One of my passions is attending live theater performances. I really know absolutely nothing about the theater in terms of directors, producers, actors (well, that’s not really true, but many of them I don’t know), etc. However, I have been completely enamored of stage performances since I first witnessed my sisters up there dressed as pieces of taffy in an elementary school play. My first experience with professional performances was in London. We went to see Tom Brown's School Days when I was eight years old, and I remember turning to my sister when the lights came on at intermission, asking, with tears in my eyes, not so much from the last scene we’d seen, which was enough to reduce even a Buckingham Palace guard to tears, but more from my utter fear that this newly-found love was about to end, “it isn’t over, is it?”
Thus began my career as a theater slut. I'm one of those sluts who'd really like to reform, theater being a rather expensive habit, but I just can't seem to do so. I’ll go see something like the absolutely fabulous production of David Mamet’s Oleander, which I saw years ago at the Yale Repertory Theater (which, by the way, having been a subscriber, I can assure you, despite its status, very often puts on crap), and I’ll think, “That’s it. I’m never again going to any performance that isn’t guaranteed to come somewhat close to that experience.” Then I’ll notice that our local middle school is performing HMS Pinafore, for which I sang in the chorus in first grade, and I’m there. I’ve finally had to admit, give me tickets to any live performance, and I'll take them. In fact, give me a choice between a movie and the stage, and I’ll pick the stage every single time, even if it’s a kindergarten performance of A Moon for the Misbegotten v. a big-screen viewing of The African Queen.
I happen to have been inspired by a couple of posts from The Hobgoblin (lest you fret, I know I’ve referred to him twice lately, but he’s not my sole blog muse), as he reflects on his life as an academic. So, I’m plagiarizing myself here and copying verbatim what I wrote in my journal after seeing The History Boys at the Broadhurst Theatre on Broadway a few weeks ago.
If you're a non-theater type, this is your cue to stop here and to go visit a different blog. If you're a theater type who couldn't get to N.Y. to see this, you're in luck (and I wouldn't subject you to this if this weren't the case. How infuriating is it to read about some great play you know you'll never, ever see living in The Middle of Nowhere, GA.?). It was made into a film, with the same cast I saw, which I'm sure you can rent (at least, I hope it's available in The Middle of Nowhere, GA. Given its subject matter and fundamentalist Christians' love of settling in places like The Middle of Nowhere, you just might be out of luck).
"Wow! I don’t even know where to begin with this one. I was so completely immersed, and this play tapped into so many different feelings and thoughts of mine, it’s practically left me numb (or maybe that was the two martinis we had at Sardi’s afterwards).
"My first impression was: how familiar is this? I know it was the 1980s, but I suppose my year in the British schooling system in 1979 was on that cusp, so to speak. My fifteen-year-old self quickly assessed this system in which one’s whole life rested on exam results (I’m sure the fact I suffered from an extraordinary case of test anxiety had absolutely nothing to do with this) and found it lacking (how wonderful, isn’t it, that America has now followed suit with No Child Left Behind?). I sort of cruised through that year, fully aware that everyone else was focused on her (I was at an all-girls’ school) O Levels and what she needed to learn in order to pass, while I was focused on Queen and David Bowie and two boys who lived in my village, knowing perfectly well I was returning to America, where the only thing that mattered was my hope that my 'maths' class was enough to guarantee my entrance into a sophomore algebra II class.
"What I came away from this play thinking, though, is 'Why does so much of educational experience focus on taking the joy out of learning?' [I work for an educational publisher that] tries so hard to address this issue, but it seems so often we’re climbing an uphill battle. How ridiculous, though, is it, to take a first-grader who enters school dying to read, dying to count, dying to learn about his or her world, and to turn him or her into a fourth-grader who couldn’t care less? Our system (in complete alignment with that presented in the play) has just a few very simple goals: memorize facts, repeat and write about them, and then spit them back out to gain entrance to that prestigious institution guaranteeing success in life if you can get there (extra credit if you manage to do this in some sort of creative way, unless, of course, your examiner hates creativity; then you fail). Whether or not you actually learn anything along the way doesn't really matter.
"The best teachers always seem to get singled out and punished for something (I’ve come to realize as I age, most likely because others are jealous). Not that a teacher shouldn’t get singled out for what amounts to pedophilia (well, sort of), but this play presented an interesting twist on that. These were, after all, young men of 18 or 19 (not 12-year-olds) who had a very 'knowing' way of dealing with such things (of course, legislation in this country, at least, since the 1980s would have you believe that all young people of that age would have no clue and would be completely damaged for life, but the play certainly doesn’t buy into that theory). And he was a fantastic teacher.
"I was reminded of the professor when I was in college who was universally adored by his students. I never had him, but he was apparently inspiring, courageous, one for whom his students wanted to work and learn. They wrote long, supportive articles about him in both of the school's newspapers. His sin was nowhere near the level of something like "fiddling with students." Still, his sin was such that he couldn't get tenure: he hadn’t published enough. What a wonderful excuse that was for a bunch of bitter old academics who had no clue how to inspire students to pursue learning in that way. I find myself asking over and over again, 'Do we really, really care about young people and learning? Enough to put our own petty jealousies and insecurities aside? Enough to contemplate and accept the fact that one of them might be greater and more accomplished than we are one day?'
Anyway, enough of all this. What a wonderful, wonderful play, especially when juxtaposed with Doubt [another play I recently saw on Broadway]."
I will add: if you live anywhere near NYC and can go see this before it closes (Oct. 1, I think), DO! It's the sensitive poet with a great sense of humor who sends you roses and is looking for commitment, not that piece of eye candy you picked up at some bar at 2:00 a.m. this morning.