Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Lessons Learned

  

 

Lessons Learned

By 

Mimi Pockross

 

 

The incident took place in a midwestern rural community about an hour away from a state university in the late 1960s. The make-up of the student body was a blend of children from the nearby Air Force base as well as the children of farmers, and the people of the main town. 

 

I was the high school speech and drama teacher. In addition to being responsible for a full load of teaching public speaking classes, I was in charge of directing two major plays a year. After my first effort when there were only eight members in the cast and an audience made up of their relatives, I decided that every play I would choose from that point on would have casts of thousands. 

 

My next selection after that rather disappointing first play was the 1955 iconic play Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee that had become a very popular movie starring Spencer Tracy, Frederic March and Gene Kelly in 1960. As you may recall, it’s a fictionalized version of the Scopes Trial that took place in 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee and tested whether evolution should be allowed to be taught in the schools. In reality two famous lawyers came to Dayton to try the case, William Jennings Bryan who had been a three-time candidate for U.S. president and the famous trial lawyer, Clarence Darrow.

 

I was very young and na├»ve and never really thought about the political ramifications that might surface from producing this play in a small midwestern town. It wasn’t a matter of race because the Air Force students were a diverse bunch that included African Americans, Asians and even a Jewish child in the mix. No, the problem was Ms. Claire, a teacher who, for religious reasons, objected to the theme of the play, a test case with a little romance and family problems added to the drama. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court where it was determined that evolution could be taught in the schools.

 

Concerned with Ms. Claire’s objections, I wrote an article for the local newspaper. “The plot more clearly brings out the conflict between progress and tradition,” I wrote. “It merely tells us that both views should be allowed to be presented. It does not speak out against religion, but criticizes those who are not allowed to think or those who don’t want to.”  

 

The upshot of this was surprisingly a very mellow one. Everyone liked the play, even the school superintendent, and life went on without a wrinkle. Even Ms. Claire laid her case to rest.

 

Thinking back on my brash decision, I wonder how I would feel if this situation occurred today. When I made my play selections, I did not have to account to anybody. The school trusted that I would make prudent and conscientious decisions. In our current atmosphere, I’m wondering how such choices should be made. Censorship certainly is scary, and we live in different times. Heavens, the plays in which my grandson acts are much more edgy than a story of Southern churchgoers in the 1920s. 

My past experience made me realize how important it is to have guardrails, not rigid ones but ones that allow a robust discussion without making conclusions. The Inherit the Wind playwright Jerome Lawrence described his oevre as a parable, a metaphor for any kind of mind control ... It's not about science versus religion,” he said. “It's about the right to think."

 

I have very fond memories of the time during which the production occurred. I still get letters today from some of the students that took part. Together we were able to talk and think and try to work things out. It is my hope that what I learned can somehow be applied to today’s educational philosophy. I’ll let the boards, the parents and the teachers figure out how to do this.

 

 

Mimi Pockross is a freelance writer who lives in Vail, Colorado. Her most recent book is Pulling Harvey Out of Her Hat: The Amazing Story of Mary Coyle Chase.

 

 

 

  


 

 

 

 

Monday, April 4, 2022

Top Bunny

 

A couple of years ago around Easter time, a Wall Street Journal article listed the 39 most famous bunnies. Near the top of the heap along with Bugs Bunny and Peter Rabbit was an invisible six foot one-and-a-half inch tall rabbit by the name of Harvey, the subject of the Pulitzer Prize play by the same name and the movie that followed starring Jimmy Stewart in what he once said was his most favorite role.

 

Just like memories of Lucy and Ethel stomping grapes on an episode of I Love Lucy or Gene Kelley singing in the rain, there is, as one critic recalled her mother saying, no time when the mention of Harvey doesn’t bring a smile to anyone’s face who is familiar with the “tale.” 

 

In the story written by playwright Mary Chase, a middle-age man named Elwood P. Dowd befriends an invisible six foot one-and-a-half-inch tall rabbit much to the dismay of his social climbing sister Veta. Chaos breaks out when Veta tries to have Elwood committed to a sanitarium. The question becomes who is more sane….Elwood and his imaginary rabbit or the outside world that Veta represents. It turns out that in many ways Elwood and Harvey are a lot more humane than those who claim to understand reality. Together Elwood and Harvey create mischief for those who deserve it and revel in their moments together when life is peaceful and kind and pleasant. 

 

From the time that Harvey debuted on Broadway in the middle of World War II to a recent reference to Harvey by the mystery writer Louise Penny in her book Kingdom of the Blind, audiences and readers have never stopped thinking about Harvey and appreciating all he is to us.

That an invisible rabbit could be the subject of multiple references in movies like Field of DreamsShawshank Redemption, and episodes of The Simpsons on television is a tribute to the character that was created by his author, Mary Chase. 

 

The actress Helen Hayes who played in the revival of Harvey in 1970 explained to host Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show that in her mind if youngsters just put their imaginations to work, they too wouldn’t have to find other destructive means of escaping. They too could just have a fun invisible companion like Harvey the rabbit and all would be well.

 

As the Easter season approaches and we think of Peter Cottontail hopping down the bunny trail, we should all have a dream of someone like Harvey in our lives that makes us all kinder and more pleasant human beings. 



Mimi Pockross is the author of Pulling Harvey Out of Her Hat: The Amazing Story of Mary Coyle Chase