In Shakespeare’s Hamlet Prince Hamlet has the idea of putting on a play that he hopes will cause a reaction in his uncle Claudius. The play will include the killing of a king by the king’s brother – and Claudius had murdered Hamlet’s father, the rightful king. So Hamlet was hoping that his uncle Claudius would react to the play in a way that would indicate his guilt – and he did; he ran out of the room at the appropriate point in the play.
I am not advocating the performance of Shakespeare by young children, but I am certainly advocating the use of drama as a part of education for all children and young people. In fact Charlotte Mason says very little about drama in schools, and so I cannot support my views by quoting Charlotte here – though actually there are quite a lot of photographs from the college in the 1920s that show that students were frequently involved in dramatic productions. But I have found that drama can play a major role in education from quite an early age. And in fact the point of Hamlet’s often quoted phrase that ‘The play’s the thing’ is that drama can be a powerful means of getting a message across.
Drama always played some part in my own education, and indeed has continued to play some part in my life. I clearly remember making and performing with puppets at my primary school. At secondary school we had regular drama competitions in which I took some (admittedly undistinguished) part, and the Gilbert and Sullivan operas were a major annual event in the school calendar, for which I became an accomplished make-up artist (I couldn’t sing well enough!). Later as a teacher I used to invent dramas in Latin for my students, and we had an enjoyable time while we learned a little Latin. When I became head at Trinity School in Carlisle I was very pleased that there was already a flourishing drama department, and most years the school put on at least six drama performances of some kind, from Greek tragedies and comedies to modern extravaganzas with casts of hundreds (it was a very big school!). We even persuaded the local education authority to equip one of our halls with full theatre lighting and all the paraphernalia of a modern theatre. So in some way all children during their 11-18 school life experienced drama, and for many of them it became an important part of their lives.
We have a little local theatre in our next village, and both my wife and I over the years have taken part in some of its productions. I recently came across the script of a play (Hindle Wakes, a play about a family up here in the industrial north) in which some years ago both my wife and I played major roles, and the thing that struck me straight away was, how on earth did I learn all that? Actually for children that is rarely a problem; they learn roles remarkably quickly.
Well, as a result of our membership of the local theatre group a friend of ours who has a lot more experience of performing in and producing drama than we have persuaded us to join a scheme called Open the Book, which is a nationally organised scheme that provides material for local groups to put on short plays (very short plays) in local primary schools to illustrate stories from the Bible. So most weeks, on a Monday morning, around six or eight of us visit a local primary school, bringing our props and costumes with us, and we perform a short play, always involving some of the children (different children are selected each week) as extras – shepherds, soldiers, Egyptians, workmen, members of the crowd. We have a short rehearsal with our props in place and with the children, all of us dressed up for our parts, before the school assembly, and then we perform to the whole school, usually starting and ending with an appropriate song and a few comments by the ‘Narrator’ (every story has a narrator) on the story.
The school where we are performing at the moment is the local village primary school, with nearly 200 children aged 3-11. Those of us performing are for the most part not brilliant actors (well I certainly am not), and usually we read our parts from our scripts, because with so little time to rehearse we have found that learning our parts is not an effective way of operating. But children don’t seem to notice. What we notice is how attentive the children always are, and how well they remember the stories week on week. In fact the school itself puts on regular dramatic performances, and this is probably a help for us, since children are already used to the idea of drama and many have already performed in full-scale public performances by the school.
The whole national scheme of Open the Book was devised with the intention of making Bible stories accessible to children in a way that would engage their minds in a novel way, quite briefly but with maximum impact. I have to say that I had my doubts initially about whether this was an effective way of presenting material from the Bible. But after three years of performing Open the Book I am convinced that this method does present Bible stories in a way that children can understand and appreciate. The teachers tell us that children enjoy the Open the Book plays, and of course they especially enjoy being involved in them. In fact in the course of a year most of the children will have the opportunity to perform in our plays.
The plays do sometimes raise some tricky questions. Just before the Christmas holidays we did The Shepherds, quite a lively interpretation of the nativity story. After the performance was over one little girl around five years old came up to Judy, one of our team, and asked, ‘So was Santa Claus born on the same day as Jesus?’ I’m not sure exactly how Judy answered that one, but the biblical nativity accounts and the traditional Santa Claus myths that go with them in the western versions of Christianity can be very confusing for thoughtful children. Wouldn’t it be better if we followed the tradition of the Alpine regions of south Germany and Austria, where Christmas presents are arranged around the Christmas tree for Christmas morning, and the story for children is that the baby Jesus has left them there for everybody? Less confusing, I think. Good old Santa Claus or Father Christmas is now well established in western versions of Christmas, but he certainly confused me when I was five years old.
John Thorley was the last principal (here in the US we would cal them president) of the Charlotte Mason College which is now a part of the University of Cumbria. Dr. Thorley is retired and has been instrumental in the Charlotte Mason movement here in North America. He will be a speaker at the CMI English Lake District Retreat in late April. Click here for more information.
© 2018 John Thorley