Tuesday, July 23, 2013
The Journey to RICHARD II, Part 3
On July 12, 2013, Joyce and I saw a production of Richard II, at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts. It was the last of the Bard's plays we had not seen in live performance. I've been writing about earlier experiences with Shakespeare--and how all of them, more or less, propelled me to Lenox that night.
Last time, I recorded the shock I felt when I saw that Macbeth, a play we'd studied my senior year at Hiram High School (1961-62), was included in my literature anthology, Interpreting Literature, for English 101 at Hiram College.
Ordinarily, I suppose, I would have felt elation at repeating something I'd already done in high school--similar to the feeling I felt when I took my first grad school course at Kent State (summer 1968), American Literary Realism, and realized I'd already read every novel on the long syllabus--except The Yemassee by William Gilmore Simms. I'd had a great teacher at Hiram--Prof. Ravitz (of whom I've raved before in this space)--and he had prepared me well. (And don't be petty or suspicious: In 1968 I re-read every one of those novels!)
But the difference in 1962? I hadn't really read Macbeth in high school; I'd just sort of sat in the classroom while people who had read it discussed it. (Or people, at least, who feigned knowledge more convincingly than I.) I had tried at Hiram High--I really had. But as I explained last time, I just could not read it. It made no sense to me. The language did more than defeat me; it got all up in my face and said You're stupid! And I could do nothing but agree.
My Hiram College professor in English 101 was Dr. Charles F. McKinley (I've written about him in this space, too--some of his daylilies are now in our garden), and I was terrified. He had given my older brother a B. And that was inconceivable. Brother Richard didn't get B's. I don't think he'd ever had one until Dr. McKinley decided it was time. No, Brother Richard was nothing but A's. Grade school, junior high, high school (valedictorian), college, grad school (he would go on to Harvard, complete the coursework for his Ph.D., all A's, before deciding he'd rather go to the symphony and the opera and write about it than write earnest treatises about Oliver Goldsmith).
Anyway, Dr. McKinley. He was a small, lean man (I think I was taller; I am 5' 8"), with a slight moustache, scholarly graying hair. Dapper is the word, as I think of it. His voice, though, was deep and expressive and even--don't get the wrong idea--seductive. His voice alone could seduce you into a story, into a discussion, a poem, a play ... Macbeth? When you said something dumb (I was good at that), his way was not to dismiss you but to ask you a question and then another one until you realized the answer to his final question was I am dumb. It's so much more effective to discover that you're dumb that to have someone else merely declare it, don't you think? Has a more enduring effect.
Dr. McKinley also loved--loved--to read aloud. (So would I, a voice like that.) In fact, truth be told, he probably did it too much. On the other hand, I think there were probably times when he just figured he'd rather listen to himself than any of us ... so ... might as well read aloud today.
With Macbeth--which I did not really have an easier time reading in college than I'd had a few months earlier in high school--Dr. McKinley's reading actually helped me. For the first time, I could hear the language (which, of course, is how we are supposed to encounter it: I mean, Shakespeare wrote plays, plays to be performed), and just hearing the words read by someone who knew what they meant was a revelation to me.
Okay, revelation is a bit extreme. But for the first time in my few experiences with the Bard, I was starting to get it. I began to think that some of the funny things were funny (the Porter in Macbeth), some of the horrible things, horrible (the murder of Macduff's family--wife and little boy).
Still, I did not emerge from English 101 with a passion for Shakespeare--or with the ability to read it on my own. It was more a sense of relief. No more Shakespeare! In fact, a year or so later, I delayed declaring myself an English major for one reason: I was afraid of Shakespeare. English majors had to take the Shakespeare class. And I just knew I would not survive that course.
Not long after that, the Hiram College Theater Department produced Romeo and Juliet. A good friend from nearby Garrettsville, Jim Vincent, played the Friar, so I went. But not because of Jim. I had the hots for Juliet (so did every other breathing straight guy on campus), and she had actually spoken to me--more than once. That meant ... Nothing, actually. It meant nothing. But I was young and hopeful with a pounding heart and vivid imagination. So ... Anyway, I understood nothing about Romeo and Juliet as I watched it. I was relieved when they finally--three hours later--got around to killing themselves. I was about ready to do it for them. It was nice to see Jim dressed up like a monk; Juliet was hot. But that got old--in a hurry--and that production did nothing to alter my attitude about the Bard.
But then ... a miracle. Dr. John Shaw, the only one who taught the Shakespeare course at Hiram, took a sabbatical. A full year away from the campus. I became an English major and graduated without a course in Shakespeare--and proud of it. After all, I was going to be teaching in a middle school. And what kind of madman would want to teach Shakespeare to those hormonal psychos!?
So ... I had a college degree, a major in English, a certificate to teach English in Ohio's secondary schools, and all I had ever "read" of the Bard was Julius Caesar and Macbeth. I had seen only Romeo and Juliet. Now, those, my friends, are qualifications!
TO BE CONTINUED ...