D. Nicholas Rudall, who lifted Court Theatre to national stage, 1940-2018

Founding artistic director was renowned scholar on UChicago faculty for 40 years

D. Nicholas Rudall, a longtime UChicago scholar and director who helped establish Court Theatre as one of the country’s premier theaters, died June 19 at age 78. He passed away peacefully surrounded by family at his daughter’s home in Tucson, Arizona after a hard-fought battle with cancer. 

An award-winning translator of Greek plays and a beloved UChicago professor for 40 years, Rudall brought a love of poetry to the classroom and made ancient texts come to life for his students. He is also widely credited with the energy and artistic vision that first propelled Court Theatre onto the national scene.

In 1970, President Edward H. Levi asked Rudall to transform Court, which began as a community-based outdoor drama festival, into a professional theater. Rudall became artistic director of the theatre in 1972, and by the mid-1970s, the company had transitioned from working with students and community members to employing professional Equity actors.

It was under his guidance that Court and the University came together to create a permanent home for the theatre in 1981. Rudall directed dozens of plays, including The Glass MenagerieLysistrataRomeo and JulietUnder Milk Wood and The Mystery Cycle. He also appeared often on the Court stage, playing among other parts, Macbeth, Richard III, Falstaff and Prospero.

“For over half a century, Nick Rudall was an important voice of the arts at the University of Chicago. He will be remembered for his scholarship, dedication to theater and critical work in building the Court Theatre into a leading artistic institution in Chicago,” President Robert J. Zimmer said.

Prof. Emeritus David Bevington, one of the world’s top Shakespeare experts, witnessed Rudall’s classroom persona first-hand while teaching a UChicago class with him on the history and theory of drama.

“Nick taught me whatever I know about Western drama,” said Bevington, the Phyllis Fay Horton Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in English Language and Literature. “He encouraged the students and myself to take a much closer look at the texts until they began to live and breathe.”

‘Transformative artist’

Born in 1940 in Llanelli, Wales, Rudall was the son of a steelworker and the grandson of a renowned Welsh poet. Rudall likely would have followed in his father’s footsteps to become a laborer had he not won a scholarship to the elite Llandovery boarding school, where he fell in love with theatre.

Rudall earned his PhD in classical languages and literature at Cornell University and in 1966 he joined UChicago’s Department of Classics, teaching tragedy and ancient theater. An internationally known translator, his writing encompassed texts by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides as well as works by Ibsen, Büchner, Schnitzler and Feydeau. In the past year, Rudall completed a translation of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound.

Rudall retired from teaching in 2006, but he continued to translate and write plays, launching a three-play Greek Cycle at Court Theatre. He also traveled the world with his daughter, Clare Rudall Lorring, and his three grandchildren.

Charles Newell, the Marilyn F. Vitale Artistic Director at Court Theatre, succeeded Rudall in 1994 and worked closely with him. “By entrusting me with Court Theatre, Nick gave me the extraordinary gift of my career as an artistic leader,” Newell said. “Court will forever be Nick’s legacy. I am honored to have been mentored by this transformative artist. He was and is my artistic father.”  

In 2017, Rudall accompanied Court Theatre’s traveling production of his translation of Iphigenia at Aulis to the Getty Villa in Los Angeles. The same year, Court Theatre established the Nicholas Rudall Endowed Fund to support the continued production of classical texts and to ensure that Rudall’s artistic legacy would endure.

“On behalf of the entire Court Theatre Board of Trustees, I want to express my profound gratitude and admiration for the leadership of Founding Artistic Director Nicholas Rudall. He paved the way for a vital, prolific and thriving regional theatre,” said Timothy Bryant, Court Theatre board chairman.

On May 29, Rudall posted a final message to Facebook. “I have led an extraordinarily happy life doing the two professions I have loved most, teaching and translating classics and working in the professional theater. I thank you all for helping me enjoy this wonderful life. There are tears, of course, but I entered this last stage of my life at peace and with a kind of subdued joy. So thank you all.”