One of the most notorious pieces of Duke’s theatrical history—an anonymously written play titled The Vision of King Paucus—never actually appeared on a campus stage. But when 300 copies of the three-page script showed up mysteriously in student and faculty mailboxes in late 1933, it caused a stir felt across the university.
The script laid out a bitter lampoon of a Duke administration more concerned with football, grand campus buildings, and paying homage to the university’s rich benefactor than with the wants and needs of its students. The play’s central characters, thinly veiled parodies of university leaders, were given outrageous descriptions that left little doubt as to the target of their ridicule. President William Few was represented as King Paucus, “a thin, awkward man with a goatish beard.” Vice President Robert Flowers was characterized as Prince Struttabout Blossoms, “a self-important sonorous saynothing dressed in a curious suit of armour fashioned from coins.” Dean William Wannamaker was Lord Willie Wanna-be- King, “a pasty sort of ham-and-egg man wearing an academic robe.”
The play’s most-pointed lambasting was directed at Henry Rudolph Dwire, Duke’s director of public relations, who appeared as Henri Rudolphus Fatpaunch, “the King’s eunuch and Lord of Ballyhoo, a man-sized infant with a head like a pumpkin and a croaking blah-blah voice. His eyes are beady, his face rat-like. His breath comes in short pants, but nevertheless he wears no pants, and is arrayed sometimes in the disguise of a fairy and at others à la Mahatma.”
University administrators searched urgently for the identity of the author, apparently believing the author could be charged with sending obscene material through the mail (based on the fact that Fatpaunch was described as not wearing pants). Suspicion centered on Janet Earl ’35, a student from Iowa, because a spelling mistake in the play matched one she was known to make. But the author’s identity remained unknown for decades.
It wasn’t until 1979, in an interview with former classmate Susan Singleton Rose ’35, A.M. ’87, that Earl admitted to writing King Paucus. She said she had been frustrated by the administration’s seeming indifference to student concerns and what she saw as administrators’ outmoded attitude toward academic freedom. Ernest Seeman, theneditor of Duke University Press and a vocal critic of the administration, encouraged her to express her feelings in writing. She drafted her play and gave it to Seeman, who had an out-of-state printer make 300 copies. Earl and two friends took the copies to Raleigh, where they anonymously mailed them to students and faculty.
During the university’s investigation, Earl admitted her participation to law professor Leslie Craven, whom she had sought out for advice. He told her that Duke had hired the famed Pinkerton National Detective Agency to hunt for the author and that one of his classes had been investigate the case. Craven encouraged her never to speak of her involvement with King Paucus. He also urged her to consider transferring to another university, which she did. Craven, too, would soon leave Duke for a position in federal government. Years later, he related that he had told only two people about her role in the King Paucus affair: law school dean Justin Miller and former U.S. President Herbert Hoover, who, Craven said, laughed at the story.
Earl, known later as Janet Earl Miller, went on to edit Quaker Oats’ company magazine and coauthor a book about her Iowa high school. She died in January 2012. Her obituary notes that among her pleasures were “her years at Duke University in North Carolina.”
Seeman was dismissed from Duke Press in 1934. The official reason given for his dismissal was financial.
Perhaps encouraged by the King Paucus stunt, several students took steps in February 1934 to address their complaints with the administration. A committee including students and faculty members was formed to address their concerns, which included a lack of on-campus social activities and access to athletics facilities, and the right of campus police to enter dormitory rooms without student permission. The success of this endeavor encouraged the creation of a stronger, more vocal student government— a predecessor of today’s Duke Student Government. Today, DSG advocates for communication between students and administrators, a dialogue that stems from a three-page play about a very odd king.
Sims is a technical services archivist at Duke.