English vs Theatre: a personal history

So... I've got a confession to make. English, as a class, was never my strong suit. It's hard for me to determine whether or not it was a “quality of teacher” issue, or a “stubborn teenager” issue, but the end result is that my grades had a downward slope along the axis of time. I personally would argue that it was primarily the first case, but I'll acknowledge that there is a healthy dose of the second that probably contributed. I believe my Senior English teacher once told me that, while I had great ideas, I never expounded upon them. Essays, as it were, was my bane. I wrote what I thought, and I felt that was enough(stubborn.) That being said, this was the same teacher that gave me the highest grade I ever received in that class on the one essay I wrote for the one book I didn't read. You may wonder where I'm going with this.

Turning this same stretch of time, I was fortunate to play Dr. Chumley in a prodcution of “Harvey” by Mary Chase. I remember sitting in my dad's car having a conversation about the play, and the movie, for that matter, and we were discussing the scene toward the end of the play where Dr. Chumley steps into his office with Harvey. Chumley has been talking about a dream he has to take a few weeks off in Akron. In the play, Harvey leaves with Elwood, but in the film, Harvey stays behind with Chumley. By the time Elwood has left Chumley's Rest, Harvey rejoins him. I remember commenting to my dad that Harvey had stopped the clock for Chumley who got his two weeks. Given that Harvey brings you back to the moment you left, it's no wonder he was bored. I remember my dad looking at me and asking why I couldn't do that kind of analysis in my English class.

I'm pretty certain that I've learned more about character analysis as an actor than I ever have from any of my English teachers. By that same token, I've learned so much more about plot and storytelling as a playwright, than I ever learned trying to dissect the work of someone else. I've come to appreciate the fact that the question often asked, “What did the writer intend” is rather vainglorious. Sometimes things just happen. Characters will take their lives into their own hands, and sometimes we writers are just trying to catch up and record, waving at our intentions as our characters pass them by. Sometimes we tell the story we want to tell, but the form is nothing like we thought it was going to be by the time we set down the final period (full stop, if you prefer). Strangest of all, the characters are usually right.

1 comment:

  1. Sometimes things just happen - too true, Neal. I really enjoyed reading this post, Neal.