Born in Brooklyn, New York, Alfred served in the Army tank corps in World War II, received a B.A. from Brooklyn College in 1948, and received an M.A. in English from Harvard in 1949. He earned his Ph.D. at Harvard in 1954 and that year joined its faculty, becoming a full professor in 1963.
Alfred was a specialist in early English literature. He was chairman of Harvard's Standing Committee on Dramatics for many years, and he taught a course in playwriting. His lyrical play, Hogan's Goat, about turn-of-the-century Brooklyn-Irish politics, had a long and successful off-Broadway run in 1966 and provided a breakout role for actress Faye Dunaway, who became a lifelong friend of Alfred's. Other works included Agamemnon, The Curse of an Aching Heart (also starring Dunaway), Nothing Doing, and Cry for Us All, a musical adaptation of Hogan's Goat.
In 1980 he was named Abbott Lawrence Lowell Professor of the Humanities. William Alfred was the recipient of the New York Drama Desk Award (for Hogan's Goat) and served on the poetry panels of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award committees. He was a member of the Medieval Academy of America, the Modern Language Association, ASCAP, and the Dramatists Guild. In addition to his plays, he was the author of a book of poems, The Annunciation Rosary, and a translation of Beowulf.
Though he was acclaimed and beloved both in academe and in the theater, Alfred said he often had misgivings about dividing his time between the two. "I feel a kind of double guilt," he said in a Harvard University Gazette profile of May 27, 1999, a sense that the dual nature of his professional life hadn't left him enough time for either side. But he clearly had an enormous influence on students who went on to careers in theater and film, including actors Tommy Lee Jones '68, Stockard Channing '65, John Lithgow '67, and director Timothy Mayer '66. Jones called Alfred "my best teacher, ever." Alfred enjoyed long friendships with a number of accomplished actors, and with writers such as Gertrude Stein, Archibald MacLeish, Robert Lowell, and Seamus Heaney.
The Gazette profile went on to say: 'Alfred was the subject of numerous newspaper and magazine profiles, some of which captured his zest for the places he lived and the people he knew. Walking a New Yorker reporter around the Brooklyn neighborhood where he grew up, Columbia Heights, Alfred pointed out historic buildings and his old neighborhood sandwich shop with equal enthusiasm. "For fifteen cents," he said, "you'd get ham and American cheese and tomatoes and lettuce and lots of mayonnaise on Italian bread. Those sandwiches were wonderful." Alfred was among the most popular professors ever to teach at Harvard, and even after his retirement he continued to work with one undergraduate per year. "He was much beloved by generations of students, and by his colleagues, as well," said English Department Chair Lawrence Buell.'
He died in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
- 'The Professor' William Alfred Dies at Age 76
- The William Alfred Collection at Brooklyn College Special Collections
- Guide to William Alfred papers concerning adaptations of Agamemnon and The Scarlet Letter at Houghton Library, Harvard University
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