Stanford Report, May 5, 2004
Memorial Resolution: Martin Esslin
Martin Esslin, Professor Emeritus of Drama, died on February 24, 2002 at the age of 83, in London. He was appointed Professor of Drama in 1977 and served through 1988, at which point--age 70--he was retired, as the law then required. Martin returned to Stanford on several later occasions, teaching graduate seminars and delivering public lectures, for which he was in demand all over the world. His many distinctions included honorary degrees from several universities, the title "Professor" granted by the Austrian government, and the Order of the British Empire.
Martin married Renate Gerstenberg in 1947, and she collaborated with him on many of his translations of German-language plays into English. Renate died a little more than a year after her husband. They are survived by their daughter Monica, who lives in London.
Martin was born Julius Pereszlenyi on June 6, 1918 in Budapest. After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire following World War I, his family--Hungarian Jews--moved to Vienna, where Martin received his education at the Bundesgymnasium II. In 1936 he was accepted at the University of Vienna, where he studied Philosophy and English. He also attended the Max Reinhardt Seminar of Dramatic Art, where he studied directing, acting, and dramaturgy, in preparation for a theatrical career in Vienna. Martin was in Czechoslovakia playing a small part in a film that Reinhardt was shooting there when the Anschluss united Germany and Austria in 1938. His fortunate absence from Austria enabled Martin to flee the Nazis, spending a year in Brussels before reaching England.
Changing his name to Martin Julius Esslin, he was hired in 1940 by the BBC European Service. He wrote and produced radio features on political, social, and cultural subjects, often helping other refugees from Eastern Europe in the process. Before becoming Head of BBC European Productions in 1955, Martin covered the Nuernberg trials and the Berlin blockade. Encouraged by his friend Val Gielgud (John Gielgud's brother), Martin moved to the Radio Drama Department of the BBC in 1961, and became Head two years later. Soon the BBC was commissioning hundreds of radio plays annually, including works by avant-garde dramatists such as Samuel Beckett, John Arden, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, and many others. While working at the BBC, Martin tirelessly supported theatre and theatre artists, serving on Arts Councils, helping writers receive bursaries, and advising standard and experimental theatre companies on their repertory.
Although not by profession a university man, Martin drew the interest of the academy through a series of groundbreaking books, beginning in 1959 with Brecht: A Choice of Evils, followed by The Theatre of the Absurd (1961), which John Calder's obituary in The Guardian identified as the most influential book on theatre in the 1960s; The Genius of the German Theatre (1968), and Pinter: The Playwright (1970). Appointed Professor of Theater at Florida State University in 1969, Martin came to Stanford in 1977, the same year he left the BBC. A popular teacher and strong supporter of the arts at Stanford, Martin continued his scholarly interests, producing important books on Artaud (1977); on dramaturgy and the semiotics of performance (The Anatomy of Drama in 1977; The Field of Drama in 1987); analyses of the mass media (Mediations in 1980; The Age of Television in 1981), and near the end of his life, his memoirs. He wrote reviews and commentaries for newspapers in several languages, contributed to many volumes and encyclopedias, and published numerous articles in literary and scholarly journals. Although he spoke all over the world, at universities, conferences, on radio and TV, Martin was never far from live theater. While at Stanford he served as Dramaturg for San Francisco's Magic Theatre, helping it become the West-Coast mecca for new and experimental plays.
Martin's many talents and tireless energy reflected a complicated mix of Wunderkind, artist, journalist, scholar, raconteur, and ultimately, survivor, who used his considerable wits to full--and often dazzling--advantage. Although a very learned man, Martin had no time for intellectual obfuscation. He tackled big topics, and wrote about them clearly and in an intellectually compelling fashion. His lectures had comparable depth and clarity; even when fashioned on the spot, they were always a tour-de-force. While in no way religious, Martin did like to tell the story about the chairwoman of a Catholic society in a small American town where he spoke, who came up afterwards to let him know "You're just the kind of man we need in the church."
Martin last came to Stanford in the summer of 2001, seven months before his death. Although fighting the effects of Parkinson's, Martin tirelessly engaged high-school students in our discovery institute all afternoon, and the next morning, he delivered a memorable keynote address for the Continuing Studies Program conference on Eugene Ionesco (an old friend of Martin's) and his classic absurdist play, The Chairs. Not only did the occasion allow Martin to return to his favorite topic--the "theatre of the absurd" -- but it also brought him back to Stanford, where (as he told us that day) he had lived the happiest years of his extraordinary life.
Mr. Chairman, it is an honor to lay before the Senate of the Academic Council a resolution in memory of the late Martin Julius Esslin, Professor of Drama.
Rush Rehm, chair