Monday, 27 August 2012

Everyman in Saddle Shoes

Have you ever wondered why it is our teen-age students seldom share our enthusiasm for literature? And I don’t mean the hand-picked few we often, and unconsciously, find ourselves talking to—the sensitive high I.Q.’s and the future English majors. I mean, why is it that the groundlings of the 20th century are just beyond our reach?

I would like to offer what I think may be a partial answer in terms of one form of literature, the drama. This form is a good point of departure because it traditionally has been a popular form, from the festive celebrations surrounding Greek drama to the open air morality plays of the medieval period through the jostling exuberance of the Elizabethan inn yard to the magic window of the cinema. Drama has been for the people. Yet why is it that even this form finds so much resistance among our young people?

A major reason is the fact that teachers and teen-agers live in two different worlds. Many years ago most of us attained the maturity of judgment that made it inevitable that we pierce the tinsel curtain of superficiality that characterizes so much of American popular culture. We became, in effect, citizens of the world’s cultures, both past and present. 

This is why we can, within a week, enjoy a TV dramatization of Antigone, read a delightful novel of Trollope, view with pleasure with a Titian and a Ben Shahn, and listen absorbed to both Bach and Bartok. Through education and personal sensitivity, we have risen about the limits of popular culture. But our teenagers, with few exceptions, have not. In broadest terms, our job is enabling them to transcend the limitations of this time, this place, to attain that universality that we know art provides.

TV—A New Tabula Rasa
Most of us have figured all along that the way to do this is to present, historically, the best that has been thought and said by men of all ages. Take drama. The way to make young people sensitive to good drama is to be sure that they are carefully introduced to important dramatists. But, in my opinion, scholars in two areas of research—psychology of learning and anthropology—are giving us new insights into the nature of man that make this traditional approach the least effective in most instances. First, psychology of learning indicates that lasting education takes place when what is unknown is related to what is known. 

Yet the extensive experience that our teenagers have in the dramatic form—movies, TV, radio, and stage—is seldom employed as the point of departure in formal instruction in drama. Secondly, anthropology indicates that language is a function of the total culture or way of life. A civilization’s drama then, is intimately linked with both the values and language patterns of that civilization. If a person is unfamiliar with these values and language patterns, that civilization’s drama will remain a closed book. It is my feeling that the resistance we experience in teaching drama and other literary forms hinges on the fact that our students are centuries away, unable to break the sense barrier that prevents their participation in another culture.

Is the case hopeless, then? No. Our strategy should be to find ways of relating our understanding of previous cultures to our contemporary American culture. Starting with the known in the field of drama means alerting students to the best that exists in that form in their own world of popular culture. High Noon in film, The Ways of Mankind in radio documentary drama, Philco-Goodyear Theatre on TV. You can add to this list as well as I can. The major difficulties involved are the usual ones: How can I do more when I am already overloaded, and how does this contribute to the major responsibilities of the English teacher—developing communications skills and cultural sensitivity?

Takes Less Teacher Direction
In my experience, what I am proposing takes less, not more teacher direction, since in this area the students have so much experience that they can assume more leadership than usual. Further, using our teen-agers’ experience in popular culture is a more effective way of attaining our traditional goals—developing communications skills and cultural sensitivity. It is more effective in the first instance because they will be talking and writing about something literary, something they know a lot about and have a deep interest in. it is more effect in the second case because it presents the teen-ager with a realistic responsibility—that of patronizing contemporary drama intelligently.

Here are some practical ways in which we can use the dramatic forms in popular culture—film, TV and radio—to develop sensitivity in this literary genre. Read TV Guide and each Friday take five minutes to preview the most promising offerings. “Listenables and Lookables” in Scholastic is more selective and more critical, and can be used in conjunction with this preview and then posted on the bulletin board with highlights underlined in red pencil. You should also be aware of another Scholastic program, this one beginning in the Feb. 2 issue of Practical English. This semester P.E. will publish a series of 10 articles on “How to Judge Radio and TV Programs.” The series gives background and yardstick questions for evaluation.

There are other sources of criticism equally helpful. We have developed the habit of clipping John Crosby’s Sunday column from our local paper. Very often this critic takes dramatic programs as subjects for discussion. Students, as I hoped they would, now ask my opinion of his three weekday columns. Time and Newsweek provide other easily accessible sources of criticism of stage, screen, and radio-TV. 

The more advanced student ought to know about the popular critics in the Saturday Review, New Yorker, and The Reporter. Gilbert Seldes, Arthur Knight, Goodman Ace, Hollis Alpert, Philip Hamburger, John McCarten, and Marya Mannes ought be household words in America; they are doing a superlative job of relating their very sensitive appreciation of the humane tradition to the still immature world of American popular arts. Until textbook publishers see the importance of these critics and reprint them in the essay sections of our literature books, we will have to rely on our clippings and ditto machines.

How to Provoke Criticism
This criticism will give teen-agers models for their own written and spoken analyses of current TV fare. Assign a play as part of a drama unit, and sit back and wait for some really interesting class discussions. Recently my tenth grade sections viewed Split Level, a Kraft Television Playhouse production. The title referred to plans for a modern house that an aspiring architect was presenting to New York firms in the hope of realizing his dream of becoming a success in his field. The parents of the young architect’s fiancée wanted the young couple to settle down to the secure life of the small town. In short, the play was a restatement of the perennial problem: idealism or security; inventiveness and creativity or playing it safe with the soft touch. 

The class responded well to a discussion of the theme of the play; it was in their idiom, in their mode of perceiving. But they had missed completely the tight symbolic structure woven into the play. The skyscraper that the young man hoped someday to build symbolized aspiration; the lumber yard job he was offered in the small town stood for boredom and monotony. The split level house in itself symbolized the tension between security (the ground floor) and idealism (the second level) in the young man’s mind. Here is a practical example of how a TV play can enrich the teenager’s understanding of literary techniques.

It is not always possible to foresee a good play. When the class is stuck with a stinker, the teacher can illustrate superficiality and slickness. This is no unimportant thing to do, since it is my experience that students resist quality because they do not see the important differences between the mediocre and the good. Common experience of a bad play, then, has important advantages.

One way to avoid poor plays is the kinescope. Local stations sometimes will lend a kine for educational purposes. Last year in the middle of a drama unit, a good play appeared on the Motorola TV Hour, Judith Anderson and Sir Cedric Hardwicke starring in Black Chiffon. I asked our local TV station for permission to show the kine to my classes. This play was an hour long, making it necessary to show the last act on the second day. I made a virtue of this necessity by asking the students to project in their own minds the outcome of the play in a short paragraph.

Another way to increase the sensitivity of the students to this art form is to ask for comparisons of different dramatic media. For example, I have asked students, as part of a drama unit, to answer a set of questions about the plot, characters, setting, theme, and execution in respect to one movie, one TV play, one radio play, and one written play. This is a useful way of alerting them to the concept of this artistic medium, a method of communication with special assets and special limitations. 

Another approach that is useful is the comparison of similar kinds of drama within the same medium: situation comedy on TV, westerns on radio, musicals in the movies. Whether the criticism takes place over a short period or over a term depends on the maturity and ability of the students. There are advantages in having the best students be “critics for a term” of, say, an outstanding theatre on TV or of the documentary-suspense genres such as Medic and Dragnet. Close attention to the underplaying of the last two programs, for example, is an effective way of teaching the meaning and implications of stereotype.

 If this approach seems to slight the classics, it is only because I feel that emphasis is needed in the other direction. Remember, my point was to find ways of really interesting our teen-agers in our world heritage in the drama and other literary forms. My general method is equally effective, I think, in the teaching of the classics. For example, when MGM’s Julius Caesar played our art house last spring, I distributed cut rate passes to all my classes and gave students double credit for including the movie of Hamlet in their selections. 

I highly recommended Hallmark’s Richard II and rushed to get in line (apparently interminable) for free kinescopes of that production. This fall, my seniors spent the week before Thanksgiving reading Macbeth outside of class, and listening to the Old Vic presentation of it on Victor records in class in preparation for the Hallmark presentation. Many students remarked that these aids to visualization gave more meaning to the plays and helped them shed some prejudices about the “incomprehensibility” of Shakespeare.

Finally, don’t sell TV short as an aid to setting the cultural stage for drama from previous eras. The You Are There series produced a program, “The First Command Performance of Romeo and Juliet,” about the time we were to begin a discussion of Elizabethan theatre. The presentation of Shakespeare’s attitude toward his sources and his audience, the role of the master of revels, the centrality of literary experience to courtly life and many other important historical aspects were so superior to what I could hope for in a lecture, that I asked the local TV station for a kine of that program. Its usefulness as an introduction was amazing.

Sloughing Off Provincialism
It is my feeling that the classics vs. contemporary argument has lost its pertinence. We direct our students to an experience of the best in their own culture because we realize that this is an effective way of enabling them to slough off their own provincialism. Contemporary excellence produces awareness of quality; historical awareness provides depth. 

For most of our students—for the future housewife and the garage-mechanic-to-be—there must be awareness before there is the possibility of depth. And, further, we owe it to our students to make them sensitive patrons of contemporary drama. Shakespeare will endure; I am haunted by the fact that we may lose Philco-Goodyear Theatre because advertisers feel that Americans must have upbeat endings in their drama. If such mature theatre disappears from American popular culture, Shakespeare will lose just that many viewers. In Alice Sterner’s important statement, “We Help Create A New Drama,” (English Journal, November, 1954, pp. 451-52), we find a challenge. 

To be worthy of the humane tradition we cherish, we must help our own age produce its classics—not an easy task when our characteristic institutions, the mass media, urge us to conformity and mediocrity. One way to help create a drama in contemporary America is to bring together the best in TV drama and the teenager, our Everyman in saddle shoes. 

Just as the medieval morality play dramatized the problems of value for the peasant and villager, so the best drama in our TV screens has important things to say to our youngsters caught up in a whirl of dances, studies, and parties and confused by the ominous threats of an atomic world. Drama in the popular arts needs the stability that only we can give; in return, we can expect a new meaning and purpose in our literature classes.

From Teachers Scholastic Magazine, February 1955

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