Monday, June 24, 2013

Summer (re)reading: A Yorkshire Tragedy

OK, so I think I'm going to teach this one in Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama next semester. I will admit that I decided to teach it because it's basically a one-act, and therefore easily Xeroxable and ideal for slotting into an already-overstuffed syllabus. But I'm seeing a lot of interesting potential in it.

The play is based on the real-life case of Walter Calverley, who was apparently always something of a gambler and a drunk, and who snapped one day, murdered two of his three young sons, and attempted to murder his wife and his other son. The playwrights don't use real names -- the surviving Calverleys were naturally averse to having the family tragedy put on the public stage, and they were a wealthy family with some political clout -- but it's pretty clearly the early modern equivalent of a ripped-from-the-headlines episode of Law and Order.

The only named characters are three servants who appear in the opening scene, gossip a bit about their masters, and are then never heard from again. Everyone else is nameless: Husband, Wife, Son, Maid, Knight. The servants' dialogue at the beginning is the only bit resembling comedy. It's a stark play, very stripped-down, and makes you realize how overstuffed most full-length plays are by comparison. (I suspect it may be unfinished -- there are references in the first scene to an old flame of the husband's, and maybe the playwright(s) intended to develop all these loose ends, only someone else wanted the play to be rushed onto the stage while it was still topical. At any rate, it's probably fortuitous that they didn't -- I doubt that a comic subplot and a hefty load of moralizing would improve it.)

The Husband is the only character with much in the way of complexity, and you can almost see the playwrights grappling with the same questions you read in newspaper columns today after some apparently inexplicable act of violence: What would make someone do this? Where do people like this come from? Are they like us, after all? The other characters use the words unnatural, barbarous, monstrous, but these don't quite seem like answers. In his more outrageously antisocial moments, the Husband accuses his virtuous wife of adultery and his children of being bastards; at other times, when he seems at once more honest with himself and perilously close to madness, he despairs of his own prodigality and inability to provide for his family: How well was I left, very well, very well! My lands showed like a full moon about me, but now the moon's i' th' last quarter, waning, waning. And I am mad to think that moon was mine: mine and my father's, and my forefathers', generations, generations. Down goes the house of us, down, down, it sinks. Now is the name a beggar, begs in me that name which hundreds of years has made this shire famous: in me, and my posterity runs out. And these reflections lead him to the fatal conclusion that his sons would be better off dead.

I'm curious to see how it teaches. We'll be coming to it after Faustus, and after the revenge tragedies -- I think they will have the whole tortured-antihero formula down. It also seems to raise odd, uncomfortably contemporary questions about crime, media, and notoriety, in ways that (say) The Duchess of Malfi does not, even if you know intellectually that Giovanna d'Aragona was just as much a real person as the Wife of the play. I'm both looking forward to it, and apprehensive about it. We will see.

Monday, June 17, 2013

back from grading camp...

... a.k.a. the AP exam reading, where I read and scored 1,007 exams in seven days. It's oddly soothing. I think this is because you don't have to justify or comment on your scores at all, and also you don't feel EVEN REMOTELY responsible for the students. I kind of take it personally when our own, homegrown students can't manage subject-verb agreement, or when they can't spell words that are IN PRINT RIGHT IN FRONT OF THEM, or when they say completely daft things about people in other countries. But when it's someone else's students, far away? Pfft, those things are mildly amusing at best, and at worst not really infuriating.

I think I need to cultivate the grading-camp Zen feeling during the regular semester. (It might help if my normal employer would put me up in a nice hotel with little bitty baby quail.)

Monday, June 3, 2013

of travel and education

So, as I hinted in my last post, a friend and I are hoping to put together a summer study-abroad course for the Honors program next year, although I won't know until fall whether it's going to be approved or not. Summer programs are the only kind of study abroad we have at Misnomer U.; anything during the regular semester is too long, too much time away from regular coursework, maybe also too scary for our students. So the Spanish program used to do one-month immersion programs in Mexico, until Mexico also became too scary; now they go to Spain instead. And the residential Honors program -- one of the few programs here that isn't run on a shoestring, thanks to a generous legacy from an alumna -- spends a month in various, though most often English-speaking, destinations in western Europe. This is a required component of residential Honors, and it's also totally free for many of the students apart from food and incidental expenses, and heavily subsidized for the others (it depends on exactly which scholarship they hold).

In four years of interviewing applicants for the Honors scholarships, I've learned that this is a huge draw for some of them and a huge source of anxiety for some of the others -- there is usually at least one student in every group who says that they are not interested in residential Honors because the study abroad component scares them. Sometimes my co-interviewers have tried to talk them out of it; I have never done so, since there are always plenty of other students who would love to go on the trip, and I'd just as soon save the scarce slots in this program for the ones who do want them, badly. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the ones who don't want to travel are the ones who most need to do so. God knows, a lot of the fear seems to be passed down from parent to child -- and it was my good luck that I was born to parents who talked me out of being afraid, who took me to Europe and the Dominican Republic when I was a teenager, and then gave me the push I needed to go on that Christmas break trip to the Bahamas with my high school marine biology class (because in Fairfax County, Virginia -- a place that now seems very far away -- even public schools do that sort of class trip).

So I went to the Bahamas, and had a wonderful time. And then, when I was a sophomore in college, I went to Spain for a semester, and hated it for the first six weeks, and loved it for the last eight. I did everything wrong in some ways, being too shy to speak as much Spanish as I should have done or to socialize with strangers, but it was still life-changing. Spain was where I learned how to handle myself -- how to tell if that guy cat-calling you is harmless or scary, how to drink in bars without turning yourself into an obviously-drunk target, how to deal with police and insurance companies after your purse gets snatched, how to be a stranger in a strange land. And it was reading Lorca on the all-night train to Granada, and feeling the hush that falls over people when they're in the presence of Guernica, and going to see El dia de la bestia without English subtitles and wondering what the hell that was all about. And it was orange trees, and lilacs, and little dishes of olives, and fireworks, and dirty city beaches, and a blizzard of pigeons in the square behind the cathedral.

We don't give our students all of that. We don't even give them a new language to dream in. We give them a lot of activities and excursions, and probably not even enough time to feel displaced. We give them, more or less, what my parents gave me on my first whistle-stop tour of Europe -- a glimpse, a taste, a safe space in which to see a little of the world. And maybe it's just as well; maybe that is what they need first, and bigger adventures can come later.