I started writing for The Dartmouth daily newspaper as a reviewer in the fall term of my freshman year in 1969 and continued to write for the paper until I graduated. I reviewed plays, books, and films. Writing for the paper, I also interviewed campus visitors such as the literary critic Alfred Kazin, the sculptor Elbert Weinberg, and the one and only William F. Buckley, Jr., all now deceased. As a reviewer I was asked to take a look at three one-act plays written and performed by Dartmouth undergrads as part of (as I recall it) the Robert Frost competition for playwrights in what must have been the fall of 1970 (although it seems to me like it must have been later). The plays ran for two nights in one of the intimate performance spaces downstairs at the Hopkins Center on campus.
The first of the three plays was a comedy of undergraduate life at Dartmouth. I thought it was hilarious. I wish I could remember the name of the student playwright. I thought he had a future as a writer. I raved about the play in my review, saying he had managed to turn student life at Dartmouth into art. This was well before Animal House, of course, when we saw what kind of art life at Dartmouth could really be turned into. Chris Miller’s memoir recalls how he did it.
Meryl Streep was in the second of the three plays that I saw that night. She was a transfer student from Vassar during the fall term of her senior year (1970-71) participating in the 12-college exchange program that brought a few hardy coeds to campus. In 2000 Streep sat down with The Dartmouth for a discussion of her term on campus.
The play Streep appeared in was a sort of Othello-meets-Dartmouth story of mistaken jealousy. I have no recollection of the third play except that it was the least of them all. A friend of mine was in the writing class that produced the plays being performed and he had given the plays to me to read in manuscript before I saw them performed. I remember the plot of the play Streep appeared in because I talked about it with my friend. Unfortunately, the play was mediocre at best. It afforded Streep little scope to demonstrate her talent, whatever it was at the time.
Here comes the memory. I remember looking at Streep on stage. She wasn’t speaking, but she was treating the role with great seriousness, standing around meaningfully. I noted her physical appearance, not thinking she was attractive or likely to make a living in the theater. However much I admired her seriousness, I felt kind of sorry for her. Writing up my review for The Dartmouth, I simply noted her appearance as one of the student actors in the play.
By the end of the 1970’s Streep was already becoming a film star. I pulled out my old review and showed it to a few friends. I also recalled the thought I had looking at her onstage — that she was never going to make it. The odds were hugely in my favor that I would be right, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Streep has proved to be the foremost actress of her generation.
I have never much liked her as an actress. She seems to me all technique and no heart. When I see her on screen, I am always aware of her acting. Am I wrong in my assessment? It’s certainly a minority view. I’m probably as wrong as I was about her future as an actress back in 1970. In any event, reading Charles McGrath’s interview with Streep for the New York Times regarding her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in the new film, my memory of Streep at Dartmouth came roaring back.
UPDATE: Former Dartmouth trustee John Steel writes with his own memory of Streep. He recalls that in 1981, while he was serving as a trustee, Streep was awarded an honorary degree. The trustees invited her to dinner the night before the graduation ceremony, as is custom for the degree recipients: “After the ceremony the next day, I joined her in a long walk across the Green and engaged her in a most interesting conversation. She came across as a very down to earth, bright and sincere person. I was most impressed.”