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A One Act Play

JENNY DOES SHAKESPEARE

By G. L. Horton
copyright © 2003 Geralyn Horton

A lecture hall. The audience represents the members of the American Shakespeare Society (ASS).

VOICE FROM OFF STAGE
Ladies and gentlemen, please give a warm welcome to the Society's first presenter from our newly established High School Student Division, Miss Jenny Pines, a junior at Chicopee Regional.

JENNY, 17-year-old teenager and very nervous, walks to the podium, sets her speech down on it, clears her throat and without looking at her text, begins:

JENNY
Ladies and gentlemen. Distinguished scholars. Let me start by thanking you all for giving me the honor to-- to come here to this--- this prestigious Society- here. To read my paper "Shakespeare and the Youth of Today." I'm very honored. Nervous, too, of course, but---

JENNY utters a strangled sound, and begins searching frantically for the water she knows should be on the podium. She finds an empty glass, stares at it in panic, looks around wildly. Some one off stage beckons to JENNY, and she exits and returns in a rush with a pitcher of water. She pours a glass, drinks, makes another raspy sound, takes two pills from a bottle and washes them down, and, after a series of pitiful throat clearings, begins again to address the audience.

"Shakespeare and the Youth of Today." by Jenny C. Pines.

Jenny looks at her text and discovers that she can not read it. She looks apologetically at the audience seated in the enveloping dark.

I'm sorry. I uh- -I uh-- I'm going to speak to you about what I-- uh about my--umm. Excuse me.

Jenny tries holding the papers at various angles: one position works well enough that she can begin. But the stress of trying to read with bright stage lights shining in her eyes and a dark shadow on the printed page increases her nervousness, and her shaking hands add to her difficulties. She is stumbling, making errors.

"It has been said that "Shakespeare is not for an age, but for all time." This is so true. Shakespeare speaks to high school students in America today. Right now. If they would just. Open their minds. And listen. Shakespeare knows how it feels to be young, to wait-- sorry-- to want-- what-- all the authorities, the so called older and wiser people say you shouldn't want. How it feels to have everybody pushing and pulling at you when what you need is peace and quiet and understanding Shakespeare is all about feelings. Feelings at their -- their most intense. As they are at this painful time. Between the safety of childhood and whatever. -- Whatever your adult life is going to turn out to -- To be. That is what is referred to. As Youth. The Youth of today. Are overwhelmed. They are bombed --uh -- bombarded-- with messages. Flooded with feelings. --feelings they can't handle, and desperate. For sheltering walls and defenses to hide behind. They are afraid. The thing they most fear is what Shakespeare sometimes calls "disgrace". Which literally according to the dictionary means "lack of grace. " Which for a teen could be translated as "Not Cool." or "Looking like a fool." But the youth of today must be brave and allow themselves to feel these feelings, or else they may find themselves doing something uh-- something utterly-- final and terrible to themselves ... and hurting those who love them." Shakespeare's women-- Sorry, Shakespeare's wisdom-- can really be a lifetime-- no, sorry, that's "a lifeline" for young people downing in a quote "sea of troubles" if only they felt empt--uh -- empowered-- to grasp him what Shakespeare has to tell them. Between the author Shakespeare and the teen reader who might be-- uh who might benefit-- from him. Stands Author-- no, that's "Authority" I'm sorry. I can't read my speech. I mean I can't see what I've got written. The light is so-- it's so--. Is there anyone who knows how to--?

VOICE FROM OFF STAGE
Just adjust it-- your light.

JENNY
What?

VOICE FROM OFF STAGE
Adjust the light on the podium. Use the swivel.

JENNY
There's a--? Oh! Thanks! as I was saying uh-- reading---

(JENNY finds where she left off her in her paper and reads)

"Shakespeare's wisdom can really be a lifeline for young people downing in a quote "sea of troubles" if only they felt empowered to grasp him. Between the author Shakespeare and the teen reader who might benefit from him stands Authority, in the shape of boring teachers with boring examinations that turn Shakespeare's deep questioning of the human heart into the kind of questions that fit into multiple choice, and his poetry into a list of words to be looked up in the glossary.

When I first heard teachers talking about Shakespeare they made it sound as if the plays were broccoli or brussels sprouts-- some yukky thing that kids had to be forced to digest because it is supposed to be good for you. They seemed to want to push it on us because they had it pushed on them. I wasn't at all looking forward to junior year, when that musty old stuff would be shoved down my throat. But then I met Shakespeare outside the classroom-- which is the way I imagine most young people who love him first meet him."

Last Christmas my cousin Ellen introduced me to a friend of hers, a college student back home over vacation. He was just a freshman, but already he was cast as Mercutio in his school's spring production of "Romeo and Juliet". Greg was passionate and funny and brilliant, and when he acted some of his speeches for us, it was thrilling He took his acting role very seriously. He got videos of all the different "Romeo and Juliet"s-- Ziferelli's, and Lurman's-- the one with Leonard Di Caprio-- and some funny old black and white ones too. He showed us the different Mercutio scenes and explained how one was better than the other because the actor knew exactly what he was trying to do. It's all there, in the words, and the sounds may be even more important than the sense. An insult loaded with Bs and Ds and Ks lands like a slap in the face.

Greg explained how Mercutio could be as dangerous with his words as with his sword if the actor gave the right emphasis so that the words would "hit home". Greg showed me the sexual meanings hidden behind Shakespeare's strange old fashioned words, meanings that he pointed out high school glossaries gloss over and high school teachers either don't know themselves or are embarrassed to talk about . Then Greg read me the love scene in sonnet form between Romeo and his Juliet, the one that begins

Should I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this--
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
to smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss."

And he told me that in Shakespeare's own time the poetry he wrote was too hot to handle. It wasn't published at first, but just written out and passed around among friends, like secret messages in study hall. Will's poems were memorized by lovers going a-wooing, and romantic young girls might sleep with one of his "Sugar'd Sonnets" under their pillows to bring them sweet dreams. When Greg went back to school he gave me his beautiful little illustrated volume of the sonnets, with his favorites bookmarked. That book changed my life.

Once I discovered Shakespeare on my own, so to speak, then I was able to understand what a good teacher like my high school's Mrs. Ferlinger was getting at, and I could think and write about him for class work, too. It was my class essay on Shakespeare that, along with Mrs. Ferlinger's recommendation, got me early admission to a good college, one where I would never have applied without my teacher's encouragement. If you can impress the educated powers that be with your knowledge of Shakespeare, elite doors will open to you. Or as the "Kiss me Kate" song puts it: "Brush up your Shakespeare, and they'll all kowtow."

JENNY is carried away, and does an awkward version of the singing and dancing mobsters, knocking over her podium's reading light as she flings out her arms

JENNY:
Shit! Oh, my g--! Sorry--- I'm so sorry.

JENNY picks up the lamp, fusses with it and shakes it: useless. It's broken. She looks at the pages of her speech: useless. It's too dark to read, and her hands are shaking so badly she can't hold her papers still. JENNY gets out her pills and gulps down a handful, washing them down with a fresh-poured glass of water. Composing herself, she apologizes:

JENNY
I really apologize for this. If you'll. excuse me a minute. (walks to wings) Can anybody fix this? (unheard reply) But I can't see to read. At least try

(an unseen someone takes the lamp.)

Should I just give up? Maybe the next speaker can-- (unheard reply) But I don't have it memorized! How could I, when I had to start over and write on a whole different topic??!! ... (unheard reply) All, right. All right. I'll try.

I hope you'll excuse me if I--. I'm sure to get all mixed up, but the moderator says I should just try to tell you what I think is important. Which what I was doing in my first paper, the one I threw away. My mind's just--. I can't remember a word. These pages? It's, like, my fifteenth draft. Can you believe that? I practically killed myself writing it, and now I can't even--. This whole thing has been-- . Some of you probably recognize my name, or even my face--: because since I asked Dr. Baker for his autograph after I saw the production of "Hamlet" where he both directed and played a great King Claudius, I've been helping the Doctor out with the mailings in the office. I send out form letters, like for dues. Anyway, Dr. Baker's been really nice to me, and when he asked if I would like to present a paper, I said sure without even thinking. I was so thrilled with the idea of just being here. In the same room with all of you professionals. I wasn't too worried, because I did get an A plus on my Hamlet essay for English class. I figured you people would cut me some slack, since I'm what you call Youth. Although doesn't youth usually mean a guy? Anyway, what I'm trying to say is sometimes a person just doesn't think things through, you know? OK. So I'd said yes. I was gonna be printed in the program, like Professor Heintz. So I started with my Hamlet paper and made little changes. But they sort of became bigger changes when I realized how much of what I'd written was personal and I was going to have to get up and read in front of strangers. It'd be like reading my diary! To-- to you. So I took most of the personal stuff out. But when I read what was left to my Dad it sounded really lame. And I could sort of see his mind wandering, making a mental list of plumbing supplies or something. But what does he know? I mean, Dad says he did ok in Shakespeare; but like he says it was in one ear and forget it as soon as he passed the exam. But still, he's my own father and I'm boring even him. Am I going to look like the biggest fool ever?

JENNY looks toward the wings to see if help is on the way. It isn't. JENNY looks miserable, takes a deep breath, pours herself a glass of water, takes a pill, and begins talking again.

So then I went to my English teacher Ms. Ferlinger for some help. Ms. Ferlinger pointed out to me that you're scholars. Like I didn't know! Her point was that you've heard hundreds of papers, written by PhDs and famous poets and all. Plus all those student things you've graded, from stupid to genius even. Any idea you haven't heard, I should figure it's because it's wrong. Last thing I should do is get up here and tell you like it's new some old idea you've already heard, not to mention over and over again.

JENNY washes down another 2 pills.

Ms. Ferlinger said the reason she gave me the A plus was not because I got in lot of facts about Hamlet-I guess I kind of blew that part. It was because of what I said about Ophelia. Ms. Ferlinger said it's like I kind of opened up my vein and bled all over the page. And she said that was probably the only way I'd come up with something you people hadn't heard before. If it was pure me. Which left maybe half a page of the A plus Ophelia. What I see of her in me and me in her. I added why I feel Shakespeare understands what it's like to be a girl, even today when practically everything has changed except that Girl thing. I mean, we don't have princes in America, do we? So why do girls think we're not good enough? Why do we do things, and say things- or more like, not say things-- all the time, just to live up to somebody's idea of how we ought to be? Instead of just being who we are? And how Hamlet is like totally dis-gusted with Ophelia, just because she can't automatically read his mind and be on his side But he's the one who hasn't opened up to her! Not even given her a clue!

Ophelia's this thing to him, this Nymph-thing: I guess she's supposed to know everything by women's intuition: ‘cause Hamlet acts like she's too ignorant for him to even bother to explain. Like, she's supposed to hate her own father! For what? Doing his job!? That really gets to me. So then I'd go into some examples of girls I know, where the guys they like demand this like total loyalty, and the girl's supposed to give up her family and friends and what she really might want to do in life and just be with him. And it's not like it goes both ways, believe me: The guy's a prince!

I can't tell you how hard I worked on that speech, how much of myself I put in it. I don't know if it was any good--. I couldn't read it to my father, for cheese sake-- and Ms. Ferlinger's gone on vacation. But I felt good about it. Terrified by what I'd discovered, and scared out of my so-called mind at the idea of standing at this podium and reading it to you. But I felt I'd got to the truth. My truth, anyway. Worth saying, even if the roof falls in.

(JENNY washes down another couple of pills.)

But that's not the speech I brought here. When the Society program came in the mail I saw that my paper was listed as talking about "youth's perspective on Shakespeare.". Not Jenny's perspective: Youth's. I don't know why nobody told me I mean-- Dr. Baker? Isn't somebody supposed to let the speaker know? Anyway, I was left with hardly any time to write a whole new speech. On the "Youth of Today". Truth is, except for Greg Barstow I'm the only youth I know of who loves Shakespeare. There may be others, hundreds for all I know- somebody's checking out the videos. But if there are, they're keeping very quiet about it at South Central High. Just like me.

Only my cousin Ellen and a very very few of my closest friends know that I'm passionate about Shakespeare, and even those guys think that it's really really weird. I have this poster in my room: it's Ophelia, by the painter Millais.: A deceased Ophelia, laying in the water, floating all browny green and strewn with flowers, her hands reaching out from her sides like she's embracing her fate. You know the picture? Well, my so-called friends say that I should take it down. They tell me it's depressing and morbid. Way out of date, way not cool. Sarah even said that I must be stuck up. Like she thinks the reason I put up the picture is to impress somebody. No way I could really like Shakespeare. To quote this so-called best friend:

(JENNY finds the place in her paper, and reads)

"Shakespeare's for old people. He's difficult, he's boring, he's history." That's what a girl's up against if she steps outside the
(lighting change)
Oh! You put on the lights.

VOICE FROM OFFSTAGE
Can you see to read now?

JENNY
Yeah! that's great. But

(For the first time, JENNY can see the audience.)

Professor Heintz! Of all the insulting --! You've got some nerve. Listen, people--the few of you who are left. Before I read my speech, I have to say something-- even though I know it's not my place. You're the educators. You have the credentials. But I was really really offended by this morning's first speaker.

I know what Professor Heintz said wasn't directed at me personally, but in a way I'm supposed to speak for all students, particularly the students who aren't here because adults like Professor Heintz make them feel out of place and stupid and get big laughs when they make insulting jokes about laziness and Cliff Notes.

And now he's insulting me by doing that! (points) During my speech! So I'm I'm just a teen ager. Rude and ignorant Like one of those rowdy apprentices who crowded into the Globe at a penny apiece to weep over Romeo and Juliet, and upset the elite. That old elite thought the rabble should be working for their masters, not goofing off enjoying poetry. Poetry is too good for them!

That us-them elitism is exactly why students today who might happen to love this subject have to stay in the closet. Saying "I love Shakespeare" is siding with the enemy, giving aid and comfort to authorities who have nothing but contempt for us. So if you are condescending to count me in, I have to say "no thank you." I'm just a student. Like all those other students. Yeah, I'm familiar with those "lazy" students, as you so call them, and yeah, I agree that they could put in some effort of their own before they ask for help. But although you may tell me not to feel insulted---"Oh, we don't mean you, dear, we know you aren't one of THOSE"- the truth is I am. If I don't ask what you call stupid questions it's because I'm scared to. I've heard plenty of kids' questions come back at them. Why risk getting hit by something like "Don't they teach you kids how to use the encyclopedia anymore?!" Sure. Young people can be very stupid and helpless when they come to something that is totally out of their experience. This doesn't mean we're stupid all the time! So I do not appreciate your rude generalizations, Dr. Heintz. Your university isn't being "overrun" with "ignorant" students. Look around, for God's sake! What "Student Division"?There wasn't anybody under 30 here to begin with, and it looks like when I started to speak anybody who who isn't too old to move got up and left. Nothing but gray hair and ugly shoes! Reading your newspapers! Can't expect anybody with a degree would actually listen. To a kid? Next time you're asking yourselves why young people today don't appreciate Shakespeare, look in the mirror.

(JENNY takes another pill, without water.)

I apologize to anybody like Ms. Ferlinger, who respects students and tries to encourage them. And I apologize to you, Dr. Baker. For letting you down. But you've let my friends down, too. What if some of them had come here to support me, and they heard Dr. Heintz's insulting them? Heard you and all these other experts applaud? What if Shakespeare himself were here? You think he'd approve? Kids go "Unwillingly to school", he said, and he knows how that feels. He's on our side.

Any young person who hasn't been brainwashed can relate to sonnet #29. What is it I say
(finds the place in her paper, reads)
"It describes so well the feelings of depression, jealousy, and envy, and what it means to be despised by your all powerful peers.

When, in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,

Looks and popularity! That's so today. Youth today, everybody thinks that if you have the right look and you buy all the right clothes and stuff, somehow everybody will love you or at least accept you and you won't have to feel this terrible loneliness.
(Reads the next sentence from paper)
"Despair threatens to overwhelm people who feel that they are truly despised."

That goes double when you're made a public fool of. A motley to the view, the few and the proud. That's when a person's really convinced that they're disgusting, and their friends can't help but reject them, too. The outcasts, the geeks and burnouts, they're eaten up by envy, like Shakespeare says:

"Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;"

And that's the most amazing part, when the poet says
"With what I most enjoy contented least;"
When your friends are outcasts, too, and so's the stuff you share, music or video games or cribbage or Satanism or whatever. Because you're stuck in with all these outcast second class citizens, you don't really enjoy anything. You despise what you enjoy, be it good or bad. You hate yourself and your dorky so-called friends. But there is a way out, one only way out. If you are lucky enough.

"Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet wealth rememb'red such wealth brings,
That then I scorn to change my state with kings."

The only way out is true love. If Hamlet had felt that way about Ophelia, he wouldn't have given a-- fig-- that Claudius was King! He'd have saved Ophelia. Instead, the man she loves screws her over. Humiliates her in front of the whole court. Kills her father, who wasn't as smart as he thought he was, but still she loved him. Can you blame her for going mad? For committing suicide? Without the strength or the resources to change her situation, she says "no thanks"- or maybe "screw you"-- to the world. Something I've been tempted to do more than once, and I know my friends have, too. Do you know? 15 percent of high school students have tried to commit suicide! And most of them have never told their parents or priest or doctor or teacher or anyone else. Because who cares, really? They're just ignorant kids, compared to Princes and Doctors of Philosophy.

Ophelia didn't just think about it, or try: she succeeded. I respect her for her that. There's something beautiful about it. Something that refuses to be dragged into every day mud, something that lets go and floats free, --strewing flowers, embracing her fate. Why should she be afraid any more? To me, what she did represents hope.

(JENNY finishes the water, swallowing a whole handful of pills)

When I look at Ophelia, I think I look at her the way the painter Millais did in that picture. I see someone who wanted to go to a happier place. Wanted to end her own suffering. I look up to Ophelia, because I can relate to her sorrow, and because she represents to me all the humiliating secret struggles we go through trying to grow up. In today's society, or back then, or whatever-- I guess I mean "whenever"? (shrugs) Whatever.

If life is unbearable, if what prestigious people want you to do or say or be is just too hard, then who can blame the young person who has to take pain killers or antidepressants or alcohol or illegal drugs to deal with it? All the envelope stuffing and the subject switching and taking sides and so called friends and those fifteen fucking drafts? To be put under the spot lights like police giving you the third degree? "What do you know and when did you know it, you stupid lazy student?" "Are you going to name your friends? Do you even have friends?"

And if a person does not have the strength or perseverance to pursue the primrose path to the best end, then I think that person should have the right to end that person's life, precip-precipi-- prematurely. I know, I know: Legally, no one in the United States, or in most of the so called enlightened post Christian elite Western holier than thou countries, no one no matter who high or low has the "right" to suicide. But ultimately, ultimately, in the ultimate extreme or the extreme ultimacy, doesn't everybody have the right? To control her own life? To choose her future? Or to not? To not want to have a future in this messed up sewer of a world? Hypocrites. Keep your crummy hands off of our lives! You and your Police State! If attempting suicide is a felony, why not go all the way and make it a capital crime? That way the crime and the punishment can be the same! Simultaneous!

The government is not God, and that goes for teachers and administrators and doctors and distinguished scholars or so called experts and all the rest of you damn-ed smiling villains. You damn-ed smiling villains. You have no right to condemn me, or any other victim. It's for God to decide. Who made it your job? Fie on't, Fah! Your smiley face A Pluses and your freaking fearsome F's! If someone is going to, I don't think she's going to pause and consider whether you think it is "honorable" or "repulsive" or just how bad you'll feel when she's lying down dead before your eyes and you just sat there. Chances are, the person is thinking about her predicament, not your opinion. So what if you interpret it that Ophelia goes mad because she is in an insane situation? What makes you think today's girl isn't? Compared with the Danes' insane? Are you that condescending? This Society is just like the court of Elsinore: it's all about seeming, seeming instead of being. Put on a happy face. Look up to the elite. Instead of looking in the mirror. I look up to Ophelia. And Cleopatra. And Juliet. I look at you, and I see hope only-- only when someone --has the-- guts -- to take herself-- serious--ly--out--out of-- "the rest is silence

(JENNY collapses onto the floor)

VOICE FROM OFFSTAGE
Miss Pines? Miss Pines? Quick--Call 911!

Lights fade.


THE END

 

 
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