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Philip Freund: Writer and theatre historian

Philip Herbert Freund, writer, editor and educationist: born Vancouver, British Columbia 5 February 1909; Lecturer, Hunter College, New York 1946-78; Lecturer, Cornell University 1948; Lecturer, University of British Columbia 1949-51; Professor, Fordham University, New York 1960-79 (Emeritus); died New York 20 December 2007.

Philip Freund was a true polymath, but perhaps his greatest interest was the theatre. After the Second World War, given a fellowship by the US Theater Guild to write three plays, he began to travel all over the world in search of new theatrical experience. A Shakespeare performance by Inuits was as worthy of his consideration as Laurence Olivier's Richard III. It was no surprise, therefore, when he informed his friends that he was embarking on a history of the theatre.

It took him more than 30 years to produce 9,000 pages of memorable text (reduced after editing to a more accessible 3,000 pages), and the fourth and final volume of his magnum opus Stage by Stage will be published later this year. Its author, who was working right to the end of his long life, passed the proofs only weeks before his death. This monumental work may come to be regarded as among the most important and original studies of theatre history ever published.

Born in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1909, Freund started writing at an early age and was only 16 when he won a story contest in Cornell University's literary magazine. In due course he became the magazine's editor, graduating with an MA from Cornell in 1932.

This was the time of the Great Depression, but he and friends managed to start a small company that published four books, including Freund's own collection The Snow and Other Stories (1935). It got such good reviews that he was able to find himself an agent, who sold his next book to a regular publisher. A small financial windfall came his way when he was approached by one of the Starrett brothers who had built the Empire State Building to write the story of how the world's tallest skyscraper was erected in less than a year between 1930 and 1931.

Thereafter Freund's literary output was prolific. He published novels, short stories, essays, plays, works of literary criticism and, most remarkably, Myths of Creation (1963), a work of anthropology that ranks alongside the classics in its field. When asked recently why he wrote in so many genres, he replied "I never wanted to repeat myself."

He was also a teacher. He lectured at Cornell and taught theatre history at Hunter College in New York and at Fordham University, where he retired as Professor Emeritus in 1979 ("I had to retire from teaching at 70 – not my choice."). Freund was a shrewd investor and became a wealthy man. He left a substantial sum to Cornell University.

Jeffrey Simmons