Emory mourns passing of Theater Studies professor Alice N. Benston

By Emma Yarbrough | Emory Report | Feb. 11, 2021

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Alice N. Benston (right) and Emory colleague Janice Akers (center) celebrate the marriage of former student Nate Green 08C. Benston was instrumental in building Emory’s Department of Theater Studies and is remembered fondly by former students.

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Alice N. Benston, former associate dean of Laney Graduate School and professor of theater studies, passed away after a short illness on Friday, Jan. 29, at age 89. Instrumental in building Emory’s Department of Theater Studies and establishing Theater Emory’s distinctive Playwriting Center, Benston leaves a legacy of fierce intellectual curiosity and a devoted passion for the arts.

“Alice Benston was a powerful instigator and advocate for theater at Emory,” says Lisa Paulsen, chair of Theater Studies. “It was also common to attend a live production in Atlanta and find her and her husband George in the audience. Alice taught our Senior Seminar, and the course was legendary among our students as enormously challenging, as well as commonly lauded among our alums as the most influential course they took while at Emory.” 

A New York native, Benston held degrees from Emory in English (58MA) and comparative literature (62PhD). During her storied career as an educator and administrator, she served on the faculties of the University of Chicago and Eastman School of Music; was the first woman professor tenured at Northwestern University since 1870; and created the Susan B. Anthony Chair in women’s studies during her time on faculty at the University of Rochester. 

In 1987, Benston returned to Emory as associate dean of Laney Graduate School, where she was instrumental in the founding of the Henry L. Luce Seminars and the graduate school’s innovative program Teaching Assistant Training and Teaching Opportunity (TATTO). She played a major supporting role in the graduate school’s project to edit and publish the letters of Samuel Beckett.

Serving as the first full-time chair of the Department of Theater and Film from 1988 to 1996, Benston taught courses in theater and women’s studies, including rigorous seminars in Shakespeare, Ibsen and Chekhov, until her retirement in 2012 — shaping the understanding of these masters for generations of theater practitioners and scholars. 

In 2005, she received the Cuttino Award, which honors excellence in mentoring, along with a student-voted Crystal Apple for teaching and mentoring. Students greatly anticipated her famous end-of-semester dinners in the beautiful home she shared with her husband, the late George J. Benston, former John H. Harland Professor of Finance in Goizueta Business School. 

During her career, Benston published many essays on Shakespeare, Ibsen, Strindberg, the Theater of the Absurd, Pinter and Beckett. Her essay “Portia, the Law, and the Tripartite Structure of ‘The Merchant of Venice’was republished in 1991 in Routledge Press’s prestigious Shakespearean Criticism series as one of the most important commentaries written on the play up to that point.

In addition to her academic work, she served as a dramaturg to Theater Emory and the Georgia Shakespeare Festival; was a founding member of the High Museum’s Fine Arts Collector’s Association; and served on the board of directors for the Alliance Theatre and the Georgia Humanities Council. As dramaturg, she worked on more than 30 new plays that went on to full productions at theaters across the United States and Europe, including work by Wole Soyinka, Donzaleigh Abernathy, Elizabeth Wong and Athol Fugard.

“Alice Benston was a model of energy, feisty creativity, strong opinions, unslakable curiosity and enjoyment of a life enriched by knowledge as well as by visual art, music and theater,” says Michael Evenden, professor of theater studies. “An irreplaceable individual, her influence on our lives and our work will sustain us, even as those who knew her will deeply miss her.”

She is survived by her sister and brother-in-law, Karen and Michael Philips, her sons Randall Benston and Kimberly Benston and their wives, children and grandchildren.

Upon the announcement of her passing, former students flooded a Facebook group for Theater Emory alumni with tributes and words of extreme gratitude:

  • “I am eternally grateful for, and forever in awe of, Alice. Her grace, wisdom and relentless insight changed and shaped so many. I have so, so many of her words seared into my memory. Alice saw us clearly and her vision let us see our best selves. It was such a great gift to have known her.”—Barry Carman 10C
  • “Whether sitting outside with her after watching a performance or sitting with her as your advisor, her glow enriched your life. I can’t imagine how many must have had this experience, how many lives she touched and inspired, and in turn, how many those have then touched and inspired. Her effect on me is forever.”—Matthew Pomerantz 97C, first recipient of the Alice N. Benston Award at Emory
  • “Alice was an inspiration to all of her students. Her encyclopedic memory, her curiosity for knowledge, her insightful analysis and her endless questions made for fascinating classes and conversations. She opened her home to her students and cared deeply for all of us. I feel lucky to have known her!”—Ricky Marson 00C
  • “One image that is forever seared into my memory is her and George sitting front row at every Theater Emory show (at least every one that I was in!). As a student, this simple act of engagement made a huge impression on me. What a legacy she has left in all those lucky enough to have known her.”—Matt Huff 97C
  • “Alice was such a dedicated educator — once her student, always her student. No one who was lucky enough to get an Alice and George dinner and home tour will ever forget it! I feel so fortunate to have lived in the same city with her the past dozen years so I could continue to absorb her wisdom and brilliance.”—Danielle Mindess 05C