Dan Silsby

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Dan Silsby


Dan Silsby


Elinor Fuchs



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Rather than list all of Daniel Gerould's accomplishments in the fields of global comparative literature and Slavic theatre--which have been covered in obituaries at by Playbill, the Polish Cultural Institute, and others--I want to focus on Dan's importance to the students he taught and advisees he mentored. One of the first classes I took the the Graduate Center was Dan’s seminar in Symbolist Drama. The room was so packed that every available inch of space into which we could cram a chair was filled, and still some latecomers had to share seats--a very difficult arrangement for a seminar class, but evidence of the popularity of Dan’s teaching. Even in the age of PowerPoint and Blackboard, Dan would still use a carousel slide projector and lecture from giant, yellowing 5x8 index cards, which he constantly revised over the years. These mysterious pieces of paper seemed to hold all the answers to Dan’s very specific questions, but he rarely glanced at them during class. You were never sure if a pause was his way of asking a question--waiting for you to complete the sentence--or just a moment where he filed through the entire history of the French Revolution to find the perfect way of phrasing a point. He would always require our in-class presentations to be fully written out. At the time, I found this annoying, but I have since come to see the brilliance in restricting rather loquacious graduate students to reading only what they had pre-written. At another point in this class, during a discussion of Maeterlinck’s Pelleas and Melisande, he let us struggle for a while with the significance of the lizards in the castle walls. Only after it was clear that none us had read the play in the original French. Dan pointed out the error. The translator had used lézards, meaning lizards, when Maeterlinck had written lézardes, meaning cracks. There was no longer any doubt in my mind as to why his seminar was packed to beyond capacity. Dan was a devoted mentor to students, sharing in their successes as well as supportive when they were having a difficult time in grad school. He remembered every detail of your life that you had shared with him, no matter how long ago you mentioned it, and casually slip in a reference to it years later. The word modest comes to mind to describe Dan as a scholar and teacher. It was not until I read his mini-biography in the preface and appendix to Quick Change--a collection of his work published by the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center last year--that I realized how truly worldly my mentor was. I felt that he was a global traveler, but not until that book did I realize he had worked in places as diverse as the Sorbonne and the University of Arkansas, Moscow and San Francisco. His own personal achievements--and they were innumerable--were never part of our discussions. Even though he had plenty to brag about, he always took the quieter approach, emphasizing the work and contributions of others. He was not meek, but reluctant to dwell on his important position in the creation of a discipline called "theatre studies." Why waste time talking about his accomplishments--which were already well-documented--when he could be sharing in the enthusiasm for your new discovery or continuing project? I don’t think he was completely comfortable sitting center stage, whether at all of the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center events or in his office. He would much rather introduce a young scholar to one of his longtime academic contacts. After many public lectures, I found myself in discussion with a senior scholar or international theatre practitioner because of Dan's introductions. Often, I would overhear him introduce Jadwiga Gerould as a scholar and translator in Polish theatre, and not with the problematic woman-as-property language of "my wife." He left the discussion to develop on its own merits. If he thought two people would have an interesting conversation, he would introduce them to each other without regard for the arbitrary labels of established social hierarchies.

Dan reminded me of a figure from one of his beloved Central European folk dramas. He often had a slightly impish sparkle in his eye when you were talking with him. His frame was thin and lanky, but he moved with a sprightly energy that seemed incongruous with his age. I will end by paraphrasing a parable shared with me by Frank Hentschker, who worked closely with Daniel at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center.

The Tale of the Seeming-Giant

As the children approached the Seeming-Giant, they saw that he was not a giant but a rather thin human of normal height. They spoke with him at length. The kindly old man listened to the children, gave them advice, and treated them with caring respect. He never once spoke to them of the towering giant they had seen from a distance. Finally, the time came that the children had to leave. As they sailed away, he seemed to grow in size. From a distance, the kindly old man seemed an unapproachable giant once again. And this was the children's last meeting with the Seeming-Giant, although they would never forget the lessons he had taught them.


Dan Silsby





Dan Silsby, “Dan Silsby,” The Daniel Gerould Archives, accessed August 25, 2019, http://www.danielgerouldarchives.org/items/show/129.