Books That Bullied Me at School: The Plays

on Wednesday, June 9, 2010
About half way through year 10, my friend and old bandmate Alon Raskin got booted out of English during a heated pubescent debate on Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Unlike me, whose time spent outside Mrs. Ben David's Hebrew classroom was arguably deserved (I had thrown a desk at a student who was bullying me, though I maintain that being referred to repeatedly as "that creature outside the door" was a little harsh), Alon's great sin was recognising that, as another friend recently put it, Old Will was a dirty, dirty boy. Yes, in a conservative Jewish school he dared suggest to an even more conservative (and ageing) Catholic teacher that Portia's comment to Brutus "upon my knees I charm you" was a reference to oral sex. The old marm was furious, turned bright red and gave Alon his marching orders. That's pretty much all I remember about the play that introduced me to Stratford-upon-Avon's great bard.

At that time I was enamoured of the 'idea' of theatre. Since entering high school I had longed to play a role in the school musical and just before the Alon incident had finally realised my dream... albeit in an underwhelming fashion. True, I had already been a stagehand in Years 8 and 9, handing props to nerve-addled acne factories before they treaded the boards to soak up the adulation of their grandparents. But now I had sort of hit the big time. Okay, I was hoping for a lead role in year 10 (the first year I was allowed to be on stage) but was still chuffed to be cast as Tree Number 4 in Babes in Arms. After all, I had one line. I was a star. My grandparents thought I was awesome.

Back in ancient Rome, however, I was struggling with Julius and his backstabbing friends. Not to mention the frontstabbing ones. As I said, I don't remember a great deal about the play other than the quotes that are firmly entrenched in popular culture - "Et tu, Brute?" and the like. Or the ones we fat people use to taunt those with a more svelte build - "Yond Cassius has a mean and hungry look... such men are dangerous". And, of course, the ones that have been plucked from the play's page and bludgeoned by many a father of the groom/bar mitzvah boy - "Friends, Romans, Countrymen; Lend me your ears..." which is, without fail followed by a pause and then, "I promise to give them back in a few minutes (chortle chortle)." I didn't know what to expect when I decided to read it again in June's Books That Bullied Me At School challenge. I sort of expected to be nonplussed, to see it as a speedbump on my road to Macbeth. I even tried to leave it off my list. However, I'm glad to say that that I delved back in to this greatly underrated Shakespeare tragedy. It was immense and unexpected pleasure that I lost myself in the rhythm of the words and the dastardly political intrigue of the plot.

We might have picked over every sparkling word of Julius Caesar at school but for some reason nobody thought to point out a rather important message behind the shenanigans - it is a powerful moral philosophical tract on democracy. Those who partook in the plot to kill Caesar did so, for the most part, with noble motives. There were some petty jealousies assuaged and past wrongs righted, but the senators killed him for the good of Rome. Brutus was not the villain my teacher made us believe, but a complex, tortured soul who loved his country and came to realise that it was damned whatever happened. And seeing as we stopped studying it at the conclusion of Antony's address at Caesar's funeral, we missed the misfortune that was visited upon each of them in turn. Oh, and for what it's worth, Alon was right. Portia totally blew Brutus to stop him from leaving on that fateful night.

The following year, my acting career was to reach its pinnacle. I got the comic lead in our school production of Anything Goes. I won the best actor award in the school house play competition for my portrayal of Inspector in Tom Stoppard's Cahoots Macbeth. Suddenly there was more to stagecraft that learning to tap. I loved Stoppard. I loved Peter Shaffer's Equus. Heck, I suddenly even loved Shakespeare. Especially the ones I hadn't read.

The Year 11 dramatic text was Macbeth and I came to it with a sense of all-knowing smugness that I flaunted wantonly to my classmates. Looking back, I remember loving it (the play that is, though also the smugness). All that crap about witchcraft, murder and stain removal really floated my boat, so I was really looking forward to going back for this month's challenge... and... you guessed it. I feel a bit let down. From the early line "Is this a dagger which I see before me", it really just goes to prove that if your only tool is something sharp, all your problems will seem best solved with a good stabbin'. It also doesn't speak well of women in general - I might be reading it wrong but it seems overly misogynistic what with the females either being badgering psychotic harpies or witches. On the flipside, in this post Masterchef world, it does have some pretty kick ass recipes though I don't know how easy it is to find a dragon's tooth or the liver of a blaspheming Jew these days. I don't mean to sound flippant, or to say it isn't still really good but I just did not enjoy it as much as Julius Caesar. I guess that's what fifteen years of perching atop a pedestal does for a play.

Unless, of course, that play is Arthur Miller's incredible masterwork The Crucible. I certainly remember having loved it when we studied it in Year 12, but I had forgotten just how phenomenal it was until I reread it for this challenge. I would not be exaggerating if I were to posit that The Crucible played a pivotal role in forming my passion for social justice. I was already swinging fairly severely to the left, but Arthur Miller harnessed all those thoughts that were exploding in different directions from my teenage brain and channelled them in a way I don't think I could have on my own. Now, in our age of paranoia about terrorism, it ought once again to be a canonical text. No single piece of literature warns so headily against the tyranny of coarse idealogical zealotry, whether it be religious or political or whatever. The Crucible is peopled with small minds running amok, townsfolk who feast on their newfound ability to destroy their enemies, no matter how petty the source of acrimony. Opportunism is rampant. And, of course, the weak crumble first, are victimised, but the monster grows until it consumes the most pure of heart. Miller was commenting on McCarthyism but the themes can equally be carried across to any of the great 'scares'. Few quotes can be as damning for our times as that of the poor, misguided Reverend Hale, instigator and later panicked retractor of the witchcraft craze: "Beware Goody Proctor - cleave to no faith when faith brings blood". It is a call for compassion and level-headedness, to be shouted at the top of one's lungs and directed at both sides.

I am glad The Crucible exceeded my expectations. It almost makes up for my theatrical fall from grace in Year 12. Sure, I had two lead roles in the school musical (Daddy Brubek and Vittorio Vidal in Sweet Charity) but my return to the house plays as Everyman was met with stony indifference by the judge, Pip Mushin. I could not be awarded the "Best Actor" trophy because, as he told the audience at the prize giving ceremony, he had also once played Everyman and he had done it so much better. I did, however, get a "Special Mention". Well, sixteen years later he gets a special mention here. Schmuck. Revenge, as someone apparently once said, is a dish best served cold...


Alon Raskin said...

Yep, thats pretty much how I remember it. For the record, I still think I am right.
Oh and since you used my name then I leave you with this:

"Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!"


The Bookworm said...

Haha excellent quote selection!

Sorry I should have asked if I could you use your name, but I thought the story is still just brilliant and you wouldn't mind. And as I said further down, I agree... You were 100% right!

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