Life Lessons
by Phillip Lopate
Sep 09, 2010 | 1366 views | 0 0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Autumn roses, beautiful, sad roses.
– Vanya, Act III

In my creative writing classes at P.S. 90, I had been working dialogue scenes with Monte Clausen’s fifth/sixth-grade class (P.S. 90 is a racially mixed school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where I had been directing an Arts Team full time for Teachers and Writers Collaborative.) Over the years I had noticed that, although the kids wrote capable stories and poetry, their dialogue scenes were no better than rudimentary, generally amounting to little more than exchanges of one-liners in which two characters drove each other to greater and greater degrees of exasperation. I was puzzled as to why even the most sophisticated of these child writers so rarely took advantage of the variations in speech length that are a natural part of conversation, instead clinging to a monotonous Ping-Pong of dialogue

I thought I would also talk to this class about the manifest and latent levels of conversation: plant the suggestion that a person may be hiding his or her true meaning, or may even be unconscious of it. I wanted to explain how sometimes in plays the audience was conscious of a danger the character wasn’t, which made for suspense; or how the audience saw one character coming to the truth while another was still in the dark (like the famous scene of the husband under the table in Tartuffe). The more I considered it, the more I saw that a good deal of dramatic interest in the theater derived precisely from the playwright’s selective presentation and suppression of information. The audience was gradually put in the know and then was left to experience the delicious irony of each character’s battle with self-delusion until the “recognition” or “discovery” scene finally occurred, which it did with twice the force because of the buildup.

All this is obvious to the average playgoer, but how to put such structurally complex ideas across to fifth graders? (Children love suspense, but it is precisely this kind of careful foreshadowing that they as writers are weakest at.) I decided I needed a long scene—and I thought of the sequence in Uncle Vanya when Sonia goes to Elena and tells her that she loves Dr. Astrov. Elena offers to sound out Astrov about his true feelings for Sonia. The problem is that Astrov is secretly in love with the beautiful Elena, and Elena is a little taken with Astrov herself. After reassuring the homely Sonia that she will speak to Astrov on her behalf, Elena is left alone and delivers a monologue in which she makes it clear that she herself is tempted by Astrov. Astrov enters with some ecological charts (the ostensible pretext of this interview) and proceeds to expound at great windy length on the demise of flora and fauna in their district, all of which information leave Elena cold. She brings the subject around to Sonia’s crush. Astrov admits he does not “admire” Sonia “as a woman.” But then he turns the tables on Elena and accuses her of toying with him. “You know why I come here every day,” he cries. “And who I come to see… All right? I’m conquered, you knew it even without the questioning. [Folds his arms and bows his head] I give up, here, eat me!” Elena protests, Astrov tries to trap her in an embrace and make an assignation, he declares his love in mumbled fragments, she is a picture of conflicted behavior, one moment saying go away, the next moment sinking her head on his shoulder. Vanya—also in love with Elena—comes in while they are embracing. He has seen it all.

A dizzying sequence of emotional transition—from friendship to love to ambivalence to contempt to loyalty to betrayal all in ten pages. When I looked for the episode in my copy of Uncle Vanya, I somehow got sucked into reading the whole play again. It struck me as such a wonderful piece of writing. Oh, to be able to teach such a play! But that was getting ahead of myself; I doubted that the class would sit still even for a reading of this longish scene. I stalled for two weeks, meanwhile teaching other lessons. Then, finally, I went ahead, partly because I had already spent the money photocopying the scene for the class, and partly because I had to get this damn Chekhov lesson out of my system.

Their rapt interest surprised me as I read it aloud. What I hadn’t bargained for was that the dramatic situation (X intervening for Y to find out Z’s romantic feelings) was one they were going through at this particular stage of their boy-girl careers. No one in class had the nerve to ask someone out straightforwardly, so these matters were handled indirectly through a best friend. After the reading I analyzed the scene to the class as a triangle of unrequited love: John loves Marsha, Marsha loves Fred, etc. I had no doubt they would understand what I was talking about because unrequited love starts very early—even second graders can relate to these bruises. In any case, we went over the complexities of the action, and I asked them how each character felt about the others. The discussion was rich. Did they think Astrov really loved Elena? (Not sure.) What does Sonia mean by “Uncertainty is best”? Why does Elena say one thing and do another? They liked the scene because it was romantic and embarrassing—perfect for 10-, 11-, 12-year-olds. They roared at Astrov’s lovemaking (“Here, eat me!”) Meanwhile, I was able to explain a few technical points about writing dialogue scenes. Mission accomplished. I might have left it at that.

But now I was thinking: What if I took a small group of interested students and started an Uncle Vanya study group. Just to read the play, mind you. (“And put it on!” a maniacal inner voice suggested.) No, I had to devise the project step by step, like a three-stage rocket, at each point ready to self-destruct if one of the parts fizzled. First stage, part one, was the lesson. That had worked out well, so we could move on to the second stage: a reading group. We would approach Uncle Vanya as a piece of literature. Perhaps that was even a more advanced and satisfying educational idea than this vulgar notion that we had to mount our own production. But if—if—the kids were interested, if the idea came from them, we then…could consider…look into…see if it was even feasible. Ah, but what a coup it would be! What a march I would steal on all the other writers in the schools—forget the writers, even the theater people! Who had ever heard of an artist-in-the-schools pulling off such a thing? We could get the local TV stations to cover it. I would be modest at interviews. Please—the children did it all, speak to them…

Another restlessness was, I should admit, work-

ing inside me. After ten years of teaching children writing by using examples from one-

page poems and choice prose fragments, the first few sentences of a novel, I yearned to sink my teeth into a complex, meaty, sustained piece of literature. One of the frustrations that writers face in working with children is that we always seem to be offering up slivers of literary models. But what made me fall in love with literature in the first place was fat novels, five-act plays. I loved the repetitions of themes, the rise and fall, even the doldrums, the calms, the tedium itself, and the big payoff, which could only occur when the writer had built up a meticulous architectural structure to house it. I felt like a fraud sharing lyrical bursts of expression with children and pretending that they were all there was to literature, while my own love was for the grand arch, the passage of time, the slow transformation of characters. Here at last would be a chance to dig in and demonstrate how a great literary work was like music, with patterns and refrains and variation, adagios as well as allegros.

Hadn’t I paid my dues already with years of meeting children on their own cultural terms—helping them make superhero comic books and vampire movies? Let them come to me this time, I thought. I was tired of scaling everything down to miniature size. On the brink of one of those periodic crises of staleness endemic to the teaching profession, I decided my only antidote might be a project of deep selfishness. Uncle Vanya was a play I liked and was reasonably sure I would not tire of. Therefore, we would study Vanya.

Excerpted from “Chekhov for Children” from Against Joie de Vivre (Simon & Schuster, 1989) a collection of essays by Phillip Lopate. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Phillip Lopate, the 1995 Telluride festival guest director, has published numerous collections of personal essays, poems and film criticism, and edited anthologies including The Art of the Personal Essay. Awards include a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, a New York Public Library Center for Scholars and Writers Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts grants, and two New York Foundation for the Arts grants.
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