Saturday, February 18, 2006

Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou?

Down here – the ladder broke!

Apparently some teachers are concerned about pupils acting out love scenes in school productions – including Romeo and Juliet. A peck on the cheek is as far as pupils should go according to guidelines reported in the TES. The guidelines advise teachers to avoid kissing and other close physical contact in drama productions. The guidelines insist that there is no room for nudity or close physical contact in school productions.

Margaret Higgins of the National Association for the Teaching of Drama told the TES, “You can't just cut out scenes like the kiss in Romeo and Juliet. It is a crucial moment. If this isn't fit subject matter for children, perhaps they should put on Eastenders after the watershed.” Guidelines counsel teachers not to insist that any child or young person kiss another.

A review of drama teaching followed an inquiry into allegations of child abuse at a secondary school in South Wales. A drama teacher was found to have used drama as a vehicle for “improper activity” with children. Headline of this article: Romeo – “unable to kiss and die” still.

Now, when I first read this article it seemed that the busybodies and the bureaucrats had gone mad and taken over the running of the loony bin. That's pretty much the tone of the headline and Ms Higgins railings against the idiots in the QCA (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority - the really big cheeses in the educational hierarchy). It is only at the end of the article that the sinister spectre of drama teachers abusing children whilst pleading “artistic license” becomes apparent.

So, is Margaret right? Can you cut the kiss? Actually, yes, quite easily. If we look at the actual play it says, “He kisses her” twice in the stage directions in Act One, Scene 5. Here Romeo is clearly overcome with his physical attraction to Juliet. Hopefully teachers will have already pointed out that he was, in Scene 2, so madly in love with someone else that he was almost dying! Not a very constant boyfriend – is he?

If they are really on the ball, hopefully the teachers will point out that this is only the stage direction - which Shakespeare never wrote. Or, if he did – they have long been lost. I used to have lots of fun demanding that children go home, search their attic and other nooks and crannies and bring to me any Shakespeare play (written in his own hand and signed) without passing Go – I promised to give them the $200! Fact is there are no known examples of his plays written in his own hand, so we are unlikely to ever really know exactly what Bill meant to happen in this scene. That is the beauty of it in many ways. Because we don't know, we are free to interpret as we see fit. Contrast that with, say, George Bernard Shaw – whose stage directions and commentaries often are longer then the actual play.

Bottom line. If there is any possibility that drama teachers might abuse children under the guise of explaining Shakespeare, I'd be inclined to forget the kiss and concentrate on the rest of he play. Teachers could, and should, point out that the ideal of propriety in a drama production has changed significantly since the 1600's. Shakespeare's plays are littered with crude language and action (Porter's scene in Macbeth – opening scenes of Othello, to name just a few) and this should be explained to children deemed old enough to study the play in question. Point is – you can explain without demonstrating. Not much will be lost in the study of Romeo and Juliet – or in performance - if children leave out the kissing altogether. It's probably best not to take chances.

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