A founding member of UCI’s Department of English and Comparative Literature, Emeritus Professor Edgar T. Schell, passed away at his home on April 1, 2023. He was 92 years old.
Schell joined UCI faculty in 1965, just as the university began teaching the first cohort of students. His background included serving in Korea as a war photographer, attending Temple University in his hometown of Philadelphia on the GI Bill and earning a Ph.D. at UC Berkeley.
Schell wrote and taught widely in the area of medieval and renaissance drama, focusing particularly on medieval morality and mystery plays which, while extremely popular in the 15th and 16th centuries, were very much out of favor in 20th-century America. Through English Morality Plays and Moral Interludes, Strangers and Pilgrims: From the Castle of Perseverance to King Lear and numerous articles, Schell worked to revive interest in this once popular genre. Arguing for the genre’s centrality in the development of modern secular drama and its immersion in the details of contemporary medieval life, his work was widely praised by reviewers and critics, for its “grace and intelligence” and for “the breadth of his critical approaches: historical, theatrical, formalist, psychological, generic and thematic.”
That same breadth of vision also guided Schell’s administrative work. Schell served as department chair of English and comparative literature for nearly a decade, during a time when both the university and the department experienced tremendous growth. Colleagues remember him as “an intense idealist” but also, when necessary, “a clear-headed pragmatist.”
Throughout his three decades at UCI, Schell’s abiding passion was for medieval theater. He was recruited to build ties with the Department of Drama, which he did with enthusiasm and great success. In 1985, together with Robert Cohen, founding chair of drama, and a group of faculty from English and drama, Schell formed a Focused Research Group (FRP) in medieval theater. With generous funding from UC Irvine and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the FRP produced a remarkably ambitious series of medieval plays under the general title “A Plaie Called Corpus Christi,” which told the Christian story from Creation to Doomsday. The plays were meticulously researched, adapted and translated largely by Schell himself, directed by Robert Cohen and performed mostly by students. A specially built and historically accurate stage – an early precursor of UCI’s New Swan Theater – was designed to accommodate all of the spectacle medieval (and modern) audiences loved. Smoke and fire belched from trapdoors below, where demons prepared to torment sinners, angels floated down from heaven and God, bathed in an ethereal light, spoke from on high.
The Los Angeles Times reviewed the productions in detail, not just as rare contemporary stagings of long-forgotten medieval plays, but as exciting, living theater. As one reviewer put it: “Someone forgot to tell director Robert Cohen and Dramaturge Edgar Schell that these 600-year-old plays were dry historical artifacts. And Cohen certainly forgot to mention it to his cast, which wades fearlessly into the rhymed text with conviction and passion.” To his colleagues and admirers, it seemed only fitting that the role of God in all three productions was played with majesty and calm assurance by Schell himself.
Schell will be remembered for his many lasting contributions to UCI.
Written by Linda M. Georgianna, professor emerita, English