William Alfred (1922-1999)

Playwright, Poet, & Educator

We celebrate the life of American playwright and poet William Alfred, who wrote The Curse of an Aching HeartAgamemnonWho to LoveNothing Doing and who was Abbott Lawrence Lowell Professor of the Humanities, Emeritus at Harvard University.

Alfred was the son of a Brooklyn bricklayer and a telephone operator, who attended parochial school and served in the Army tank corps during World War II before attending Harvard where he studied English, earned a Ph.D. and soon after joined the faculty as a full professor in the early 1960’s.

A specialist in Beowulf and early English literature, Alfred was known to many students as, simply “The Professor.”

Chairman of Harvard’s Standing Committee on Dramatics for many years, Alfred was a beloved professor who taught popular courses in playwriting while working himself as a playwright. According to the Harvard University Gazette, Alfred often felt conflicted about dividing his time between academics and the theater.  “I feel a kind of double guilt,” he said in a Gazette profile, as if the divide between each pursuit hadn’t allowed enough time for either endeavor.

Playright William Alfred with friends, actress Faye Dunaway and musician Peter Wolf

Students nevertheless adored Alfred and many went on to make their own significant impact in the world of theater and in the motion picture industry – including Stockard Channing, John Lithgow, and Tommy Lee Jones.

In the mid-1960’s, Alfred’s lyrical play, Hogan’s Goat, about turn-of-the-century Brooklyn-Irish politics, featured a breakout role for actress Faye Dunaway – who in addition to Robert Lowell, Seamus Heany, Gertrude Stein, Archibald MacLeish – afterwards remained a lifelong friend of the playwright.

In addition to several plays, Alfred served on the poetry panels of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award committees, was the recipient of the New York Drama Desk Award, penned of a book of poems called The Annunciation Rosary and was a member of the Dramatists Guild, the Medieval Academy of America, the ASCAP, and the Modern Language Association.

Lot 330 Alfred

Alfred is buried in the Harvard Corporation Lot on Amaranth Path at Mount Auburn Cemetery. The large granite lawn marker bears an image of the sun with the words “Death is undone by love.” Below the sun is a description of Alfred’s career: “Playwright  Poet  Teacher” followed by a selection from the last verse of Henry Vaughan’s (1621-1695) poem “The Night:” There is in God (some say) / A deep but dazzling darkness- / O for that night! where I in him / Might live invisible and dim.

Alfred monument

William Alfred is buried in Lot 330 on Amaranth Path.


Adapted from the research of Judy Jackson and Cathy Breitkreutz, as published in Mount Auburn’s Person of the Week: Anne Whitney, 1999.

Rita K. Gollin (2002). Annie Adams Fields: Woman of Letters. Univ of Massachusetts Press. pp. 176–177. ISBN 1-55849-313-1.