Sam & Beulah Strachan, South Dakota schoolteachers
My grandmother, Beulah Swan Finney Strachan (1871 to 1953), could reel off poems one after another, dozens in an evening. She came from the great era when children were required to memorize. No doubt it was partly a shortage of books, a lack of radio or television, and many long snowbound Michigan evenings. But also it was the era of oratory, elocution, and artistic self-expression by the “cultured.”
I inherited some of her books from the pre-WWI era, novels for adults by Gene Stratton-Porter and for children by L.M. Montgomery, famous for “Anne of Green Gables.” Both kinds of books had plots that honored the person who could speak “literature” of a high class nature, as illustrated in the Canadian television versions that had Anne going to White Sands to hear the famous actress recite heart-rending poems and even to deliver her own passionate and dramatic memorizations. Gene Stratton-Porter, in her novel “Laddie” portrayed another ugly duckling of a child who entertained herself by “preaching” in the pasture alongside her pet rooster, whom she nudged with her elbow to provite a crow in lieu of an amen.
This is the context in which Alvina Krause started out, winning a contest for oration in her Wisconsin high school even if she WERE freckled, tow-headed, short and countrified! (Her description of herself.) It was the bit of culture that took her out into the world with a two year normal school degree entitling her to teach high school English and dramatics. Oh, and physical education. (She coached the Seaside, OR, high school basketball team to a state championship.)
The following is from a fascinating essay in “The Sage Handbook of Performance Studies." It’s written by Paul Edwards.
Having begun my academic career in the now-vanished category of “interpretation teacher,” I suppose that I suffered “the misfortune of teaching literature,” as Jonathan Brody Kramnick (1998) terms it, “. . . in a moment when its founding rationale has been called into radical doubt” (p. 244). English elocution came into existence alongside “the appearance of the category of ‘literature’ in the later eighteenth century” (Guillory, 1993, p. 213). The age that gave us the English-language “classic” gave us as well a use-value for literature, a form of “cultural capital” (Guillory, 1993): the rise of “literature” helped to shape the public sphere and its protocols of communication. So did the performance of literature, which for two centuries (under various names) capitalized on the trained performing body as a communication medium. From its beginnings, elocution’s market-driven goals were divided and sometimes self-contradictory. Did elocution belong in universities or in trade schools? One of its audiences sought enrichment from belles lettres through embodied performance, while another (sometimes overlapping) audience sought training in the persuasive delivery of any text, as a tool for activism or professional advancement. The manuals on elocutionary delivery that became popular in Georgian England contained training drills on shaping meaningful sounds and exhibiting through gesture the signs of deep feeling. “Passion for Dummies”: I find it hard to read these books and not compare them to present-day computer manuals, designed to help us with everything from simply turning on the “machine” to making us appear expressive for the widest possible audience.
AK’s facility for speaking took her forward, but it was not enough -- far too mechanistic and limited -- so she added the physical body, taking up the equivalent of elocution: eurythmics.
Edwards again: Elocutionary training attained its greatest respectability in American colleges and universities with the founding in 1914 of the National Association of Academic Teachers of Public Speaking—known since 1997 as the National Communication Association (NCA). [Northwestern’s School of Speech is now its School of Communications.] Most of the association’s members, at the time of its first convention in 1915, were school teachers whose platform oratory embraced both public speaking and literary recitation. Yet as “academically oriented” performers (Rarig & Greaves, 1954, p. 499) they were eager to distance themselves from the “rubbish” of popular platform entertainment with which the label “elocution” had come to be associated during the late-nineteenth century.
Not surprisingly, the two schools divided very much along the same lines as denominations, since schools and churches at the time were much entwined, using the same space for the same communities. One was looking for dignity and scholarship (the aspiring middle class) and the other was looking for the passion that would move audiences (the vulgar folk). Compare to the “learned” versus “enthusiastic” categories of preachers.
With the rise of performance studies associations from contrasting traditions, scholars like Richard Schechner (2002) have begun to speak of a two-brand model of performance studies pedagogy in American universities: with literature, as exemplified by the academic department at Northwestern University, and without, as exemplified by the NYU department.
So the Interpretation Department of the School of Speech kept its attention on literature rather than theatre, though Alvina Krause had been crowded over to teaching acting. (Her Dean informed her on Friday that she would begin teaching an acting course on Monday.) Rather heroically, she gathered up every kind of humanistic thought she knew (heavy on the Greeks and the Elizabethans -- as were my high school teachers, the same age as AK) -- and set about teaching acting. As time went on, she became psychologically separated from Interpretation and began to demand the same from her students. (I’m guessing. I don’t know for sure.)
The larger society, with its emotional connection to New York and Manhattan, was fascinated by the Method, which fit with their interest in the mysteries of psychoanalysis and the movement of acting to film. By the post-Fifties people were more interested in movie stars than literature, except by the creation of writing stars. Brilliance, success, admiration and honor was attributed to unbridled self-expression and soon we were plunged into the Age of Aquarius. Then along came post-modern thought and overturned the boat so that we all had to swim for it. Literature was the least of it -- survival was the goal. What is print or live theatre in the face of television and film? We were about to find out: social revolution, that’s what !! Naked people, sex, plotlessness, outrageous ideas, gaudy extravaganzas. Possibly in reaction to that, along came the musicals -- at first appeals for social justice (“South Pacific,” “Oklahoma”) and then pure spectacle and then (off-broadway) social criticism again.
Where does all this leave us? What do we call this? Performance Studies, that’s what. And at NU Performance Studies have swallowed Interpretation but not Theatre. Theatre is now the musical “industry.” But also, Performance Studies have now taken on social issues.
This is probably not accurate and not even academic, but it seems to me rather explanatory. Even familiar. Like my grandmother, who so loved to attend a really good live show, the kind with skits and then a play. And she was only in Portland, OR, not New York at all.