I majored in theater at Northwestern. At the time, I figured that made sense given my interests, which included Sondheim and homosexuality.
Technically, I majored in theatre since that’s how the word is spelled in the name of the university’s department overseeing skits and dance belts. But I prefer theater because here in the United States, theatre feels like an affectation or a sign that somebody should have hired a copyeditre.
A lot of theater companies opt for the “-re” spelling, though, and when you’re writing a proper noun, you’re supposed to respect those wishes. After college, when I began reviewing stage productions as a freelance arts journalist, I was always having to look up how the troupe spelled its discipline, then tut-tut to myself over the poor choice even as I dutifully repeated it. But that’s okay because tut-tutting over theater companies’ choices while making your own questionable judgments is what reviewing plays is all about.
You’ll note that after graduation I realigned my ambitions from putting on shows to writing about them. That’s because writing was always a better fit for me. While I do have something of the theater artist’s drive to put myself on display, the collaborative nature of drama conflicts with my standoffish tendencies. Being a writer, however, is an ideal profession for the exhibitionist who’s not really a people person.
Taking acting classes was one of the major requirements of completing a theater major. Those sessions involved lots of stretching, breathing exercises, vocal warmups, games, and instruction in acting technique and theory, followed by work on scenes and monologues from genres and eras deemed integral to the Western dramatic canon: Greek tragedy, Shakespearean comedy, Chekhovian naturalism, and so on. (I don’t recall learning about the theatrical traditions of other cultures, at least not in acting class.)
During the Shakespeare unit, one of the pieces I chose to perform was a speech from Love’s Labour’s Lost. Mark how I’m permitting the word labor to be spelled with that ridiculous extra “u” because it appears in a proper noun.
The play, which was one of the Bard’s earliest comedies, centers on four men who take vows to live like monkish scholars, spending all their time reading books, contemplating art, fasting, and not boning ladies. But then some women show up and right away you just know our would-be ascetics will be breaking their oaths, just as soon as they get the obligatory battle-of-the-sexes banter out of the way.
The monologue I performed is delivered by Berowne, the wittiest and longest-winded of the forsworn scholars. In the speech, which comes from the third act, Berowne is basically like, I scorned love and now the tiny tyrant known as Cupid has repaid me by making me fall hard—and for a woman who doesn’t even deserve it.
I chose the speech because at one point as Berowne is lamenting his fate, he suddenly pulls up short and goes, “O my little heart!”
And I was moved by that spark of human tenderness amid all the verbal pyrotechnics. Leave it to Shakespeare to move you with human tenderness amid all the verbal pyrotechnics.
Not that I managed to convey any of those textures in my performance. As I recall, the feedback I received in class suggested that I was playing the scene in an unvaryingly sour mode, failing to show how the character is making discoveries about himself as he speaks.
I don’t doubt the validity of that critique. I probably hadn’t made enough discoveries about my own self to pretend convincingly that I was some courtly old-timey lord undergoing an awakening.
But when I think now about the bewildered 20-year-old I was back then, and I see him reciting 400-year-old wordplay, in verse no less, while standing alone on a bare stage and trying to express tenderness but coming across as sour instead—o my little heart!