baffled, that I really like it, because that’s when I have to keep thinking. It keeps the mind going.”
A memorial is being planned, possibly for June 22. Memorial contributions may be made to the Joseph and Yetta Blau Fund for Graduate Fellowships at the UW.
- Listen to a Katz Lecture Blau gave for the Simpson Center in 2004.
- Read Blau’s obituary in The New York Times.