While the hard partying, toga-donning stereotypes of sixties fraternities run deep in the public consciousness, Eric Conger’s ’68 debut play is no “Animal House.” Late last month, “The Eclectic Society” premiered at the Walnut Street theatre in Philadelphia, painting a vivid portrait of a world Conger knew very well.
His stark portrayal of racial tension against the backdrop of one of the University’s oldest societies was spun out of a lost tradition of Eclectic history.
“Years ago when I was [at Eclectic], we used to do something called the charter gag on the pledges,” Conger said. “Unlike the other houses, it didn’t involve alcohol, or taking your clothes off, or acting stupid in public. It was kind of a loyalty test.”
The charter gag, an elaborate hoax involving the theft and recovery of a fake charter to the Eclectic house, was a long, theatrical process. Although stressful and at times humiliating for pledges, the gag was a common bonding ritual for decades—that is, until something went horribly wrong.
“I read in a book called ‘The History of Eclectic,’ that one year the charter gag went bad,” Conger said. “No one could really remember what happened…but apparently a pledge got hurt, probably emotionally hurt, maybe someone suffered a nervous breakdown, or triggered a seizure—it’s very harrowing. And the gag was suspended. After finding out, I thought it might be pretty interesting for a play as a background, as a way to show how brothers could be cruel to one another. It became the catalyst for the dramatic action, the backdrop for a full story.”
In the mystery of the charter gag, Conger saw a springboard into a deeper story. Weaving his own experiences at the Eclectic Society and the University with a broader story of racial acceptance and brotherhood, Conger created a seamless blend of fact and fiction.
“Eclectic saw itself as a house that had a social mission to include people on campus that were exceptional,” Conger said. “Not just by birth, but exceptional by accomplishment. Eclectic ended up being like the United Nations of fraternities on campus.”
While the Eclectic that Conger remembers lauded excellence regardless of race, the story of “The Eclectic Society” focuses on racial tension within the house. The protagonist, Darrell Freeman, arrives at an unnamed suburban college from the ghettos of Cleveland and is drawn to the famed and stately Eclectic Society. Although he is not the first African-American pledge, his presence still divides the house. According to Playbill magazine, “New friendships are formed and others destroyed as 125 years of ‘traditional thinking’ comes in direct conflict with a brave new world.”
Both Conger and his talented crew see “The Eclectic Society” as something greater than a historical piece, a story of the struggle for acceptance that continues to permeate society to this day.
“I think the audience, like me, is going to be struck by how relevant this period play, set in 1963, speaks to us today in 2010,” said the play’s director, Ed Herendeen, in an interview with NJ.com.
“The Eclectic Society” is Conger’s first original work to hit the stage, but the playwright is no stranger to the dramatic world. Alongside his translations of classic playwrights such as Moliere and Feydeau, Conger appeared as Oliver in the Walnut Street Theatre’s 1985 production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” as well as dozens of other shows nationwide. Conger plans to continue to write, with another play already in the works.
“I’ve got one ready to go,” Conger said. “It’s a smaller play about an Iraq vet who comes home and tries to readjust.”
Even with his budding writing career, Conger maintains a strong presence in the world of voice-over narration, having narrated numerous audio books and commercials. With its mesh of Wesleyan history and the timeless themes of race and acceptance, “The Eclectic Society” has been a hit on one of the country’s oldest and most the celebrated stages, The Walnut Street Theatre. The show premiered on Jan. 27 and runs through March 7.
“It’s thrilling, it’s like being on Broadway,” Conger said. “It’s the biggest theatre in Philadelphia and they’ve given me a first class production. They’ve even given me four performers to round out the crowd scenes and all of the cast members are part of the Actors Equity Association, so it’s totally professional.”