In Memoriam: Donn B. Murphy, PhD, Former National Theatre President

Donn B. Murphy, PhD, 91, Former National Theatre President
and Georgetown University Professor Emeritus, in Fort Lauderdale, FL

April 3, 2022 – Fort Lauderdale, FL. – Donn B. Murphy, PhD, former president and executive director of The National Theatre in Washington, DC for 35 years, and Georgetown University Professor Emeritus, passed away peacefully at his home in Fort Lauderdale, FL today, announced his spouse and life partner of 49 years, US Army Col. H. Jones “Jon” Carrow, Ret.

Murphy’s theatrical career spanned over a half century, first as an award-winning director and teacher at Georgetown University (1954-1999) where he was a professional mentor to hundreds of students, including his Tony Award-winning proteges Jack Hofsiss (The Elephant Man) and John Guare (Six Degrees of Separation), and best-selling author Julia Cameron (“The Artist’s Way”). Murphy received the competitive Georgetown College Dean’s Faculty Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1998, was named Georgetown University Professor Emeritus in 2000 and was elected to the Georgetown Theater Hall of Fame in 2002. Over 250 alumni from five decades gathered at Georgetown University to celebrate Murphy’s 80th birthday in 2010.

Murphy was a founding member of The National Theatre Corporation, established in 1974 to save the theatre, located three blocks from the White House, from razing. He subsequently served as vice president and then president and executive director from 1975-2010. Known as the “Theatre of Presidents,” The National Theatre has existed at the same location on Pennsylvania Avenue since 1835, although partially rebuilt several times.

Under Murphy’s direction, The National Theatre had a long and successful partnership with The Schubert Organization, booking many long-running Broadway hit musicals and launched several free outreach programs to the Washington community, including the Annie Oakley Ticket Fund.

At the invitation of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and White House Social Secretary Letitia Baldridge, Murphy was a theatrical advisor to the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson Administrations for their now-legendary White House dramatic and music presentations in the East Room (1961–1965).

At Georgetown, Murphy directed the Mask and Bauble Dramatic Society, the nation’s oldest and continuous college student theatre group, from 1955–1976. He initially staged plays and musicals in the McDonough Gymnasium and in Gaston Hall, where one of his star players was now-deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. He also mounted productions in the theatre at Holy Trinity Church, near the GU campus, and in Stage One, a 100-seat black box theatre on campus which he and his students created in a basement storage area in Poulton Hall, a “temporary” classroom building built during WWII.

Stressing the value of original writing, Murphy encouraged his students by establishing a one-act play contest and producing three winning plays each year. A generation later, the annual Donn B. Murphy One-Acts Festival was established in his honor. Murphy also oversaw the development of the “Calliope” series of annual original musicals and directed the first 15 of these productions, one of which, Senior Prom, by William B. Bremer and Jack Hofsiss, played an extended run at Washington Theatre Club after its world premiere at Georgetown. Another Murphy production, The Royal Hunt of The Sun, was a national winner at the 1970 American College Theater Festival. Mask & Bauble productions, including the DC premieres of Marat Sade and the Sam Shepard cult musical Operation Sidewinder, were regularly reviewed by the Washington Post.

Recipient of two “Best Director Awards” from the Greater Washington, D.C. Theatre Alliance, Murphy’s other directing assignments included staging six musicals for the American Light Opera Company (1961-1966) and five interactive children’s shows for the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts (1975-1979). Murphy also conducted a theatre workshop for patients at the Chestnut Lodge Psychoanalytic Hospital, Rockville, MD, where he produced and directed nearly a dozen plays with patients (1960-1979).

Born in San Antonio, Texas in 1930, Murphy grew up in Leavenworth, Kansas and attended St. Benedict’s College (now Benedictine College) in Atchison, Kansas. After several domestic stints with the National Guard, Murphy was stationed at Camp Drake, Japan during the Korean Conflict where he began his long-time association with Rev. Gilbert V. Hartke, O.P., founder of Catholic University’s Speech & Drama Department. Murphy subsequently earned a Masters’ Degree in Speech and Drama at C.U. on the G.I. Bill under Hartke. He later earned a PhD in Theatre and Psychology on a Ford Foundation Fellowship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1964. He also studied psychodrama under James Enneis at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, DC, and with Jacob L. Moreno.

His play Tyger/Tyger (1977) was produced by: The Theatre Wagon, Staunton, VA; New Playwrights’ Theatre, Washington, DC; The Corner Theatre, Baltimore, MD; and Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI. Murphy also wrote Papers of Fire, a pageant dealing with America’s founding documents, which was presented at the National Sylvan Theater on the grounds of the Washington Monument.

In 1984, Murphy wrote Eleanor Roosevelt: First Lady of the World, a dramatic reading starring Jean Stapleton and NPR’s Susan Stamberg, commissioned by the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History and presented there under his direction.

With Douglas Lee and Roger Meersman, Murphy co-authored Stage for a Nation: The National Theatre – 150 Years, published by University Press of America (1985), a chronicle not only of The National Theatre, but a history of professional theatre in the nation’s capital. He was co-author, with Stephen Moore, of Helen Hayes: A Bio-Bibliography (1993). Together, Moore and Murphy authored several articles published in magazines and newspapers.

This memorial tribute is kindly provided by Col. Jon Carrow.