Roger Hill and Orson Welles on the teaching of Shakespeare – from The Todd School, Woodstock Illinois in 1938
Q: Where is home for you?
ORSON WELLES: I have lots of homes ...I suppose its Woodstock, Illinois, if it’s anywhere. I went to school there for four years, and if I think of home, it’s there.
It may be a tedious cliché to say that school days are the happiest days of your life, but Roger Hill and his staff were so unique, and the school so imbued with real happiness, that one could hardly fail to enjoy oneself within its boundaries.
Besides Orson Welles connection to The Todd School, the place he considered his "home" the unsung hero and possibly the biggest influence on Welles, was his headmaster and teacher at Todd, Roger Hill.
Therefore, preserving Grace Hall would not only be a lasting testament to Woodstock’s many influential school teachers through the years, but also a very specific tribute to the advanced teaching methods promulgated by Noble and Roger Hill.
If Grace Hall should go the way of the Dinosaur, probably the most lasting achievement that will remain of Roger Hill and the Todd School will be the series of highly regarded books published by the Todd Press in 1934, Everybody’s Shakespeare. This series consisted of three volumes of William Shakespeare’s plays, Julius Caesar, The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night, "edited for reading and arranged for staging" by Roger Hill and Orson Welles.
Everybody’s Shakespeare was so successful with teachers and students in schools across the country that it led to a second Todd Press printing in 1938. A third edition become even more successful, when Harper & Brothers issued the books as companion volumes to the first full-length audio recordings of William Shakespeare’s plays (spread over twelve 78rpm records) in 1939.
In the following article, Roger Hill and Orson Welles write about the need to make Shakespeare come alive for students by being performed, or at the least, by hearing Shakespeare's text read aloud, as Welles was about to make possible with his series of recordings of the plays on his Mercury Text Records.
On the Teaching of Shakespeare and Other Great Literature
By Roger Hill and Orson Welles
The English Journal – June 1938
The average American high-school boy or girl studies three of Shakespeare's plays before graduation. This boy or girl is exposed, during each of four years, to the beauties of Chaucer, Milton, Burns, and that whole galaxy, which make up our poetic and literary heritage. Do any of these millions of boys or girls develop a real appreciation of these authors? Do any of them read these authors for pleasure later in life? Of course some do. But an honest answer by high-school teachers would probably set the number at an almost negligible minimum-a number quite surely much smaller than a generation ago. And this in face of the fact that library methods and library facilities have been tremendously improved. Why?
Something beautiful and fine is going out of our national consciousness. With more leisure hours than our fathers enjoyed we are less prepared to use that leisure for inner satisfaction. We are dependent upon gadgets and gadgets within gadgets. While driving an automobile we must in addition thumb a dial. We are better mechanics than our fathers were, but man does not live by mechanics alone or by bread alone or by circuses alone but by aesthetic food for his soul. What has brought about this change? Several stock answers are ordinarily given.
First, we are told that the making of secondary education a universal matter has diluted the intellectual content of the material with which we work. Woodrow Wilson said, 'It is obvious that you cannot have universal education without restricting your teaching to those things that can be universally understood.' This argument is not too sound, however, for although it is true that we formerly had a more selective group, that group was selected not on the basis of intellectual ability but on the basis of financial status. Dunn and Bradstreet or social-register rating never has been very closely correlated with brains.
Second, with the broadening of human knowledge a great quantity of new subject matter is coming into the curriculum to contest with literature for dominance. This explanation, too, is a little specious when we analyze it. Granted that our curriculum has broadened, still we continue to devote four years of continuous study to the subject of English, or about the same amount of time we did before the modern fictionalizing and vocationalizing of our subject matter.
The real reason for the decline of great literature as a vitalizing force in our high-school graduate's life would seem to be more deep-seated than these commonly accepted surface explanations. Probably a large measure of the failure should be laid at the door of the teacher himself. 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 American graduate 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.
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 production which may ignite the spark.
One practical suggestion (after this flood of vagaries and negations) and then a close: It is of course axiomatic that all poetry, and particularly all Shakespeare, was meant to be read aloud. So many teachers are incapable of reading Shakespeare aloud or instructing their charges in adequately reading Shakespeare aloud, that classroom renditions are doomed before they start. There is a considerable and growing library of phonograph recordings which are tremendously helpful. Gielgud, Barrymore, Ainley, and Forbes- Robertson readings of many Shakespearean parts are available. Columbia has now recorded almost a complete version of the Mercury's current production of Julius Caesar. This type of material has found wide use in speech classes where, because of presumably expert instruction, it is little needed. It has failed to reach into the thousands of English classrooms struggling with murdered pentameter. This is a pity. Shakespeare himself has made his own plea in this matter: “I pray you, mar no more of my verses with reading them ill-favoredly.”
Orson Welles is the twenty-two-year-old actor-director-producer of the Mercury Theatre who has been enthusiastically acclaimed for his productions this year of Julius Caesar in modern dress, Thomas Dekker's The Shoemakers' Holiday, and George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House. Last season he directed the WPA Federal Theatre's all-negro Macbeth and Dr. Faustus.
Roger Hill is headmaster of the Todd School for Boys at Woodstock, Illinois. Mr. Hill has collaborated with Mr. Welles in publishing a text, Everybody's Shakespeare. Mr. Welles attended the Todd School as a boy.