By RORY LANCE
For many years as a New York City high-school drama teacher, I featured the play All My Sons by Arthur Miller. I found it a wonderful example of how a modern playwright could effectively follow ancient Aristotelian principles in a work of contemporary power and relevance.
Students responded enthusiastically to the recognizable American characters and were moved by Joe Keller’s tragic dilemma and eventual self‐discovery. The political debate that this masterwork always initiated in the classroom inspired intellectual exploration, encouraging the students to assess their own values and responsibility to society. A great play helps us identify with character and circumstance, and that leads to empathy and self-discovery.
During my twentieth year of teaching All My Sons, one of my most accomplished students, Ian, raised his hand to inform me that Arthur Miller would be speaking at the Union Square Barnes & Noble that very evening, and that he planned to attend with his mother. I was heartened that a student’s choice of an outside activity was directly influenced by the time he had spent with me. I emphasized to the whole class the opportunity that was available to us all, hoping a few might take advantage of it.
Miller’s appearance was scheduled for 7 pm, and to make sure I got a good seat I arrived about an hour early. Not long afterward, Ian and his mom came in and sat down next to me. Over the next thirty minutes, I had one of the most profound experiences of my teaching career. One by one, other members of my drama class began to arrive, until a good majority of them were sitting all around me in keen anticipation. And then I was surprised by an even more heartwarming sight.
As I looked around the meeting room, I began to notice recognizable faces from past classes I had taught. There was Michael from three years ago, there was Val from seven years ago, there was Brian from fifteen years ago — all waiting to hear Arthur Miller, the great theatrical legend, who had been introduced to them in my Contemporary Drama class.
As I sat back with a wide smile, a hand tapped me on the shoulder. It was a young woman who looked very familiar. “It’s me, Elana.” She had played Mrs. Frank in my production of The Diary Of Anne Frank. “I’m here with my class. I’ve been teaching for the past three years and we just read All My Sons. I always remembered the impact that play had on me when I read it in your class, and I wanted to give my students the same experience. Talk to you after...and thanks.”
Arthur Miller spoke on some very interesting topics, including the blacklist and how the theatre must be used to effect change. But I treasure that evening as real-life evidence of the true meaning of education: exposing young people to the world through ideas and discussion and helping them discover who they are and what they stand for. It was a clear demonstration of positive results, and there wasn’t a standardized test for miles around. Subject, teacher, and student had come together and employed a great work of literature to help collect and explore values that inform their moral character. Education means experiencing, absorbing, assessing, applying and passing forward, not cramming and spitting out rote words for the next test score.
I truly hope that, in spite of all the political pressures that currently weigh upon the profession, a new generation of teachers will be able to have wonderful experiences like the one I enjoyed that evening at Barnes & Noble in Union Square.
Rory Lance is the stage and pen name of Player Rory Schwartz. He is an accomplished character actor on both the musical and dramatic stages and in numerous film and television projects. He has also spent much of his career teaching and introducing young people to the joys and challenges of the theatre.