The Music of Term Papers

Article excerpt

Many of the undergraduates who study theatre and film with me in the Bronx hold badly paid jobs all day. They take evening and Saturday courses. In high school they were steered through--indoctrinated into--novels, plays and poems but do not look back on them fondly. Few have ever looked a portrait painting in the eye or sat through a concert of anything but rock or rap. Certain teachers pounce on them for their cultural deficiencies. Certain politicians and representatives of the tax-paying and tax-evading public demand to know why ill-prepared immigrants and poor natives are given an education at a public institution, for about one-ninth of private university fees.

In a beginners' course, "The Art of the Theatre," I start with an assumption: These young and middle-aged seekers are for the most part impelled, driven. If they left college, their families would gripe less. They'd escape the accusation that they're not equal to what they set out to do. My assumption applies with even more force to those who major in the humanities when they could go for more "vocational"--mercenary and crowded--lures like accounting and business management. But the evening class of 30 or more freshmen and sophomores includes hardly any theatre majors.

It's not easy to get to know that many people who meet only once a week. Most of them remain reticent. One semester, to draw them out, I invited each student to hand in a paper of about two pages in length no later than a couple of weeks after our first class. I wanted them to recall an incident from their lives that might generate a play. Since some had never attended a theatre, I wondered if they would have any sense of what is dramatic in life. The outcome astonished me: visceral dramas, a number of them running to seven, ten, fifteen pages.

What startled me was not so much the primal (which is to say, theatrical) content of the stories, nor their personal frankness, but their forms. More than half had artistic shape. A woman whose infant died described how she stared at the tiny coffin before she moved into a flashback. Fifteen months earlier, her husband insisted they make love one night when she felt unwell. He beat her into submission. After the baby was born, her second child, she resented it. She'd hoped to go back to school. The baby proved fretful, troublesome, as though it recognized that it was unwanted. At six months of age it succumbed to crib death. The mother felt she deserved to be punished. The memory of the dying baby haunted her...and so she returned to her opening image: her remorse at the funeral, standing next to her husband as they both wept in the rain.

A young Puerto Rican woman who'd been raped at age 12 couldn't bring herself to report the two offenders to the police. Years later her sister, then pregnant, was also raped and the life of her unborn child endangered. The student tormented herself: "Whose fault is it? Mine and only mine. It's been seven years now and I still can't stop crying at night." An author who recounted repeated and unsuccessful operations to excise her kid brother's brain tumor and her parents' expense after ruinous expense added a figurative touch as she compiled a bitter metaphor of making a cake by stages, from mixing the ingredients to spreading the frosting. …