French Without Tears is the title of the charming playwright Terence Rattigan’s first comedic hit. But this post is not a tribute to Rattigan’s centenary now being celebrated wherever English is spoken. For that, catch a forthcoming Theater Talk program on TV, where critic and journalist John Heilpern, actor Edward Hibbert, and I debate and evaluate Rattigan’s contribution to the theater.
No. This post is about my learning French back in the late Yugoslavia with the help of a French primer, which taught through edifying anecdotes. Two of these stick indelibly in my memory, as I experienced again the other day while shining a pair of my shoes, not as expertly as the professionals, but not too shabbily for an amateur.
Anyway, the first of these anecdotes concerns Voltaire and his manservant. As the philosopher was ready to step out one rainy day, he noted that his shoes had not been shined as usual. Under questioning, the servant replied, “What’s the point? It’s raining, and they’ll soon be muddy again.” “Right,” said the sage, and departed with unshined shoes. Forthwith the servant came chasing after him, crying, “Master, you haven’t left me the key to the pantry. How am I to have my lunch?” “What’s the point?” Voltaire rejoined. “In no time at all you’ll be hungry again.”
A thought-provoking morality tale, this. It is perfectly true that certain actions or procedures have to be undertaken even if the outcome is only of transitory value. So I have realized as a teacher that education must not stop even if students forget your teachings and revert to saying “lay” for “lie” or “With Bill and I” for “With Bill and me.” There are times—many times--when, like Nadezhda Mandelstam, one must hope against hope.
There was, to be sure, very little hope for Osip Mandelstam to emerge alive from the clutches of the Soviet GPU or NKVD, or whatever the secret service was called then. But for Voltaire’s shoes there was a faint but encouraging chance that their wearer might circumnavigate puddles, or at least bypass the muddiest spots, and thus preserve a minimum of polish. So too might students who can withstand the teachings of that greatest of educators, television, and thereby not say “We were laying in the dormitory”—unless, of course, the little lechers were.
In other words, without dreaming the impossible dream, there is no way the possible dream, purportedly inside it--and, like the thin man from within every fat man, just waiting to emerge--can conceivably break out. A slim chance, granted, but a slight polish education may, against all odds, conceivably provide. Voltaire’s shoes may not, like the harvest moon, shine on; yet just perhaps they may avoid becoming eyesores.
Now for the other anecdote. King Louis the Eleventh of France—but let me stop right here: Was it really the Eleventh? My secure knowledge of the sixteen Louis extends back only to the Thirteenth (thanks to Alexandre Dumas pere and the Three Musketeers) if that. Or perhaps the Ninth, known as Saint Louis, may have been the one. But no matter.
One day there came before the appropriate Louis a jongleur--or anglice juggler—and his boy to perform a rare skill. The boy stood several paces away, holding up horizontally a long pin. The juggler then, lofting a sack of peas, proceeded to toss pea after pea at the boy. Astoundingly, each pea landed, firmly impaled, on the extended pin. The King had to concede that this was truly amazing.
At the juggler’s request for a reward, the monarch had a page come running with a well-filled crunchy bag. The happy juggler reached inside, but promptly withdrew his hand in horror. Inside were not gold nuggets but peas. Indignantly, he inquired whether this was the royal munificence. “Well”—or Eh bien—replied the saintly Ninth or secular Eleventh Louis, “for a perfectly useless skill this is the suitable recompense.”
As a boy, I felt that this tale made unimpeachable sense. Today, however, I am no longer so sure. Take, in the first place, the great circus artistes—the high-wire acrobats, the human projectiles shot from cannons, the athletic strongmen, the prodigious jugglers, the vast variety of clowns—none of whom provide a cure for cancer or a substitute for oil from Libya—are they to do this for peas or peanuts? Surely the state of wonder they elicit--our not entirely selfless pleasure in seeing human potential in the ascendant—is not to go unrewarded. They deserve whatever they get at least as much as the TV newscasters who deliver the news in their customary faulty English.
But never mind the artistes; what about artists of the not entirely trendily pop kind? Those so-called singers, millionaires whose earnings should really go, if to anyone, to the makers of their microphones. Should not some portion of the earnings of rappers and punkers, of Justin Biebers and Celine Dions, really be diverted to classical composers (other than Philip Glass and Steve Reich), or given to poets who still believe in meter and rhyme and communication, rather than in nonsensical Ashberiesque verbal masturbation?
And what about the monstrously unrewarded intellectual laborers, who, for example, as drama critics (yes, dammit, I am arguing pro domo) work their asses off in uncomfortable theater seats to review often unconscionable plays and are honest enough not to be politically correct and circulationally enhancing professional yeasayers? Sure, there are exceptions, not quite as rare as hen’s teeth, but easily as rare as centenarian ones. If Terence Rattigan were alive today, how many natural choppers would he have left?
This, alas, is late learning. If I had known better in my youth, I might have become a stockbroker or standup comic, anything but a drama critic. At least, though, it disproves those who claim that after age_______(you fill in the blank) one can’t learn anything anymore.