I’ve just finished a riveting memoir titled What You Have Heard is True, by Carolyn Forché. It is about the lead-up to the civil war in El Salvador in the 80s. I recommend it highly because of the perspective Forché gives on our troubling history with Central America and our current concern for immigrants and separated families at the border.

But that’s not the purpose of this post. I’m writing about it here because the author is a poet. I’m intrigued by the fact that a charismatic and mysterious coffee plantation owner named Leonel Gomez Vides, the protagonist of the book, would drive all the way from El Salvador to San Diego in 1978 just to ask a young poet to visit his country and bear witness to its struggles.

Why a poet?

If you read the book, you may understand why poetry might be needed to weave such a vivid and painful narrative. It reminded me of something I learned working with the Office of Multi-cultural Studies during my time in the Arts Education Branch at LAUSD. We were developing a professional development for our elementary dance, theatre, and visual arts teachers, incorporating the arts to focus on the La Llorona (the weeping woman). La Llorona is an oral legend known by virtually every hispanic child in our schools but only vaguely familiar to many of their teachers. In fact, some of our arts teachers were weirded out by the workshop. This is understandable. It’s a terrifying story about a woman who drowns her own children and then spends the rest of her life mourning them and snatching other innocent children away from their homes. Hardly an uplifting tale! But we thought it appropriate that we were drawing on a legend from deep in the cultural consciousness of the children we teach, and, like Euripides’ Medea, as a piece of literature it has the powerfully emotional resonance of a poem.

Here is Carolyn Forché in her own words in an interview with Robin Lindley at George Washington University. explaining why Leonel Gomez Vides chose her to write about his country:

“He came to visit me as an American poet. And of course, I tried to dissuade him from imagining that a poet could accomplish the task he imagined, explaining to him that poets didn’t have a great deal of exposure or credibility in the United States, and that we weren’t consulted on matters of foreign policy. We were considered a subculture or a fringe element. He was surprised by that because, of course, in Latin America poetry is very important and taken very seriously, so he decided that one of my tasks was to change the role of poets in the United States, which I thought was very quixotic and probably more impossible than anything else he was asking me to do. 

“I was touched by his faith in poetry and by his regard for it…”

Reading this I remembered that I’ve heard this twice before. Barbara Kingsolver said the exact same thing about her book The Lacuna, which tells the story of Tolstoy’s time living in Mexico. In The White Goddess, Robert Graves describes a time in ancient British history when poets sat next to kings in government. Poets are, and have always been, valued in other cultures far more than they are in ours. They interpret, clarify, and vivify the times to which they are witness.

One of the experts I worked with in the Multi-cultural Office explained it to me this way. “In Mexico,” he said, “We have the phrase ‘flores y canciones’ (flowers and song) deeply embedded in all aspects of our culture.” The arts not only entertain, explain, soothe, and edify: they contextualize and they teach.

Just as the poet Euripides had to write the story of Medea, a poet had to write the story of El Salvador. If you are not convinced, read the book.

Plato said that children should be exposed from a very young age to the best of what our language has to offer them. We need to teach them the power and the beauty of language: listening to it, speaking it, reading it, and writing it with skill and truth.

 

Photo by Anna Earl, of unsplash

The week before we vote in the California primaries, I’m thinking a lot about that gigantic block of non-voting citizens in our midst: kids.

The question I’m exploring in my book and in this blog is why, when the benefits are so obvious, there is so little documentation of the rich history of the use of the arts to engage and educate children? Is it because the arts have been so embedded in instruction that nobody has thought it necessary to tease them out? Is it because the history of pedagogy itself is so incomplete and sketchy? Or is it because influencers in education and policy funding are just not focused on actual living, breathing, but disenfranchised children!?

Regarding the last of these possible reasons: Like so many of us I was devastated by the last presidential election; but what also shocked me was how little the mainstream media focused on its impact on children. So many teachers, administrators, and counselors I’ve spoken to since then have described shattering stories of sobbing, frightened students, but aside from a few back page stories, there has been almost total silence from our news stream. A Southern Poverty Law Center publication was one of the few exceptions. Was nobody interested in the fact that school districts all over the country had to gear up to get counselors into classrooms the very next day, to help terrified kids process the trauma? That signs went up in front of public schools everywhere with varying versions of the message that “All children, of all races, ethnicities, and immigrant status, are safe and welcome here”? That letters went home to parents that week in many languages advising parents of their rights and counseling them on how to address fears with their families?

And is that lack of critical media attention what emboldened the cruelty our government has displayed in our name—separating thousands of children from their parents at the border.

I have already written one screed on the misguided cultural of “accountability” in our schools based on the deceptive evidence of standardized test scores, as if our students and teachers do not already have enough to worry about facing their unsure future on our planet. I have also written plenty of posts on the social, emotional, and cognitive benefits of arts education. This post is just to ask my readers to reflect on the comfort and solace offered by participation in the arts—comfort and solace our children need now more than ever.

I don’t have a certain answer to the question posed above, but I do know it is not our current president or anyone in his party.

Students at Westminster Elementary drama class explore a Mexican trickster story, “The Rabbit and the Coyote”

My greatest joy during the years I was with the Arts Education Branch in the Los Angeles schools was observing our theatre and dance teachers light up the minds of children. It drove me to distraction, to see what I saw, knowing that access to regular instruction in the performing arts is not available to every child, every day. During my tenure with the Arts Branch I went to dozens of state and national conferences and symposia on arts education where the enthusiasm among arts teachers was palpable; but in the broader field of educators, the general malaise about the performing arts in pedagogy grated on my mind. That is what compelled me to write my book.

Theatre teacher Afsaneh Boutorabi with third grade students

This is the twentieth year of the Elementary Arts Program that my colleagues and I started in 1999, adding dance, theatre, and visual arts to the existing music programs in the schools. It’s incredibly gratifying, today, that both my granddaughter and my great niece are kindergarteners in LAUSD schools that embraced the arts program early on and are receiving drama lessons from fabulous teachers that I hired twenty years ago. But that is just the luck of the draw. My delightful, expressive, creative grandchildren and their peers in other cities in other states are in fine public schools with great teachers, but they don’t get regular instruction in drama or creative movement, and that breaks my heart.

There is a massive amount of research that proves beyond any doubt that the performing arts do much to foster cognitive skills: curiosity, inquiry, and reflection. The researcher James Catterall often said he would stake his life on the bet that daily incorporation of drama into the classroom would increase verbal skills and those test scores that, sadly and misguidedly, are the holy grail of every district. (I’ve expressed my personal view of our testing culture vs. arts education in a previous post.) When used by skillful teachers they are also roads into deeper and more lasting learning in subject matter content across the curriculum.

Students planning possible solutions to the trickster story

Here’s the problem I’ve found with research: As time consuming and effortful it is to complete and publish credible research, it is even more difficult to get anyone to pay attention to it! (Unless, of course, there is a significant economic benefit to be proven. Thus the tsunami of testing that school children are experiencing now.)

Students create beginning, middle, and ending tableaux of the story

Here I’ll just summarize a couple of my favorite research stories. First, the REAP Report that came out of Harvard’s Project Zero about twenty years ago. REAP stands for Reviewing Education and the Arts Project. This study did not conduct its own investigations, but instead analyzed the results of hundreds of research studies carried out over the past half century, hoping to find irrefutable links between classroom arts and academic scores. In the executive summary the editors caution the reader, pointing out that 1.) It is difficult to establish irrefutable links because of the infinity of variables in education and 2.) It is a shallow task. It is shallow because it implies that academic achievement in the three Rs is the only reason that the arts should be taught. In fact they needed this caveat because in some ways the project was a disappointment. They were only able to find irrefutable links in two of the ten areas they had identified. However, significantly, they did find a strong link between classroom drama and verbal test scores. Again, statistically, it was an irrefutable link, and, what was even more important, the increase in achievement was transferable from subject to subject. So theatre was the winner in that particular study.

Student “sculptor” creates a frozen statue for his tableau

I’m not sure if the other report was ever published, but I’m looking into it. The brilliant linguist Shirley Brice Heath, at Stanford, became interested in arts education because of her observations of verbal development in children. Several years ago she was a speaker at a symposium on arts education that we presented at the Getty to school administrators. She described a study that was ongoing at the time. She told us that she had research assistants who went into classrooms covering subject areas across the curriculum, and that all they did was clock the seconds that students in each class made direct eye contact with the lesson—either with the instructor or with the task assigned. Obviously, eye contact is not the only indicator of attention, but it is one that is easily observable and measurable. In eye contact alone, attention in arts classes far exceeded that in any other subject. Indeed, student attention was “off the charts” in comparison. Students were attentive and engaged, and engaged learners are open to new ideas that mesh with the patterns of knowledge they already have inside of themselves. Their learning is thus enhanced and enduring.

Research in the impact of the arts in learning is limited by the fact that funders, so far at least, are mainly interested in accountability as measured by test scores. Research investigations looking for “soft data,” such as school attendance, teacher retention, and evidence of improved school morale (e.g. joy) definitely show positive results but get far less attention. Another perhaps more fertile area of research is the booming field of neuroscience and cognition, but I will save that for a later post.

 

 

 

      A Sloyd Woodworking Class

When I was in elementary school a zillion years ago, we had wood shop for one afternoon every week. ALL afternoon. An old garage on the campus was fitted out as a complete workshop, with big wooden tables and all the tools and lumber we needed. I made a boat, a book shelf, and a soapbox car for our soapbox derby. I also carved a wooden spoon that my mom used in the kitchen for the rest of her life. Entire classes at the school took on projects like building playground equipment and lunch tables and a covered wagon. I learned how to use a ruler, a tape measure, a compass and protractor, and I learned all the mathematics of measurement. I learned to use hand tools: the saws, the drills, the vise, the rasp, and the sander. I learned that you have to see a project through to the end and not do a slapdash job of it. Pretty good lessons!

         Children working at sloyd benches

My school, Antioch Elementary, in Yellow Springs, Ohio, still exists. It was founded in 1923 on the educational theories being developed at the time by the education philosopher John Dewey, and today it is the longest uninterrupted Dewey-based school in America. I had always thought that the educational justification for such a luxurious use of my school time was Dewey’s philosophy of learning by doing. I had absolutely no idea that it was based on a nineteenth century pedagogy from Finland.

Once when I was in the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Arts Education Branch, our staff took a little field trip to the LAUSD archives to visit our curator. She was preparing a trunk of artifacts to take around to schools as a local history lesson. One of the items was a second grade report card from the year 1900 on which there were grades for five subjects: reading, writing, arithmetic, music, and sloyd. We were baffled. What the heck was “sloyd,” and why was it so important that it actually had to be graded?! Back then iPhones were brand new and only one person present had one. He whipped it out and within seconds we learned that sloyd means “handicrafts,” and it was a Finnish pedagogy started by Uno Cygnaeus in Finland in 1865 and refined by the Swedish educator Otto Salomon (who, like Richard Mulcaster, who trained Shakespeare’s teachers in the 16th century, worried about the fact that elementary school is too boring for children, and solved the problem by giving them something to DO!). The system was further refined and promoted worldwide, and was introduced in the United States in the 1890s by Meri Toppelius. It is still taught as a compulsory subject in Finland, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. One of my theatre teachers is married to a man from Finland, and she tells me that he still proudly displays embroidery he did in his sloyd class in school when he was a child.

The Antioch School is affiliated with the college, and my peers there, in the 50s, were mostly the children of professors—a fairly rarified community. Dewey’s educational philosophy was certainly studied and admired back then: it influenced education in public schools but was never fully implemented. After Sputnik and A Nation at Risk it fell out of favor almost completely and we seldom hear of it now. But sloyd pre-dated Dewey, and there in the archives of the Los Angeles schools was rock solid evidence that the project-based learning Dewey promoted was alive and well and mandatory at the turn of the century, in at least one major school district in the United States, a generation before Dewey began writing about education.

It turns out it was more than just Los Angeles. Toppelius and her sister Sigrid were invited first to Boston, where they set up training programs. Sigrid stayed in Boston while Meri went on to Chicago where she started a sloyd department in Chicago’s Agassiz school. They also trained teachers as in Bay View Michigan as part of a Chautauqua summer program. So by the end of the century, at least three major cities in the United States were employing sloyd in at least some of their schools, and there were major training programs in sloyd attracting teachers and administrators from across the country. (I’ll keep researching this. If any of my readers know anything more about it, please share!)

If you’re interested in learning more about sloyd, here is link to a PBS program called “Who Wrote the Book of Sloyd” that’s pretty entertaining. It features the very old book on the left, which was re-issued in 2013: “The Teacher’s Hand-Book of Slöjd” by Otto Salomon. Sloyd is really about all of the handicrafts, including sewing, weaving, knitting, crochet, embroidery, and paper folding, all of which we learned at the Antioch School, but its most lasting impact on education in the United States was on programs that included woodworking.

John Dewey was certainly influenced by the sloyd movement, as he was by the Settlement movement I have written about in a previous post. It has always struck me how completely the arguments for arts education align with the philosophy of Dewey and of sloyd. Engaged learning. Productive learning. Project-based learning. Hands-on learning. They’re all related and they all lead to deep and enduring learning. They all incorporate the body and the mind into the cognitive process. I didn’t know at the time how incredibly lucky I was to be educated in that way, but I loved school, and for all of my years as a teacher and arts administrator I have endeavored to give my students something of the joy I experienced as a child in the wood shop.

 

 

When and why did the teaching of rhetoric in grammar schools end?

Following up on two previous posts on Shakespeare’s education in rhetoric (Collaborative Classroom Hilarity and What’s With All the Rhetoric), I don’t have a concise answer to this question, but I’ve been searching for one. (I once typed the question into Google and got some hilarious answers, some of which I quote in my book.) If any of my readers want to join in this exploration I’d be overjoyed.

One thing I do know is that at the time of Samuel Johnson, rigorous training in rhetorical speech and writing was still alive and well, and its use was the subject of much deliberation. I’ve just finished The Club, by Leo Damrosch and found plenty of evidence to support this. It’s a terrific read. It’s about the literary club founded by Joshua Reynolds and Johnson, which met weekly all through the second half of the 18th Century. I had to brush up on my knowledge of the literature and society of that era and all of the esteemed members of The Club. I haven’t read Johnson or Boswell since college, have only read a few speeches by Burke, have never read Gibbon, and skipped economics so, to my shame, am only peripherally aware of Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations. Of course I’ve gazed at plenty of luminous paintings by Joshua Reynolds but knew very little about the man himself. But in addition to filling in some gigantic holes in my knowledge of that era, scattered through the book there is enough there to tell me that all of those brilliant writers, orators, and artists were well educated in rhetoric.

And that means that there was yet another “Generation of Genius” to emerge from the humanist education designed by Erasmus!

Damrosch does not offer any information about 18th Century education, but writing and speaking style was clearly a hot topic at the time, and that is certainly a reflection of training. A lot of attention was paid to it. By the time of Samuel Johnson, our language had developed distinct rhetorical styles. Here Damrosch describes the happy period and the periodic style:

     Samuel Johnson

“Of course style is much more than words alone, whether long or short. In one of the essays Johnson describes the challenge of shaping each sentence and paragraph into a compelling whole: ‘It is one of the common distresses of a writer to be within a word of a happy period, to want only a single epithet to give amplification its full force, to require only a correspondent term in order to finish a paragraph with elegance, and make one of its members answer to the other; but these deficiencies cannot always be supplied; and after a long study and vexation, the passage is turned anew, and the web unwoven that was so nearly finished.’

“Johnson refers to ‘a happy period’ because his style is the kind that used to be known as periodic. When we use the word ‘period” we mean simply the punctuation mark. But in traditional rhetoric it meant the whole interconnected structure of clauses that brings us to that conclusion. ‘The periodic stylist, Richard Lanham says, ‘works with balance, antithesis, parallelism, and careful patterns of repetition. All of these dramatize a mind which has dominated experience and reworked it to its liking.’”

I can’t think of a better description of the struggles experienced daily by every writer in our language struggling with the arc and structure of the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter, the book. In great writing you can really see the rhetorical training that goes into the “balance, antithesis, parallelism, and careful patterns of repetition.”

           James Boswell

Johnson’s writing was very much in the classic tradition. Boswell’s style was totally different, but also much appreciated. In fact, Boswell in his day was pretty much a total lightweight: an alcoholic and a womanizer who never attained any significant success either as a lawyer or a politician, but his colorful and chatty writing style made him a delight to read and saved him for posterity. Each of the early members of of The Club was held in great esteem for their literary abilities, and each had his own highly developed and distinctive style.

Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language did a great deal to further the evolving plasticity and expressiveness of our amazing English language. To quote again:

“On the two hundredth anniversary of his death, the Times declared, ‘The chief glory of the English is their language; and Johnson’s Dictionary, the only one in any language compiled by a writer of genius, had a lot to do with its rise to glory…..

“In France, the Académie Française was also preparing a dictionary, with the intention of fixing the ‘correct’ meaning of every word for all time. Johnson, altogether differently, invented the mode of defining words that was later carried forward by the Oxford English Dictionary. He wanted to show all the ways they had ever been used, and to include examples from earlier writers that  would illustrate their usage in specific contexts.”

So Johnson recognized the richness of the mutability of meanings of words in our language, which has done so much to make it a such a muscular, nuanced, and infinitely inventive mode of expression. Shakespeare and his peers at the turn of the sixteenth century gloried in their freedom with their newly fashionable and much loved vernacular, which, because it had been essentially a street language for centuries, had virtually no rules. It was a malleable material with which to create wonders. Instead of ossifying our language with rules, as the Académie Française has attempted to do with French, Samuel Johnson continued to encourage its adaptation to his age and ages to come by showing how it was evolving in its ability to express new ideas in new ways.

As for the other genius members of the club—

David Hume:

     David Hume

“A modern editor of Hume’s History of England says that Hume’s style ‘is the fastest and smoothest vehicle in historical literature.’ That may be the style most appreciated today, but it’s not Gibbon’s, any more than it was Johnson’s. Their style was periodic, and their unit was the fully crafted paragraph. “It has always been my practice,” Gibbon says, “to cast a long paragraph in a single mould: to try it by my ear, to deposit it in my memory, but to suspend the action of the pen until I had given the last polish to my work.”

Adam Smith:

       Adam Smith

“After giving public lectures in Edinburgh, where he had no academic post, in 1751 Smith became Professor of Logic and Metaphysics at the University of Glasgow. A year after that he was elected Professor of Moral Philosophy, and he did indeed think of himself as concerned with human behavior in all its aspects. His lectures that Boswell heard were on rhetoric, by which was meant not just literary style, but persuasive public language in the tradition of Cicero. The emphasis was on language as a social instrument, and Smith recommended a straightforward plain style instead of the elaborate figures of speech that older rhetoricians liked to use.”

Edmund Burke:

      Edmund Burke

“Most of the 558 members of the House of Commons never dreamed of making speeches, but star orators could hold forth for hours at a time. Persuasive eloquence was essential, and so was quickness in cut and thrust debate. Burke excelled at both. And although the debates weren’t supposed to be reported in the press—that was why Johnson had to invent them in his journalistic days—the speakers could always publish their own speeches afterward, which Burke regularly did in pamphlet form.”

         David Garrick

And then, of course, there was the actor and producer David Garrick who changed the course of theatre in England. And, there were a host of smart, published writers who were not members of The Club, some of them women!: Fanny Burney, Hester Thrale, Elizabeth Montequ, the playwrights Hannah More and Elizabeth Griffith, and on and on.

So, once I get Good Behvior and Audacity: Humanist Education, Playacting, and a Generation of Genius published, maybe I’ll have to start gathering material for another book, proving the point again. I’ll repeat it again: simple adjustments to modern pedagogy, emphasizing performing arts and elevated oral and written language, could nurture our own “Generation of Genius.”

 

All of the above quotes are excerpts from: Leo Damrosch. “The Club.” iBooks. https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-club/id1455106450Excerpt From: Leo Damrosch. “The Club.” iBooks. https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-club/id1455106450

 

 

 

Schoolboys performing colloquies —drawing by John Lithgow

I know, I know—the “whining school-boy…creeping like snail unwillingly to school” and all that—but I actually think Shakespeare had a lot of fun at Stratford’s Latin Grammar school. Not only that, he shared that fun with his classmates.

For one thing, I am absolutely convinced that the first draft of his The Taming of the Shrew was based on a riotously funny collaboration written and performed by Stratford schoolboys, but I’ll save that for a another post when I can show a reading of Erasmus’s hilarious colloquy “Uxor” (Marriage), starring Xanthippe, the Shrew. (My gut tells me that young Will played that part and relished it!)

But I also think that learning dozens and dozens of rhetorical figures and devices was fun too. Why? Well, when you think about it, they ARE fun in themselves—like intricate word puzzles—and wordplay was a major source of entertainment back then. Either by good pedagogy or by necessity, collaboration was a constant factor in the Elizabethan classroom, and figuring out those devices together must have been totally engaging.

Just to demonstrate: I’ve attached here the full video of a presentation I did recently at the studio of Susan Cambique Tracey in which the participants, many of them colleagues and Music Center teaching artists, engaged in a collaborative activity creating examples of four figures. (I’ve posted segments of the video featuring readings from two colloquies—and hope to have one soon of “Uxor”— but the rhetoric portion of the video is in the first half.)

(Video filmed by Scott Powell at the studio of Paul Susan Cambique Tracey)

I’ve been told that some of my blog posts are “erudite.” I hate hearing that. Honestly, I am no scholar. All the years of research I’ve done on this project have been fueled by pleasure and passion: the same qualities that the performing arts bring to the education of children. I hope the laughter and delight experienced by the participants in this video bolsters my theory that arts education, in addition to developing cognition, is a solution to the doldrums our children are experiencing in the contemporary classroom.

 

The Lord of Misrule

Happy Holidays!

Keeping in the spirit, this post is just to tell some of the history of the participation of child actors in the Christmas celebrations from the middle ages through the Elizabethan era. The holiday season provided light and laughter in the dead of winter in villages all over England, in the country manors of the aristocracy, and at the royal court.

During Shakespeare’s day, we know that schoolboys traditionally provided theatrical entertainment in villages, and there is evidence of dozens and dozens of plays presented for the aristocracy by the boys’ companies I’ve written about in previous posts.

               The Boy Bishop

The traditions go far back in time, and virtually all of them provided some sort of upending of the customary ways, liberally spiced with hilarity.

Let’s start with the tradition of the Boy Bishop, celebrated all over Europe, dating back to the the early years of Christianity. In English villages the Boy Bishop was traditionally elected on the 6th of December, the feast of Saint Nicholas, and and his authority lasted till December 28, the Holly Innocents’ Day. He and his entourage were usually chosen from the choir boys at the local church. During his rule the real Bishop would, symbolically, step down at the deposuit potentes de sede of the Magnificat (“he hath put down the mighty from their seat”), and the boy would take his seat at et exaltavit humiles (“and hath exalted the humble and meek”). The elected boy would be dressed in full bishop’s robes, complete with mitre and cozier, and his comrades would be dressed as priests. They would travel about the parish blessing the townsfolk and would perform all of the ceremonies at the church except for the mass. It was a solemn rite, but being boys, they most likely had some fun hamming it up. Except for a brief revival during the rule of the Catholic Mary, this custom did not survive the English Protestant Reformation; but it was still very much in evidence all over the realm early in the reign of Henry VIII.  

                     Saturnalia  

              Celebration of the Lord of Misrule

And then there were the Feast of Fools and the twelve days of Christmas, culminating in Twelfth Night, on the eve of the Feast of Epiphany. During the twelve days of Christmas, traditional roles were often relaxed, masters waited on their servants, men were allowed to dress as women, and women as men. Often a Lord of Misrule was chosen to lead the Christmas revels. The boy king, Edward VI, was especially enamored of this comic Lord, who played a significant role in the Christmas festivities during his reign. Some of these traditions were adapted from older, pagan customs, including the Roman Saturnalia. Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night was written for festivities  of this kind and delights in the audacity of the servants in the manor houses of Olivia and Orsino.

                     Christmas Revelry

   Boy Players in a Masque

At court Christmas was also a time of elaborate celebrations including masques, which always included “interludes” performed by boy actors, or “interluders”. Then, of course, there was the music. It is impossible to overstate the role of the voices of boy singers, thought to be the voices of angels. Entire cathedrals were designed as huge acoustical sound boxes to capture the purity of the sound, and that sound was heard throughout the realm during the Christmas season.

So Christmas rituals were a combination of deep solemnity and a raucous inversion of norms. Contemporary celebrations like the carnivals held in South America have their origins in the chaotic social reversals overseen by the Lord of Misrule, but I can think of no contemporary parallel during Christmas that is quite so colorful. Children have always been delighted by the temporary freedom provided by an upside down world. Today what Christmas means for children is presents. In those days it was the sheer joy and freedom of revelry.

 

        Boy Actors by John Lithgow

If you’ve been on the edge of your seat waiting for this final post on the boys’ companies active in the Tudor Age, you are probably alone, and I need to hear from you! This is a shame, because if theatre historians Harold Newcomb Hillebrand and Charles William Wallace are correct, the Globe Theatre and Shakespeare would never have happened without them!

My first three posts on this subject covered the immense popularity at court of the Children of St. Paul’s and the Children of the Chapel (along with many others that came and went and entertained the aristocracy in the provinces) up through the last decade of Elizabeth’s reign. The third post chronicled their demise as a result of politics and the far more active men’s companies. Hillebrand and Wallace wrote their books early in the last century, and since then there has been almost total silence. Fortunately their books are exhaustive in their detail, and if you can get your hands on them, you might join me in appreciating the role that boy actors played in our rich history

The truth is, the last gasp of the boys’ companies during the reign of James I, while dazzling and controversial, was brief; and it was entirely different from what had gone before. Both the Children of the Chapel and St. Paul’s had a second flowering with the ascendance of a new monarch, but their new life was a life sustained by a different breath—the breath of commerce. Ambitious entrepreneurs banked on the nostalgia for the playful antics of the boys who cavorted through the courts of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, and they took a huge gamble. They had investors, and they threw their money around rashly, hiring the best playwrights available. Samuel Daniel, John Day, George Chapman, Thomas Middleton, John  Marston, and Ben Johnson pocketed way more money writing for the boys than they did for the men, and their brilliant plays can still delight us; but the playful antics of the cavorting boy actors were not a good fit for them. Jacobean audiences had grown much more sophisticated, and they and demanded edgier and more dangerous fare than the children could manage.

The exact dates aren’t available anymore, but by the end of 1600 both companies were up and running under new management. There was by this time a growing public passion for drama, and, remembering the hay-day of the Blackfriars, investors to believed they could turn a profit by re-opening it. James Burbage had purchased the property in 1596 to create an indoor home for his successful company, of which Shakespeare was a member. He had remodeled a section of it to build a handsome new theatre, but the neighbors had protested and prevented the opening of a public venue within the city limits. At some point, in order to defray the cost of keeping it open, he had leased it to what was essentially an incorporated body of profiteers, who used the old ruse of opening it as a “private” theatre to house the Children of the Chapel. As for the Children of Paul’s, the records are scant, but we do know that they were performing at St. Gregory’s Church with their new Master, Edward Pierce, dusting off old favorites and beginning to solicit new material.

Because there was no daily London Times archiving the doings of the city back then, most of our information about the boys’ companies from 1600 to 1616 comes from one of four sources: recorded performances at court; the licensing and publication of plays, in which there is usually a phrase telling where and by whom they were first performed; the written accounts of individual audience members; and law suits. Especially for the Children of the Chapel, the last source is perhaps the most fruitful, proving yet again that live theatre can be dangerous.

The first lawsuit of note came right away, in 1601, when Henry Clifton, Esq. sued Henry Evans, the new manager of Blackfriars, and Thomas Gyles, the Chapel master, essentially accusing them of kidnapping his son Thomas. The re-building of two new companies after a decade of silence had required aggressive recruitment tactics, and young Thomas had been recognized as a talent at his grammar school and had been impressed into service by the use of Gyles’ customary writ from the crown. The suit succeeded and young Thomas was released, but for our purposes, some interesting facts emerged from it. First of all, the suit gives us the names of a several boys who were impressed at that time and it makes it clear that the plaintiffs were guilty of over-stepping by capturing a boy from a family of substance—the son of a gentleman. Even more interesting: Clifton emphasized that the boys captured were “in no way able or fit for singing.” The purpose of the writ was, and had been for centuries, for the impressment of chapel boys to augment the choir, but these boys were not singers—they were actors! It wasn’t long before Gyles’ writ was re-written with clear wording stating that boys could not be impressed for the purpose of playing on the stage, “for that it is not fit or decent that such as should sing the praises of God almighty should be trained up or employed in such lascivious and profane exercises.”

Lascivious and profane or not, when James I became king, the boys’ companies were, at least for a while, well received. The Children of the Chapel were re-named the Children of the Queen’s Revels, and along with Paul’s boys there were two other minor companies formed, one for the Prince and one for the Princess.

Without going into fine detail, let us look at what distinguished these new boys’ companies from those that preceded them. From their inception, they were commercial ventures. Their material was not written by their choirmasters, or playwrights internally associated with them, but by hired, well-paid, professional dramatists. The boy actors did not exhibit the light, charming, playful style of their own: they were awkwardly, and often unsuccessfully, competing with and aping a new generation of brilliant adult thespians. Despite their princely names, these companies were ultimately not indebted to royal patronage: they were indebted to investors taking huge risks and hoping to reap huge profits. When these profits did not materialize, there were ugly, even violent, repercussions.

The boy actors had exited the Elizabethan era and entered the Jacobean, which for drama meant that the themes and topics that whetted the appetites of the audience were darker and more morally complex and ambiguous. Here is just a sampling of the titles that came from the pens of these titans to be performed by children at Blackfriars and St. Paul’s. I’ve seen and read only a few of these plays, but just the titles are enough to know that they were acerbic and witty in tone, and they trespassed on forbidden ground. Chapman wrote Bussy D’Ambois, The Gentleman Usher, May Day, Monsieur d’Olive, and The Widow’s Tears. Middleton wrote A Mad World My Masters, A Trick to Catch the Old One, and Your Five Gallants. Marston wrote Parasitaster, The Malcontent, and The Dutch Courtesan, which was honored by being performed at court for the King of Denmark’s visit. Ben Jonson wrote Cynthia’s Revels, The Poetaster, and Epicoene, or the Silent Woman, which was the most famous comedy of its time (which I can easily believe because I had to giggle just reading the synopsis). He also collaborated with Chapman and Marston on the ill-fated Eastward Ho, as we shall see.

All of these were excellent plays and enjoyed success, but they must have been a stretch for boy actors. They were filtered through a new aesthetic. Audiences had changed. Educated by Shakespeare and his peers, these audiences were as brilliant as the plays they were observing. They were not satisfied with the old song and dance and delight of the masques. They wanted intellectual spice and a touch of danger, and the great playwrights knew how to give it to them.

There is one other expert source of information about those years. In Hamlet, Shakespeare tells us much about the children of Blackfriars and Paul’s. In this exchange between Rosencrantz and Hamlet, Rosencrantz reports from the city and explains why the traveling theatre company visiting Elsinore is on the road and not performing at home:

Hamlet: How chances it they travel? Their residence, both in reputation and profit, was better both ways.

Rosencrantz: I think their inhibition comes by the means of the late innovation.

Hamlet: Do they hold the same estimation they did when I was in the city? are they so followed?

Rosencrantz: No, indeed, are they not.

Hamlet: How comes it? Do they grow rusty?

Rosencrantz: Nay, their endeavour keeps in the wonted pace: but there is, sir, an aery of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of question, and are most tyrannically clapped for’t: these are now the fashion, and so berattle the common stages–so they call them–that many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose-quills and dare scarce come thither.

Hamlet: What, are they children? Who maintains ’em? How are they escorted? Will they pursue the quality no longer than they can sing? Will they not say afterwards, if they should grow themselves to common players—as it is most like, if their means are no better—their writers do them wrong, to make them exclaim against their own succession?

Rosencrantz: ‘Faith, there has been much to do on both sides; and the nation holds it no sin to tar them to controversy: there was, for a while, no money bid for argument, unless the poet and the player went to cuffs in the question.

Hamlet: Is’t possible?

Guildenstern: O, there has been much throwing about of brains.

Hamlet: Do the boys carry it away?

Rosencrantz: Ay, that they do, my lord; Hercules and his load too.

For the modern reader, just to make it easy, I’ll highlight and translate the salient points made here. Hamlet [Shakespeare] is concerned that the reputation and profit of the men’s companies are suffering because of the boy actors, whom he characterizes as squawking little eyases [eaglets]. He also demonstrates a very real concern for the boys themselves—I would guess because the abuse of the writ for impressment of choirboys, for acting instead of singing, meant that there was no provision made by the crown to send them to university. They were being poorly housed and once their voices broke they would have no choice but to grow into “common players” (a reflection of his opinion of his own profession?). He refers to a battle being waged between playwrights and adult players over payment for the best scripts, implying that the boys’ companies could pay more and get better material, and he infers that the boys are winning the battle.

He further notes that “the nation holds it no sin to tar them to controversy,” meaning that the public is not offended by seeing children dabble in political mockery. Their plays are so satirical and topical that people of influence—those “wearing rapiers”—are afraid to attend for fear of being mocked by the playwrights, those with “goose-quills.” (Here he seems to be acknowledging the ever-true maxim that the pen is mightier than the sword.)

That was roughly 1603. Very soon there were other battles being fought in the courts and in taverns, with opponents occasionally even coming to blows. The profits that had been promised the naive investors in Blackfriars were nowhere near the reality, and endless legal squabbles were inevitable. Hillebrand tries to untangle a mare’s nest of suits that went on for years and cost the Children of the Revels dearly. The eventual results of most of the suits were lost in the warehouses of paper records that had not yet been examined when Hillebrand wrote his book, and, indeed, may still lie neglected somewhere. But they don’t matter here. The trail of suits, even without than their closure, gives us a vivid glimpse into the times for our boys

It was the daring characteristic of the boys (or, in truth, their playwrights) to “cry out at the top of the question” that did them in at the end. Four plays in particular “berattled” the stage, although there were certainly others.

In 1604 the Children of the Queens Revels performed Samuel Daniel’s Philotas, which closely paralleled the career of the popular Earl of Essex, only recently hanged for treason. That play was banned for seeming to meddle in the affairs of the state, and Samuel Daniel was called to account for it, but he managed to talk his way our of trouble by convincing the judges that he had started it long before Essex’s rebellion.

Then early in 1605 they performed Eastward Ho, the play mentioned above, by Jonson, Chapman, and Marston. That play mocked the Scotsmen who surrounded the Scottish King James and were much disliked by the old guard. Chapman and Jonson spent some time cooling their heels in prison for that one, but Marston, who was probably the one most responsible, got away. More significantly, the boys lost their connection to the Queen and were henceforth simply called the Children of the Revels. The Queen apparently wanted nothing more to do with them and had her title removed.

Jonson and Chapman were pardoned and released after some chastened pleading, but apparently they hadn’t learned their lesson, The very next year Jonson collaborated with John Day on The Isle of Gulls, in which two characters titled “Duke” and “Duchess” were thinly veiled caricatures of James I and Queen Anne. It portrayed the court as a bawdy house of crooks, where bribes were taken for favors and advancements. This was indeed an impudent over-stepping of the boundaries: clearly the potential for profit outweighed the danger.

Nathan Field, who began his illustrious career as an child actor with the Children of the Chapel

Somehow the boy players had thus far survived, either because the courts were not paying close attention or because some liberality was still extended due to their youth. Boy actors enjoyed the same kind of tolerance as jesters at court, able to speak veiled truth as jokes, without giving offence. But then came the last straw: Chapman’s The Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Biron. In this play the King and his Scottish favorites were again targeted, and the King was portrayed as a drunkard, striking gentlemen and cursing the heavens over a hawking mishap. This time the King had had enough, and he closed all the theatres in London. Blackfriars remained closed for a long time, and when it re-opened it was not for boys—it was for Burbage’s company, now called the King’s Men.

In hindsight, it is hard to imagine how the boys’ companies got away with their daring for as long as they did and why they kept it up despite censure. Here again, I suspect that part of the reason was commercial. There is a necessary element of risk present in all successful theatre that pushes the boundaries and asks an audience to examine its beliefs and values, and one must again remember that the Jacobean audience was voracious. They had come to expect, even demand, a healthy touch of risk in their entertainment. The child actors couldn’t act with the same subtlety and skill that the audience had come to expect from the men’s companies, so in order to draw crowds they had to specialize in what had worked for them so well in the past—which was satire—and they had to do it in excess.

When the end came the King’s harshness was certainly intensified by his reaction to the Gunpowder Plot. It was in 1605 that a group of Catholic conspirators came within a hair’s breadth of changing the course of history by blowing up the entire court and most of the aristocracy of England. It didn’t happen, and today it is mostly remembered by the bonfires and fireworks that make up the gleeful celebration of Guy Fawkes Day; but the danger was very real. James Shapiro’s recent book The Year of Lear describes wonderfully how the exposure of the plot turned the King into a paranoiac and his court into a bastion. What he tolerated before November 5, 1605, he could never tolerate again.

In 1609 Burbage took back the lease at Blackfriars, which had been closed for several months, and at the same time he paid off Edward Pierce, then the choirmaster at St. Paul’s, to stop performing. The Children of the Revels and the Children of St. Paul’s were finished. Some of the boys were re-constituted briefly in yet another abandoned monastery, called the Whitefriars, as a short-lived company called the King’s Revels, and they limped along for a few years performing minor works by minor playwrights, but by 1616 that ended as well. For several years thereafter there were traveling companies of boys, claiming to be the Revels, but they were strictly provincial and only a wisp of smoke from the ashes of their glory days.

Jill Holden and Dov Rudnick read from Proci et Puellae (a Lover and a Lass)

Here’s another surprising example from Erasmus’ Colloquia Familiaria.

If you have ever seen As You Like It and relished the cheeky brilliance of Rosalind and the pure silliness of the lovestruck Phebe, you may be startled, once again, to find some of their best lines presaged in this witty little play written by Erasmus forty years before Shakespeare was born! It’s actually a rather long one (with some sexy overtones and thoughts on maintaining a healthy marriage along the way) but we only recorded a few pages. They’re a lot of fun. It’s easy to see what stuck in the brain of the boy Shakespeare when he performed them in Latin at Stratford’s Latin grammar school, as part of his practice in conversation.

(Remember, Latin back then was NOT A DEAD LANGUAGE! It was the lingua franca, and required of every educated person entering any of the professions, because it allowed one to converse with any other educated person in any country throughout Europe; but casual conversation took practice. Thus, the “Colloquies.”)

The scene is a flirtatious courtship between the lover, Pamphilus, and his girlfriend, Maria. He’s trying to talk her into advancing their relationship to a new level, whatever that may be. Familiar?

Jill Holden has played the role of Phebe, and she immediately spotted echoes from this silly colloquy in her lines in response to Silvius:

Silvius: Sweet Phebe, do not scorn me; do not Phebe;

Say that you love me not but say not so in

In bitterness. The common executioner…

… first begs pardon….

Phebe: I would not be thy executioner:

I fly thee, for I would not injure thee.

Thou tell’st me there is murder in mine eye:

Tis pretty, sure, and very probable,

That eyes, that are the frail’st and softest things,

Should be called tyrants, butchers, murderers!

Now I do frown on thee with all my heart;

And if mine eyes can wound, now let them kill thee:

Now counterfeit to swoon; why now fall down;

Or if thou canst not, O, for shame, for shame,

Lie not, to say mine eyes are murderers!

 

And Susan Angelo, also present in the audience, has played Rosalind! And SHE recognized THESE lines:

Orlando: Then, in mine own person, I die.

Rosalind: No, faith, die by attorney. The poor world is almost six thousand years old and in all this time there was not any man died in his own person, in a love-cause. …….Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.

 

And then, a bit later in the scene:

Rosalind: There are none of my uncle’s marks upon you: he taught me how to know a man in love; in which cage of rushes I am sure you are not prisoner.

Orlando: What were his marks?

Rosalind: A lean cheek, which you have not, a blue eye and sunken, which you have not, an unquestionable spirit, which you have not, a beard neglected, which you have not!

Do you hear the same teasing images in this exchange?

(Again, this translation is my adaptation of the two rather dated existing translations from the Latin. Every line is by Erasmus. I’ve just tried to make it sound more like what contemporary young people might say.)

John Lithgow and Susan Angelo read Erasmus’ Colloquy, “Abattis et Eruditae”

It was the discovery of the Colloquia Familiaria written by Erasmus that got me started on my book ten years ago. I found a mention of them in a terrific biography of Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate, Soul of the Age,  and found a dusty old copy on line. When I started reading, I was astonished to find early models of the colloquial characters  that I loved as a kid watching Shakespeare’s plays: the clowns, shopkeepers, thieves, schoolmasters, bar flies, prostitutes, etc. These were short scripts written forty years before Shakespeare was born, for schoolboys, to teach conversational Latin! Just about every Latin grammar school in England had copies of the texts and scheduled the Colloquia in their statutes. To me it is glaringly obvious that, as a boy, Will Shakespeare performed them at school. Characters, circumstances, even specific images and lines show up all over his early comedies. I wondered why hardly anyone had ever seemed to notice.

Something else that amazed me were all of the whip-smart women characters that Erasmus created! Shakespeare is often noted for his luminous and opinionated women, often outsmarting and out-talking the men around them. Hello!? Erasmus’ women were doing that long before Shakespeare!

Much gratitude to the lovely Susan Angelo and my kid brother John Lithgow for this delightful cold reading of “Abattis et eruditae” at a salon I did recently at the home of my friend Susan Cambique Tracey. It is one of many of Erasmus’ colloquies featuring smart, sassy women. If you know As You Like It you might recognize the origins of Jacques’, “All the world’s a stage” and Touchstone’s line: “The fool doth think his is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” The second quote actually comes from Socrates, but I like to think Shakespeare read it first at school, performing the following colloquy IN LATIN when he was about twelve. I especially appreciate it that Erasmus has both wise sayings voiced by a woman.

Watch the entire colloquy here.

Remember that this colloquy was written in Latin, and it was not published in translation in Shakespeare’s lifetime. He performed it in school, in LATIN, and I like to think he played the part of Magdelena, the eruditae (well-educated woman), who was based on Sir Thomas More’s eldest daughter Meg.

(I should add that I have adapted from two very dated existing translations. I tried to make the lines sound more modern. Every line is, in fact, by Erasmus, and I’ve just made them sound as much as possible like what I think he would have wanted them to sound like in a contemporary, American dialect.  A closer translation of the first line from Latin would be, “What is all this mess?” My free adaptation, “What a Dump,” is, of course, an homage to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” and “Girls just want to have fun” is, well you know! A closer translation would be “A woman’s business is pleasure.”)