And another thing….Welles said Sir!


For those of you not on Facebook I just thought I would share these words of wisdom which I know have been appreciated elsewhere, from a hero of mine. Take or leave but hopefully some more of you might find it of interest:

Orson Welles on Shakespeare, 1938 (22 years old)

“The real reason for the decline of Shakespeare as a vitalizing force in our life would seem to be more deep-seated than commonly accepted surface explanations. Probably a large measure of the failure should be laid at the door of the teacher, and here again the blame shifts to his teacher- the pedagogical system under which he earned his degree. The plain fact is that for a generation in university circles (since the advent of the German idea of scholarship through specialization) it has been impossible for our teachers or prospective teachers to attain scholarly distinction on the basis of broad appreciative study of literature, theater and art.

One hundred years ago Spencer opined hopefully and a little wistfully that some day Science was to reign supreme and was no longer to be the household drudge “kept in the background so that her haughty sisters (Literature and the Arts) might flaunt their fripperies in the eyes of the world.” How soon-how completely his dream has come true. Far from being the household drudge today, Science dominates the domicile. Far from flaunting fripperies today, Literature and the Arts cringe in the background, wearing their tattered togas shamefacedly, while Science, proudly arrayed in a dentist’s jacket and peering into a microscope, poses supreme on Mount Olympus. A world bows in worship before this god, and our educators, leaping to their feet in revival meeting and shouting “Amen Hallelujah!” hit the sawdust trail to conversion.

Our whole preparation of teachers has become a low salaam to this deity. In half of the educational convention addresses delivered each year the burden of the song is, “We must develop a scientific approach.” Higher degrees are unattainable by broad training and catholicity of taste. They are procured only by learning “more and more about less and less.” This is highly desirable, of course, in truly scientific subjects. Research and laboratory methods have given us whatever real advance our century has made over earlier eras. But because this is true—because we do admire the scientist and his achievements—does it mean that we must all be pseudo-scientists? Does it mean that we must all be sycophants before the man in the rubber gloves? Does it mean that we must copy the way he purses his lips, the way he adjusts his pince-nez? Does it mean that beauty is no longer truth and truth no longer beauty but merely an algebraic equation? Does it mean that the proper study of mankind is no longer man but only chemistry? Does it mean that we are not such stuff as dreams are made of but merely wriggling conglomerates of hormones, salts, and electrons? Forbid it, Almighty God!

The truth of it is that we in the field of English expression have been indoctrinated with the scientific approach theory so thoroughly that we are making dissecting-rooms of our English classes to the slight buildup of our own sense of importance but to the infinite detriment of our charges. We are tossing away their aesthetic birthright for a dubious and unsavory mess of analytical pottage.

In attempting to make our study of literature scientific and analytical we have merely made it dull. A Shakespearean play is no cadaver, useful for an autopsy. It is a living, vibrant entity that has the power of grasping us by the hand and leading us up onto a peak in Darien. “But I can’t understand Shakespeare” says the high-school boy. “It takes a gray-bearded professor to know what he is talking about.” You are wrong, Johnny. It’s the gray beard that you can’t understand. He has asked you to read Shakespeare with a pair of glasses smoked to a dull and dingy gray. Take them off. It was written for you, for the groundlings, for the unscholarly Globe patrons who walked in from the cockfight on the street. Only those folks whose blood courses hot through their veins can understand these tingling lines. Shakespeare said everything—brain to belly, every mood and minute of a man’s season. His language is starlight and fireflies and the sun and moon. He wrote it with tears and blood and beer, and his words march like heartbeats. Chaucer spun husky, lusty yarns that are today as vivid and as vital and as rousing as a date in a parked coupe. Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, and Byron sang songs to set your senses a tingle. They spoke for you-not for the pedagogues. They spoke with the tongues of men and of angels, and not to know the cadence of their voices, not to have great snatches of their immortal lines ringing in your ears as you view life’s kaleidoscope is to miss one of life’s major thrills.

Of course, the flavor of the whole thing is a new one to you. Few exotic tastes are cultivated without some preliminary wry faces or some contemplative and questionate lip–smackings. But as caviar to the initiate is more thrilling than hamburger, so the exotic, zestful flavor of Elizabethan phraseology falls at first strangely on our dulled and jaded senses, but, cultivated, it can bring moments of ecstasy.

And so, a pox on the scientific approach to literature. Or, what is even greater heresy, a pox on the sacrosanct approach to literature. “Bow your heads, children,” says the literary high priest in his classroom sanctuary. “We are approaching the great and the holy. Let your voices be stilled and your minds become reverent. You will not enjoy this but it will be very good for you.” Rubbish! If the pupil doesn’t enjoy it, it certainly will be no good to him. And if the pupil is not free to reject, he is not free genuinely to embrace and appreciate. And if after being exposed to the contagion of literary appreciation—exposed through the medium of a teacher who has a genuine and contagious enthusiasm—then by all means let him drop this material from his study of English. Let us spend the remaining high-school years teaching him to read modern prose intelligently, to differentiate between facts and propaganda in newspaper reporting, to form some critical judgment regarding Hollywood’s latest releases, to write a clear and simple letter for his future employer; in short, teach him to write and to read and to use words with some degree of skill, not so much for the human values words can express and the emotions they can arouse but for the collection of facts they can impart. In this way we will avoid doing him the great harm of prejudicing his mind and turning him forever away from Shakespeare and the literary immortals. We will not have shut the door to the possibility of his acquiring a true aesthetic literary taste later in life through the chance opening of a book before a glowing fireplace some momentous night or the chance seeing of a great Shakespearean or Classical production which may ignite the spark.”


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