The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Mabie, Edward Charles
(October 27, 1892–February 9, 1956)

—educator and head of the State University of Iowa Department of Speech and Dramatic Art for 31 years—was born in La Crosse, Wisconsin, one of three children of Fred Lincoln Mabie and Emma (Viner) Mabie. He married Grace Francis Chase in 1916, and they had one daughter. Mabie attended Dartmouth College, receiving an A.B. in 1915 and an M.A. in speech and English in 1916. His early academic career included posts at Dartmouth (1915-1916), Illinois Wesleyan College (1916- 1917), and the University of Kentucky (1918- 1920), before joining the State University of Iowa faculty in 1920.

    When Mabie arrived in Iowa City that summer, his first appointment was as lecturer in public speaking. The State University of Iowa offered no degrees in drama, a situation that changed following the university's decision in 1922 to accept creative work as theses for advanced degrees, the first U.S. institution to do so. By 1928 the Department of Speech, by that time headed by Mabie as a full professor, was renamed the Department of Speech and Dramatic Art. From then until his death, the program awarded about 350 master's degrees and 32 doctorates in drama.

    Mabie was instrumental in the community theater movement and was a pioneer in the development of regional drama. He helped plan the formation of the Federal Theatre Project, a New Deal program President Franklin D. Roosevelt established in 1935 to promote the performing arts regionally. Mabie headed a seven-state Midwest region, including Iowa, in the mid 1930s. He was the founding president of the American Educational Theatre Association (1936-1937), president of the National Association of Teachers of Speech (1926), vice president of the National Theatre Conference (1931-1939), and adviser to the American Theatre Council (1936-1939).

    Mabie secured funding to develop the university's fine arts campus during the 1930s, including a $50,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to construct a theater building, which was completed in 1936. It was said that his charismatic and aggressive style was, at times, a source of friction between him and Philip Greeley Clapp, director of the university's music program during much of the same period and–like Mabie–a formidable figure. Clapp and Mabie often competed for the university administration's attention, both for budget considerations and for recognition of their respective programs' growing academic reputations.

    Mabie's impact on U.S. theater and film in the 20th century was far-reaching. Noted students in the university's dramatic art department during his tenure included Tennessee Williams, Richard Maibaum, E. P. Conkle, and Gene Wilder. Williams drew ridicule from Mabie when he read his play, Spring Storm, aloud to his experimental playwriting class; Mabie objected to its sexual explicitness. Despite their difficult relationship, Mabie respected Williams's talents and graded him an A in the course.

    A partial stroke in 1950 left Mabie disabled, and he died in 1956 at age 63 as a result of heart failure. In 1973 the 500-seat theater in the building he helped to get constructed 40 years earlier was renamed in his honor.
Sources Mabie's correspondence and personal papers are in the University Archives, Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City. For a discussion of Mabie's often vituperative relationship with Philip Greeley Clapp, see Andrew Brown-stein, "Founding Fathers," Iowa Alumni Quarterly 49 (Winter 1996), 38–41; and Samuel L. Becker, "Stage Coach," Iowa Alumni Quarterly 50 (Spring 1997), 6.
Contributor: David Mccartney