A Midsummer’s Night Remembrance

Memory can be an amazing thing, as events in life sometimes reveal in surprising ways.

The Curmudgeon’s first exposure to Shakespeare was in fifth grade.  That year, Miss Wolk’s class read “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” – a pretty ambitious undertaking for a bunch of ten- and eleven-year-olds.  The class read the play as Shakespeare wrote it – no classic comics version for this group – with considerable interpretive guidance from our teacher.  When we finished, she presented an interesting challenge:  translate the entire play into modern-day English.

Miss Wolk’s class was a group of serious achievers – very smart kids and very, very competitive.  Thirty-four of us – yes, a pretty large group by today’s standards, although we were none the worse for it – tackled the challenge with gusto and enthusiasm, and when we finished, Miss Wolk declared that now that we had read the play and translated it, we should stage it.

The production was elaborate:  huge panels of hand-painted scenery, costumes sewn by class mothers, the whole nine yards. For what seemed like months but was probably just weeks we lived and breathed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”  The Curmudgeon played Demetrius, one of the four star-crossed lovers.  If he recalls correctly, a reader of this blog, S.S., played “Tom Snout,” a character who also played “Wall” in the play within the play and who, in depicting a wall, held his fingers in a configuration reminiscent of Mr. Spock’s greeting, only sideways.  The Curmudgeon distinctly recalls wearing tights (okay, a leotard) and a red vest and winning his role in a competition by over-emoting in a manner that would put even modern-day over-actors like Al Pacino, Jack Black, and of course the immortal Jackee Harry to shame.

That was more than forty years ago, and The Curmudgeon has had no contact with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” since then.  He never read it in junior high school, never read it in high school, never read it in college.  A few years after college he resolved to read all of Shakespeare’s plays over a period of years, but that self-improvement project lasted only one-and-a-half acts into “King Lear,” at which point The Curmudgeon put down the book and told himself that no matter how good Shakespeare was supposed to be and how worthwhile it might be to plow his way through all thirty-seven plays, he just didn’t like Shakespeare, not even a little, and he was damned if he was going to spend half his life reading plays he couldn’t stand when there were so many other great books to read.

Life goes on without Shakespeare, and it went on without “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” – until last week.  On Wednesday night The Curmudgeon found himself watching “Top Chef” when the program went to a commercial.  The Curmudgeon has no use for commercials and feels that as long as he has a remote control there’s no reason to watch them.  He immediately began channel-surfing and stopped by the USA Network, which was airing an episode of “Royal Pains.”  There, he saw what appeared to be actors on a bare outdoor platform – not even a stage – and heard the lines, “Now I am dead, now I am fled, my soul is in the sky.”

“I know those lines,” The Curmudgeon said to himself.

But from what? The Curmudgeon is not one of those people who quotes things:  not literature, not the bible, not the great philosophers (and no, Yogi Berra does not qualify as a “great philosopher”).  He does know many song lyrics and has, by osmosis, committed most of the first three or four seasons of “The West Wing” to memory, but he has no storehouse of literary nuggets at his disposal.

It took a while – fifteen seconds, maybe thirty – and it came to him:  “That line is from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’”

From that point it took only a minute to do a web search and confirm that his instinct was correct:  the line is spoken by the character Pyramus as he commits suicide.

Imagine:  forty-three years pass, yet when he hears the line, he recognizes it. The Curmudgeon makes no claim to having an unusual memory.  He has a good memory but not a great one, but there it was, almost as recognizable as it was when he first encountered it, as a fifth grader at the Robert Blair Pollock Elementary School in Philadelphia during the 1967-1968 school year.  Of all the things to stir memories, why a few unexceptional lines in an unexceptional play he read back when Lyndon Johnson was president, when the Beatles were still an active band, when Jim Bunning was a great baseball player and not one the worst U.S. senators ever to defile the halls of Congress?  Why “Now I am dead, now I am fled, my soul is in the sky”?

Memory is truly an extraordinary thing – and in this particular case, an extraordinarily sweet thing as well.  Happy memories, happy times.

Except maybe for the leotard.

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  • Scott  On February 13, 2012 at 9:34 am

    Wow. Great memory for a middle-aged curmudgeon! And, yes, I did play “The Wall”…but your memory 1s sharper than mine because I would have never remembered the “Tom Snout” reference. I do remember kneeling on the floor of Room 115 (?) and spending what seemed like DAYS applying green paint to my cardboard costume to make “The Wall” come alive. And, when you repeated that Pyramus line, a small bundle of forgotten neurons (enjoying a 43-year slumber party)shook off their rusted coats and sprung to attention…firing their “Yes, I remember that line, too!” message to my consciousness. Kind of scary, isn’t it? What other useless information is similarly lying dormant in the vast recesses of our minds? And how exactly is it that I can now remember that, but I can’t remember my new iPad’s password?

  • foureyedcurmudgeon  On February 13, 2012 at 9:41 am

    Yes, it was room 115.

    As for Tom Snout, I didn’t remember that character’s name, but I did remember that it was a dual role and that if you played “Wall,” you had another role, so I had to look it up.

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