Monthly Archives: November 2016

The Play’s the Thing

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My favorite play in recent years, Hamilton, continues to grab headlines. Featuring our country’s founding fathers in their full (albeit imagined) humanity, Hamilton is worthy of continued attention, and not just because actor Brandon Victor Dixon addressed Vice-President Elect Mike Pence at a recent performance.

Dixon asked Pence to “work on behalf of all of us” — a clear plea for the incoming Trump-Pence administration to, among other things, nurture and protect diversity, care for the earth and global relations, and remember that America is a story of immigrants. Dixon’s direct address to an audience-member was certainly dramatic. But was it unprecedented? Not at all. Actors, and through them, playwrights, have long made a habit of addressing their audiences, whether directly or indirectly, before, during, or after the show.

I have been thinking a lot about drama since the election — yes, about the dramatic events playing out on our national stage, but also about drama, the literary genre because coincidentally, my students and I have been reading and discussing plays for the last few weeks in school.

We started with Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, where we learned key terms like pathos, catharsis, and irony. Students worked in pairs on posters depicting Oedipus’ experience of coming to consciousness about his identity, actions, and position in the world. Their work cleverly used symbols like glasses, light bulbs, and magnifying lenses to illustrate Oedipus’ painful journey from ignorance to knowledge. We then read Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice, a modern retelling of the myth of Orpheus & Eurydice, published in 2004. Ruhl’s humorous play turns classical ideas on their heads — the Underworld is more Alice in Wonderland than land of shadows, and the chorus is made up not of esteemed elders but three grumpy stones that act like bratty children at a birthday party — to suggest that dramatic irony can be much more than one character’s realization of his worst mistakes. When Ruhl’s Eurydice chooses to dip herself in the River Styx at the end of the play — when she chooses ignorance over knowledge — my students were quick to note an ironic inversion of their own expectations given the outcome of the play we had just read, Oedipus Rex.

These plays are different in fundamental ways: Oedipus Rex is deadly serious and Eurydice provocatively humorous; Oedipus Rex conforms to conventions of classical tragedy while Eurydice breaks rules and subverts conventions. Hamilton, too, while serious and conventional in some ways, relies heavily on humor and rule-breaking. It also profoundly flips the conventional script by casting diverse actors of color into roles played exclusively in real life by white men and women.

They are the same, however, in how they perform the spectacular feat of illuminating key and timeless truths about the human experience. As importantly, they each cause audience members to sit still, observe, and reflect on meanings both ancient and new. Whether tragic or comic, theater creates and comments on community in essential ways.

Although President-elect Trump didn’t care for the unscripted moment in Hamilton, Dixon didn’t do anything so different from actors and playwrights of old when he used the stage as a platform for public commentary. And when Dixon asked Pence to “work on behalf of all of us,” he continued the legacy of theater that goes back to ancient Greek times. Contrary to a tweet from President-Elect Trump, Hamilton the play is not overrated — nor is theater, in general. It’s the very thing to keep us all connected, optimistic, and engaged with timeless questions about who we were, are, and will be.

Just What the Doctor Ordered

hope

For many, Wednesday was a day of triumph. For more, it was a day of defeat.

Such is the nature of competition. But for me as an educator and a parent, the 2016 election was a shameful spectacle from start to finish. An experienced female candidate for president, the first our nation has ever seen, was unable to garner enough support to overshadow her (and her husband’s) mistakes. An inexperienced male candidate for president, the 45th our nation has seen, was ushered into our highest office despite failing to demonstrate preparedness, empathy, or character to this point. To get elected, he used words that stoked the flames of fear, prejudice, and phobia in neighbors and friends. And in the aftermath, it is a struggle to file those words away or write them off. They stung, and the sting lingers.

At times like these, I find myself stalking my library. I’m looking for something to make me feel better, and based on two very heartening articles, I am not alone.

Time magazine’s Sarah Begley writes in “Read a Novel: It’s Just What the Doctor Ordered” that reading fiction can be on par with other calming strategies. There is even a new profession, bibliotherapy, that has cropped up in England to offer soothing suggestions to those suffering from existential anxiety. At the School of Life in London, writes Begley, a group of bibliotherapists conducts sessions with clients that end with individualized prescriptions of six to eight books. Ella Berthoud, one of the bibliotherapists, says and I agree (although there may not be any science behind the idea), “a truly great novel gets into your subconscious and actually can change your psyche from within.”

It isn’t just fiction that can soothe what ails us — poetry, too, can be a balm.  According to poets.org, “more poems have been shared in the past two days than in any other forty-eight-hour period in the past four years. People are turning to poems seeking language, powerful and precise, to cope with this moment in our country when divisiveness has become so painfully clear.” For example, “since the election on November 8, Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” has been read on Poets.org more than 35,000 times.”

My offering to readers — my prescription for the day — is by Emily Dickinson, my favorite poet. My students know that I think this is one of her best, #314, comparing Hope to a little bird that sings courageously in the storm, and can’t be silenced, and asks for nothing in return for its efforts. If a little bird can continue to sing in chilly and strange places, then so can we.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Ode to the Passage of Time

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I’m about to teach a unit on Romantic poetry by Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats. There are many other noteworthy Romantic poets, but these four stand out for me as favorites, not only because I love their poems, but also because their poems remind me of some of the best moments in my life.

My mother introduced me to William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge when I was a girl. Mom was an English professor who shunned media other than the New York Times. She earned a PhD in Victorian Literature and I have her to thank for an almost intuitive connection with the words of 19th century writers. She read me the very strange “Kubla Kahn” by Coleridge and the image-laden “Tintern Abbey” by Wordsworth as I fell asleep in my parents’ bed.

In contrast, I learned to love Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats not by listening but through teaching their poems to boys at Collegiate School in New York in the late 1990s. My students were surprisingly receptive to the messages in such formidable odes to autumn, to a grecian urn, to a nightingale, and to the west wind. Working closely with my English department chair Susan, who meticulously annotated each and every poem for us to use in our respective classes, I gleaned deep and lasting understandings of the Romantics that serve me to this day.

Upon realizing this past weekend that I would need to brush up on my lesson plans for class this week, I panicked for a minute before remembering that I am an almost religious keeper of notes and past learning. I pulled open the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet and plucked out my folder on 19th century poetry. Inside, I found pages and pages of photocopied notes on William, Samuel, Percy and John. Interspersed among my own much neater notes from long ago were notes written in the dark black, looping letters that I will always cherish — my mother’s — followed by notes penned in precise, thin lines. These were Susan’s notes, her annotations on “Bright Star” by Keats and her rivers of questions cascading down the side of Shelley’s “Ozymandias.”

I took a picture Susan’s notes on “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and texted it to her in Seattle, WA, where she now lives. And I thought about how much time, space, and thought had just been covered in the ten minutes I spent looking over my nearly 20-year old notes.

In revisiting the Romantics, and in preparing to introduce them to my students in 2016, I traveled back in time to the 1800s, to my mother’s graduate work, to my childhood, and to my early years as an English teacher. The legacy that words create is the legacy that I cherish most.