Whenever a discussion of art arises, I always recall Hamlet’s words to the actors before they perform a scene: “…The purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” As Hamlet notes, the purpose of acting, art, really, is to hold the mirror up to ourselves and our culture, for the purpose of reflecting (and ennobling) the soul. When done correctly and well, art edifies and educates, reveals and explains, uplifts and inspires. Art challenges and stretches us and our preconceived notions, it connects us to one another, it shows us at our worst and our best, and it helps us to imagine who we can be as a person and as a community. Hamlet also opines that art’s purpose is not only to show us at our best, but also to show us as we are at this time.
And is there another form of art or “playing” that shows us at our best and as we are than the American Musical Theatre? Calling on a tradition that dates back centuries, the 20th century form of the musical that sends our toes tapping and our fingers snapping conjures images that speak to our American experience from westward expansion (Oklahoma), to immigration and racial prejudice (West Side Story), to rebellion and a fight for equality and individualism (Hair), to alienation and struggle (Rent), and to hundreds of other salient themes. In short, the American Musical embodies all that we come to understand and articulate as American.
And so, a group of 4th and 5th grade students at Hampden Meadows, under the able direction of Dena Davis, tackled some of the best known musicals in our canon, with the hope of growing as actors, entertaining their family and friends, and learning about themselves and their part of the world. From all accounts, these noble tasks were accomplished. I will admit that I did not see the show, but my daughter did, and she returned from it raving about the production. The show featured favorite songs from Guys and Dolls, West Side Story, Bye, Bye Birdie, Pippin, Grease, Barnum, Rent, Crazy for You, Hairspray, among others. The purpose was to expose the children to American classics, while giving them a chance to shine.
As delighted as my 12-year old daughter and her friends were to see it, I read a recent article in which a father of a participant lamented that a number of the show’s scores were “entirely inappropriate for such young children.” As a Board Member of Arts Alive! since its inception, and as a father of young children who have participated in a number of Arts Alive! productions, I was surprised to read that person’s impression.
The disappointed father, who watched three performances of the show, bewailed that the actresses were dressed up like “hyper-sexualized characters,” and wondered, “How can we expect the young girls of Barrington to grow up with a sense of self-esteem and self-respect when they’re reduced to playing caricatures of sexualized women in theatrical productions?” This question is a good one, and was eloquently answered by a participating parent who noted that seeing Dena Davis and Kim Durkin, two intelligent, accomplished, thoughtful, caring women, work with the cast of over 150 was enough to assist our Barrington girls in growing up with healthy self-esteem and self-respect.
And I respect the grieved parent’s desire to protect his daughter and to provide for her good role models. It is meet and right to want to protect our children from the thousand natural shocks to which flesh is heir, to keep them from growing up too quickly in our admittedly hyper-sexualized culture that denigrates women and reduces them to objects. But, our attempts to shield our children are often as successful as Sisyphus’ attempts to roll the boulder up the hill.
As parents, it is our job to make ourselves obsolete: to give our children the habits, behaviors, routines, skills, and judgement that will enable them to excel without us. We must seek to give our children strong roots that ground them and allow them to know what is right, while fitting them with wings that will enable and encourage them to fly, to seek new, exciting adventures and places. As a parent, and as an educator of 25 years, I know well the desire to protect, but I also know the value of allowing children the space and the opportunity to stumble, and even fall. There are lessons every where, and it is our work to allow our children to grow — not in a hot house, but in our real world. Sometimes, in giving them both roots and wings, we have to expose them to various experiences, so that they know how to respond.
One of favorite Musicals is Into the Woods, a work that my wife and l loved so much, our three children knew every word of the work by the age of 6. In the song “I know Things Now,” Little Red Riding Hood meets the Big Bad Wolf and reflects on what she has learned after he has “swallowed her whole” and she has been rescued and is safe: “And we’re brought into the light, / And we’re back at the start… / And I know things now, many valuable things, / That I hadn’t known before. / Do not put your faith in a cape and a hood. / They will not protect you the way that they should. / And take extra care with strangers, even flowers have their dangers, / And though scary is exciting, / Nice is different than good. / Now I know, don’t be scared. Granny is right, just be prepared.”
And that is the best that we can do for our children: prepare them. We cannot protect them as much as we would like, but we can prepare them. The recent events in Oklahoma and in Boston remind us that we cannot control the world or what will happen. Hamlet, in the penultimate scene of the drama, comes to understand that he cannot control his world; rather, all he can be is prepare for what may come. He says to Horatio, before the climatic final bloodbath, “the readiness is all. Since no man, of aught he leaves, know what is’t to leave betimes, let be.” Let us revel in our children’s youth, and let us seek to prepare them as best we can for our uncertain times, but let us not think that we can protect them from everything: “Granny is right, just be prepared.”