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The Catholic Historical Review 89.2 (2003) 349-351

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Father Hartke: His Life and Legacy to the American Theater. By Mary Jo Santo Pietro. (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press. 2002. Pp. xix, 383. $39.95.)

By way of disclosure, this reviewer notes that his own life was shaped by Gilbert V. Hartke, O.P., whose recommendation for a temporary job led to a lifelong academic career. An Aristotelian scheme well suits an analysis of Hartke's story.

PLOT ~ Prologue: The protagonist, an aging priest, consents to a series of taped interviews in the months before his death. There follow flashbacks of his remarkable life.

Argument: A handsome Chicago boy appears in movies, becomes a priest, and combines his religious vocation with his theatrical interests. His career is recounted in Father Hartke: His Life and Legacy to the American Theater.

Action: Gilbert Hartke establishes the renowned Department of Speech and Drama at the Catholic University of America, sending nine shows from Washington to Broadway in a record dozen years. Audiences admiring our optimistic protagonist may be astonished by backstage scenes of his struggle to build a new theatre building. His program is celebrated nationwide as a jewel in the University's crown, but treated sometimes by the administration as an aggravating thorn. Particularly arresting is the vignette of Hartke, humiliated but ever [End Page 349] dramatic, dropping to his knees and begging his antagonist, the University Rector, not to deny him his new playhouse. Ultimately, and happily, our man prevails.

Epilogue: A hero, fondly remembered, leaves behind an inspiring legacy and a legion of friends and protégés.

DIALOGUE ~ Dr. Mary Jo Santo Pietro, Father Hartke's amanuensis and author of the book, stays wisely in the wings, letting her subject take center stage, which he commands with grandeur. She adds copious context and quotes from colleagues and friends, elucidation and occasional contradiction, but she never steals the spotlight from her leading man. It is Hartke's vibrant recollections, gracefully elicited, carefully recorded, and expertly arranged, which are the heart of this dramatic saga.

CHARACTER ~ He emerges as a dedicated priest, a visionary deal-maker, an indefatigable educational administrator—and an inspirational counselor to countless supporting players. He is also revealed as a hero flawed by hubris, but not fatally so. He was understandably vain: with his football player's build, leonine head and flowing hair, his every appearance was galvanizing. With gravitas, unfailing wit, and a basso profundo voice, he was a commanding orator. Father Hartke thrived on people, and people thrived on him—most especially the numerous students whose careers he launched, but also screen stars, politicians, and presidents, to whom he gave encouragement, sound advice, and religious counsel.

A notorious name-dropper, he was the master of networking before that term was popularized, and he used his manifold influential connections not only to his own advantage, but to that of his pet projects, his favorite students and his friends. He was a showman and public relations practitioner par excellence, as his own words reveal in this busy memoir. Ultimately, he was the consummate self-conscious playwright, producer, and performer of his own dazzling life, in whose aura many people basked, reveled, and benefited.

SPECTACLE ~ Father Hartke was a saintly vision on pleasant afternoons, pacing serenely in white Dominican robes through the courtyard colonnade outside his office, reading his breviary. He might then field a barrage of telephone calls, conduct several meetings, and appear that evening nattily attired in black suit and Roman collar, at a glittering White House soiree—and after midnight return to his silent monastery, where he bathed in a common bathroom down the hall from his modest cell. Such contradictory but plausible scenes depict his varied roles.

RHYTHM ~ Dr. Santo Pietro captures the dizzying tempo of this man in perpetual motion. He says Mass, directs plays, piles groups of students into his limousine for downtown outings, gives speeches, raises money, establishes summer theaters, leads tours of students to foreign countries, heads committees and national theatre organizations...


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