Last month in Santa Barbara, our new Beautiful Feet representatives came together from around the country to talk about vision, share our lives, and get better acquainted as we look to working together in the future. It was a very special time for all of us, and we thought it might be encouraging to reflect a bit on our experiences and share some photos with you!
Here are some reflections of our time together:
How beautiful it was to spend a weekend surrounded by women who share the same desire to gift their children with a love for great books! There’s something extraordinary in exchanging with another mom an experience we’ve had watching our children light up when they’ve read a story that prompts their minds to think about what they’ve read, and compare it to their own process of thinking or life choices. What continually stands out the most from this weekend is, “there’s power in story”. Over and over again, this theme rang through all of our conversations. It’s this truth that inspired me the most, a truth I hope to instill in my two young warriors. Thank you, Beautiful Feet Books, for your heart-felt desire to deposit something incredibly special into the lives of our family! –Karyn C.
I had such a glorious, refreshing, and magical time with all of you. I am convinced that Beautiful Feet Books are not only the most fun and adventurous time of the day, but it’s our opportunity to bond and connect to each other and the human heart. I am so grateful that God has led me too this. I loved hearing everyone share their stories over laughter, and delicious beautifully arranged meals. The Nicoise salad was just fabulous. Kathy’s passion and quiet yet fiery spirit about her convictions just brought delight to my soul. I along with her, am assured that I want to do every curriculum that is out there with my children or by myself if they are unable to. These amazing stories teach my children, along with myself, the essence of compassion, forgiveness, redemption, and that they too, are part of a great story. I will be shouting “Beautiful Feet” from the roof tops until I am old and gray. I have stumbled upon treasure and look forward to seeing how many more families are impacted. It’s so beautiful to witness the hearts being evoked through history and great stories through literature. I had such a memorable and warm time. –Vanessa H.
“Words are how we think; stories are how we link.” Christina Baldwin
As I sat around the patio table, I was awe struck by the stories which were being shared. Each woman’s story was different, but the stories linked us in a common bond. Our common bond is the implementation of Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy through the use of “living books.” “Living books” nurture the imagination, feed the soul, and stir the conscience. It was amazing to see how one woman’s influence has rippled out and touched the lives of those who were participating in the discussion and those within each woman’s sphere of influence. –Kathy A.
I had the privilege and most extreme pleasure in being able to participate in a marvelous and inspiring retreat with Beautiful Feet Book’s Rea Berg, Rebecca Manor, Josh Berg, and a group of passionate moms! So lucky was I!! The Beautiful Feet Book’s family is zealous about passing on the legacy of history and literature!! It was an honor to learn from their intensity to learn and grow and pass it on. I loved loved learning from Rea and her reinforcing that my ministry is influencing my children and what better way than through stories that lead to empathy. It is not about just mechanically reading a story but molding my children’s heart through them. Of course, this only happens with the best books and I am always and will be forever inspired by their desire to feed children’s minds and hearts with excellence. They are constantly trying to find new ways of doing this with their ideas of more literary guides of heroes for boys and girls. It was amazing to hear from Rebecca and her love and knowledge for history through her new Medieval guide. I am excited about my children learning from her! Their hearts to meet all of our needs was displayed through their teaching, hanging with family, food and fun! I am so grateful to learn from and pass on all that I have gotten from Beautiful Feet Books!! –Lisa S.
I felt privileged to be part of such a sweet time of sharing our lives together as a group of women, mothers and teachers. Everyone brought something truly unique to the group dynamics and I believe all of us went away inspired and empowered to continue building the lives of our students, children, and grandchildren as we seek to implement CM’s core belief that true education is about life!
Remember that the Great Homeschool Convention in Ontario, California, is just 2 months away! I will be speaking there on three topics: Early American History through Literature, Classic Literature for Little Folks, and Charlotte Mason Meets Plato: Restoring the Joy of Education in the Home. Remember that any registration through the above link, Beautiful Feet Books will make a $5 donation to the Patty Pollatos Fund. Thank you so much for your support!
All photos compliments of Lisa Sulewski Photography. All rights reserved. Thank you, Lisa!
Part V. Charlotte Mason and Susan Schaeffer Macaulay: Mentors of the Modern Home Schooling Movement
The year 2014 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Susan Schaeffer Macaulay’s book . Neophytes to home education back in the early 1980s (as most of us were) found in Macaulay’s book a call to a model of education that resonated with something deep in the human heart—something most of us had only inklings of. Macaulay was the first voice to articulate the teachings of Charlotte Mason in a way that was challenging, inspiring, and reflected many abstract thoughts circulating about education but not yet formed into a cohesive paradigm. Over thirty years later, Macaulay’s work is visible in nearly every quarter of the homeschooling world, where the legacy of Charlotte Mason is seen in countless ways.
The year 2014 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Susan Schaeffer Macaulay’s book For the Children’s Sake: Foundations of Education for the Home and School. Neophytes to home education back in the early 1980s (as most of us were) found in Macaulay’s book a call to a model of education that resonated with something deep in the human heart—something most of us had only inklings of. Macaulay was the first voice to articulate the teachings of Charlotte Mason in a way that was challenging, inspiring, and reflected many abstract thoughts circulating about education but not yet formed into a cohesive paradigm. Over thirty years later, Macaulay’s work is visible in nearly every quarter of the homeschooling world, where the legacy of Charlotte Mason is seen in countless ways.
Intrinsic Value of the Child as an Individual
How did the work of Charlotte Mason, as revitalized by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, shape the grassroots home education movement as it emerged in the early 1980s? While their vision and impact is difficult to quantify, I think there were three very distinct ways in which these two women impacted the education of hundreds of thousands of young children and by extension their parents. The first was a call to a sense of the intrinsic value of the child as an individual. Mason stated that “children are born persons” and challenged parents and teachers to really get to know, study, and respect the children God has put into their lives.1 Elaborating on this point, Macaulay noted that “Charlotte Mason not only said she treasured the minds of children, but she acted upon that belief, [she] enjoyed sharing the good things of life with the eager minds of children. She dealt with them on an eye-to-eye level . . . delighting in introducing them to all aspects of reality with a positive joy. She delighted in their separate individuality.”2 I remember distinctly how these thoughts impressed me—a busy young mother with four little ones under six. Never having seen this kind of parenting modeled growing up (where the motto was “children should be seen and not heard”), I hung on every word and labored to implement delight and joy into mothering and educating my four. As I learned to see my little ones with an eye to their individual gifts and intrinsic uniqueness, Mason and Macaulay taught me how to love my children better and how to relish the gift of life expressed through each of them. When Macaulay pleaded: “Where are the friends and lovers of children? Who will open up the wonderful windows into the whole of reality and let their capable minds be stimulated?”3 I knew that I was the one to do that for my children. Mason and Macaulay gave me a vision of nurturing motherhood that was fresh, challenging, and consistent with a Biblical worldview. It required energy, passion, intelligence, and devotion, but promised the gratification and satisfaction of exploring the wonder and beauty of God’s world alongside my children. We would become fellow pilgrims journeying together in a great adventure of learning.
Based upon the foundation of the intrinsic value of the child, Mason and Macaulay demonstrate how to provide children with a rich adventure in learning. That was the “twaddle-free” course of study.4This phrase, coined by Mason, reflected a course of study free of textbooks and workbooks–both women lamented what they viewed as the watered down, uninspired, pedantic nature of so much that passes as educational curriculum. The very nature of institutionalized education spawned the birth of curriculum designed to keep classes of children engaged eight hours a day. Macaulay decries this approach to education, noting
. . . how colorfully and scientifically our generation talks down to the little child! What insipid, stupid, dull stories are trotted out! And we don’t stop there. We don’t respect the children’s thinking or let them come to any conclusions themselves! We ply them with endless questions, the ones we’ve thought up, instead of being silent and letting the child’s questions bubble up with interest. We tire them with workbooks that would squeeze out the last drop of anybody’s patience. We remove interesting books and squander time on ‘reading skill testing,’ using idiotic isolated paragraphs which no one would dream of taking home to read.5
Ruth Beechick, in her book You Can Teach Your Child Successfully, echoed this notion by pointing out that presenting our students with information that is “pre-digested, pre-thought, pre-analyzed, and pre-synthesized . . . depriv[es] children of the joy of original thought.”6 The cultural critic Neil Postman, who was most popularly known for his book titled Amusing Ourselves to Death, suggested in his book, The End of Education, that often knowledge is presented as the accumulation of facts, dates, times, places—trivializing the pursuit of knowledge to the extent that “there is no sense of the frailty or ambiguity of human judgment, no hint of the possibilities of error. Knowledge is presented as a commodity to be acquired, never as a human struggle to understand, to overcome falsity, to stumble toward truth.”7 Sadly, in the current trend toward academic efficiency there is often a neglect of works of quality and enduring value for the “convenience” of books that contain neither literary beauty nor status in the world of children’s canonical literature.
What Charlotte Mason insisted upon rather than “twaddle” was a course of instruction rich in classical, historical, and biographical literature. Young children should have a diet full of folk and fairy tales, oversized picture books beautifully illustrated, Bible stories and tales of talking animals. Even Shakespeare could be introduced to young children of third grade in a book such as Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. Literature should never speak down to children, but rather should engage them intelligently and respectfully. The best books for children do this naturally.
Embrace the child’s tender years
What has become an oft-repeated tale in the current trend of academic rigor is a neglect of the tremendous wealth of young children’s literature. At a recent speaking engagement I was dismayed to hear from numerous parents of young children who knew nothing of the above authors, not to mention Charlotte Mason. Following an educational trend, they were missing one of the greatest joys of parenting—the vast treasury of glorious children’s books! The beauty of Mason’s philosophy was the freedom she allowed parents and teachers to embrace the child in their tender years with literature suitable for innocent minds and hearts. Rather than imposing education from without—following a pre-determined scope and sequence set by others—Mason trained us to see education as a matter of the spirit. The world of knowledge is brought to the child through gradually expanding circles of understanding. In other words, the simplest fairy tales, folktales and picture books for the young one, then stories of our country for the primary child—and gradually moving on to the stories of other lands and places as they mature in understanding and scope. As we explore the beauty and wonder of God’s world with the child, we nurture the spirit, validate the individuality of each young person, and respect the unique gift that every child is.
An unlimited treasury of rich children’s books
From the moment a child enters the primary grades, the choices for a course of study rich in historical, biographical, and classical literature are unlimited. No young child should grow up without the wonderful works of award-winning authors like Meindert de Jong, James Daugherty, Arnold Lobel, Ruth Krauss, Alice Dalgliesh, Robert McCloskey, Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire, William Steig, Virginia Lee Burton, Beatrix Potter, A. A. Milne, Brinton Turkle, Marguerite Henry, Munro Leaf, Marguerite de Angeli, and many others. In my view, Mason’s and Macaulay’s promotion of “twaddle-free” curriculum was their second most salient contribution and one that birthed an entire industry of rich literature-based programs.
Stories that make for wonder . . .
Two decades ago, those who implemented Mason’s paradigm discovered wonderful benefits in family life. Since most of us were products of traditional classrooms where textbooks comprised the bulk of our education, the opportunity to immerse ourselves and our students in a world rich with literature afforded us an opportunity that enhanced our personal lives dramatically. We became passionate about literature; we read books we had always wanted to read; we journeyed to other times and places in our imagination; we walked in the footsteps of others and understood better their joys, sorrows, and triumphs. In the process of doing all of this our hearts were enlarged, our relationships with our children were strengthened, and we learned empathy and compassion for others. C. S. Lewis referred to this process as the “baptism of the imagination”—an apprehension of that which is pure, true, and beautiful, and ultimately holy.8 Ruth Sawyer, the children’s author and critic, said the best children’s works are
. . . stories that make for wonder. Stories that make for laughter. Stories that stir within, with an understanding of the true nature of courage, of love, of beauty. Stories that make one tingle with high adventure, with daring, with grim determination, with the capacity of seeing danger through to the end. Stories that bring our minds to kneel in reverence; stories that show the tenderness of true mercy, the strength of loyalty, the unmawkish respect for what is good.9
The ability of great stories to speak to the human heart is a powerful tool in our parental tool chest. The added beauty of reading aloud together with our children is that the books we read often have incredibly valuable lessons to teach us as well. As our children watch us respond to the characters, events, and lessons we see in literature, they learn appropriate responses to all the vagaries of human life.
The Gift of Play
Finally, Charlotte Mason and Susan Macaulay emphasized the profound importance of play in a young child’s life. When a child is nurtured and fed upon the best books, the natural outcome is a rich imaginative life. From the treasures of imagination comes the delight of play—free, unstructured, play-acting of the stories lining the shelves of the mind. The importance of this cannot be overstated. In our hurry-scurry world it is often free play that gets pushed out of the schedule in our endless shuttle to soccer games, violin lessons, church choir, youth group, gymnastics, ballet, etc. etc. Added to that, even the home schooled child may have play squeezed out in pursuit of academic excellence. Pity the childhood sacrificed on the altars of scholastic achievement. Of this pitfall Mason warns:
There is a danger in these days of much educational effort that children’s play should be crowded out [or what is the same thing] should be prescribed for and arranged until there is no more freedom of choice about play than about work. We do not say a word against the educational value of games (such as football, basketball, etc.) . . . but organized games are not play in the sense we have in view. Boys and girls must have time to invent episodes, carry on adventures, live heroic lives, lay sieges and carry forts, even if the fortress be an old armchair; and in these affairs the elders must neither meddle nor make.10
The rapidity with which children can pick up and play, anywhere and everywhere, is a testament to this wonderful God-given impulse in human nature. I have often been distracted from my homeschooling lessons by an important phone call, an email message, or an unexpected visitor. In every case my children disappear from their “assignments” and can be found donning dress-up clothes, building Playmobil cities, or dancing across the kitchen floor. While in former times I found this irritating, I now understand how wonderful it is. Play’s caprice is something we ought to delight in and embrace. It is a fruit of children who are loved in their homes, nurtured by a steady diet of rich literature, and secure in the love of their family and their God. It is a reflection of the God who made us for His pleasure–a God who delights in bestowing joy.
The teachings of Charlotte Mason, brought to a new generation by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, are truths that stand the test of time and bear sweet fruit. Nurturing our children’s individuality, providing them a twaddle-free curriculum, and allowing them the gift of play, are as peaceable and easy to entreat as they are simple and sensible. Thirty years after their clarion call was sounded, their reverberations continue to ring true with all who are childlike at heart.
Attention all California friends! Be sure to sign up soon for the Great Homeschool Convention June 12-14 in Ontario, California. Remember that if you sign up through Beautiful Feet Books here, BFB will donate $5 to the Brent Blickenstaff fund to help the family through this present crisis. In my next post I will present a synopsis of the three sessions I’ll be presenting at GHC, so be sure to watch for that. The three sessions include: Charlotte Mason Meets Plato: Restoring the Joy of Education in Your Home, American History Through Literature, and Character Through Literature. Looking forward to seeing you there!
In Part IV of our series BFB Fundamentals, we are exploring the question of whether or not Beautiful Feet Books is classical in nature. As we noted in the previous post, until the definition of classical is clarified, the question can become one of semantics and may lead to simplistic conclusions. Because classical is currently the homeschool paradigm de jour, examining some of its well-accepted tenets should prove helpful as you determine which path is right for you and the students you serve.
What does contemporary classical homeschooling mean?
Classical education as a home schooling model first became popular as the 20th century gave way to the 21st and has remained so since. For those of us who began home schooling in the 1980s, classical education was the new kid on the block. As with any fad, it swept many in its wake and provided some folks with solutions to the failing standards they saw in public education as well as in the more relaxed homeschooling model. Its emphasis on a rigorous academic approach seemed to guarantee the creation of scholars who would take positions of leadership in law, medicine, government and so forth. This would be achieved through implementing the trivium as we noted in our previous post.
Stage One: The Grammar Stage
Modern classical proponents ascribe to the notion that learning takes place in three distinct 4-year phases of a student’s life. While these phases may seem to correlate to the physical and intellectual development of the child, the bland acceptance of them can prove problematic. In the grammar stage of the classical approach (also known as the poll-parrot stage), emphasis is placed on pouring into the student facts (indeed “masses of information”-as one promoter put it) as children are supposedly sponges ready and willing to soak up facts of every kind, and can easily memorize these facts. Theoretically, later on, in the logic stage, these facts will be drawn upon as the child begins to reason. While this approach fits some students well, especially those gifted in memorization, other students, particularly those not gifted with the ability to retain masses of disparate facts, flounder. The focus on pouring information into a young child is based on the notion that in the grammar stage children will unquestioningly accept what is offered.
But is this 4-year cycle based upon a truly classical approach to education? Did the ancients view education through this 12-year paradigm to which modern classical proponents ascribe? As Diane Lockman points out in her helpful article “Classical Education Made Easier“, the ancient Greeks did not separate the grammar, logic, and rhetoric stages. Students became proficient in reading, reasoning and speaking as they studied the classic texts of Greek literature with an emphasis on copy work and reading and reciting aloud.
An authentic classical Christian education, as developed during the ancient Greco-Roman world and later refined by the Western Europeans and American colonists, involved mastering three fundamental skills so that the student could then explore the deeper meaning of abstract ideas for the purpose of influencing society. Three chronological stages were never part of the original interpretation.
The Charlotte Mason approach asserts that all children, regardless of age, are capable of reason, delight, appreciation of beauty, and that “Education should aim at giving knowledge touched with emotion” (For the Children’s Sake). Pouring information into a child for the mere goal of “filling the brain with facts” defies the essential nature of classical education–the desire to teach children to think. True education cannot ignore the spirit of the child, his basic need to feel connected in some way to the studies at hand. At Beautiful Feet we believe this is done through literature’s emotional connection–the ability to identify with others through the power of stories of literary beauty and historical import. A quick narrative read of historical facts (standard fare in most classical approaches) that offers no literary beauty and no connection to the great questions of the human condition, fails to meet the standards of a truly classical education.
Begin at the beginning: the four-year cycle of history study?
Additionally, the current classical notion that history studies must begin at the beginning (with ancient history in first grade) is another layer of artificial construction upon an already artificial 12-year model. Classical education’s promotion of a four-year cycle of history instruction seems reasonable and the repetition (“what we don’t get the first time around, we’ll be sure to pick up next time!”) provides reassurance. While the four-year cycle approach does provide that revisiting, it doesn’t consider the question of age and developmental appropriateness for subject matter. This concern is dismissed by promoting the notion that while studying ancient history with your first grader, one can just focus on mummification, gladiators, and chariot races; in effect this belies the basic notion that ancient history can be taught to a first grader. The resultant “classical” studies are cultural in nature, not historical. Indeed, Oxford Reference defines history as “the study of past events, particularly in human affairs”–the study of history necessitates the focus on events.
History, taught classically . . .
So how does one approach historical studies with a truly classical view to nurturing in young students reading, reasoning, and speaking skills? In essence, this can be accomplished in much the same way as the ancient Greeks did it–by exposing children to the best age-appropriate literature which is relevant to their times and culture. For a young American child this means the best children’s books on the early saga of America’s great story, much as the Greeks read Homer and studied Plato–the stories of their ancestors, the history of their nation. A child gifted with the knowledge and appreciation of his own historical heritage better understands his or her place in the world and from that foundation can embrace the beauty and the heritage of other nations and cultures.
So, how does this answer our question, “Is Beautiful Feet Books classical?” If one looks at some contemporary notions of classical, then the answer would be, “No.” On the other hand, if one perceives classical as incorporating Socratic reasoning and discussion, engaging with timeless literature (age appropriate), eschewing the use of textbooks and bland narrative works, and involving students in the Great Conversation about the important issues of the human heart, then yes, Beautiful Feet Books is classical.
History is the essence of innumerable biographies. –Thomas Carlyle
Why Teach History through Literature? by Rea Berg
In our first installment of this series, we looked at the importance of the study of history. When we consider the question of how history ought to be taught and why we would consider teaching history through literature, there are some interesting points to bear in mind: 1. How has history been taught through the ages? 2. Why use literature to teach history? 3. Why is the use of literature the most effective way to learn history?
How has history been taught through the ages?
In the nineteenth century, with the dawn of compulsory education in America, schools were forced to begin to standardize what should be taught to all these children sitting eight hours a day at their obligatory desks. Because the dawn of compulsory education coincided with industrialization and with a massive influx of immigrants, educators felt motivated, from a sometimes elitist mindset, to educate the masses for the purposes of creating a literate work force. Presented with the challenge of getting all these children from varying backgrounds on the same educational “page”, it is easy to see how the textbook naturally evolved. Certain events, personages, significant battles and historical milestones were deemed essential knowledge for the creation of good citizens and a stable workforce. These “facts” were compiled into disseminated formats stripped of the narrative elements of story, resulting in dry works of little human interest and no literary value.
Standardizing the teaching of history spelled the death knell for creating any love of history in that rising generation of new Americans. It also flew in the face of how history was taught for centuries. From ancient times forward students studied history by reading history. In other words, if a student say, in the Middle Ages, was studying history he read the works of Herodotus, Thucydides, Eusebius, Plutarch and Josephus. Of course, if you were a young French boy studying in a monastic school in Paris, reading these works meant learning Greek, Latin, and in some cases Hebrew, for ancient histories were not translated into vernacular languages until the late 1200s. In some instances, it would be centuries before these ancient classic texts appeared in English. An English schoolboy in London, would not have had Plutarch’s Parallel Lives in English until the late 1500s. This is one reason why a classical education was always inextricably linked with the study of Latin and Greek.
Why use literature to teach history?
Our ancient young predecessors, sitting by candlelight or lamplight, reading history, actually read history through literature. There simply was no other way to study history–which brings us to our second point. History has effectively been taught through literature since ancient times. Only just the last century or so has this vibrant subject been robbed of its human connection by the ubiquitous textbook. As Neil Postman urges in his book, The End of Education, those who desire to improve teaching ought to get rid of all textbooks which, in his opinion are “the enemies of education, instruments for promoting dogmatism and trivial learning” (116). Exchanging literature–biographies, classical works, even historical fiction, for the history textbook not only restores this discipline to its historic roots, but also reinvigorates it with its inherent passion, human interest, and wonder. A middle-grade child reading Johnny Tremain for her studies of the American Revolution will learn far more about the essence of that struggle than even the most colorful textbook could ever impart.
Why is the use of literature the most effective way to teach history?
Literature, as defined by the Oxford reference is “written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit.” Now, I’m not sure about you, but I have yet to hear of a single history textbook to win a Pulitzer or a Nobel prize for Literature. Written works achieve the status of literary merit by their ability to speak to the human condition and the experiences, trials, and aspirations of the human heart. In this way, the best works draw the reader into the drama of the story and through the emotions open the mind. David McCullough, Pulitzer prize-winner for his work John Adams, affirms that the most effective way to teach history is to “tell stories.”
That’s what history is: a story. And what’s a story? E. M. Forster gave a wonderful definition to it: If I say to you the king died and then the queen died, that’s a sequence of events. If I say the king died and the queen died of grief, that’s a story. That’s human. That calls for empathy on the part of the teller of the story and . . . the listener to the story. (“Knowing History”)
The notion of emotion and empathy as a critical component of history’s ability to speak to the human heart, was promoted by Charlotte Mason, the 19th century educational reformer. She advocated the use of “living books”–literature, history, biography—”to open limitless avenues of discovery in a child’s mind”. She taught that all, “Education should aim at giving knowledge touched with emotion” (For the Children’s Sake). It is the connection between the human heart, mind, and will, that makes the study of history so enjoyable and memorable to those fortunate to study it through the best books. As a wonderful by-product, students brought up on an educational curriculum rich in the best literature often become compassionate, engaged, and thoughtful adults–the best possible educational outcome.
“Knowing History and Who We Are.” David McCullough. Imprimis. Hillsdale, MI: Hillsdale College. April 2005.
Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, For the Children’s Sake: Foundations of Education for Home and School, Wheaton, IL: Crossway
On Saturday, my husband and I had the unique experience of attending a two-man play–Freud’s Last Session, based upon a hypothetical meeting between Sigmund Freud–considered the father of psychoanalysis, and C. S. Lewis–the twentieth century atheist turned Christian apologist and theologian. While it is unlikely these two great intellectuals ever actually met, their writings and philosophies continue to have a profound impact upon modern thought and culture. Having an opportunity to see them interact in an amiable battle of divergent philosophies was fascinating and thought-provoking.
The playwright Mark St. Germain, was inspired to write the play after hearing Dr. Armand M. Nicoli, Jr.–the author of The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life, speak at a Socrates in the City event in New York City. That talk inspired the playwright to imagine what an actual dialogue between these two great minds might have looked like, especially set against the world-changing events that provide the backdrop of the play.
St. Germain has set the play in London just on the cusp of World War II, where Hitler’s madness has driven the ailing Freud–now exiled from his beloved Vienna. The historical record states that during his sojourn there and just three weeks before his death, Freud invited an Oxford don to visit him at his home in London. The identity of that don is unknown, but the serendipitous nature of these confluences (Freud being in London, Lewis in Oxford, and the impending declaration of war), make for great literary (albeit fictional) possibility. And St. Germain uses the possibilities fully. Lewis and Freud debate the great questions of life and death in a way that reveals the intellectual prowess, penetrating wit, and hard-won positions of these men. In the Santa Monica performance, which just premiered on January 11, 2013, Tom Cavanagh plays C.S. Lewis. Cavanagh doesn’t seem to have quite settled into his role as the Oxford professor, and his assumed British accent was at times too affected to project clearly to the audience. Judd Hirsch did a brilliant job portraying Freud, and despite his cantankerous, cynical and curmudgeonly nature, his character is endearing and unforgettable.
Throughout the play Freud is regularly turning the radio on and off for updates on Hitler’s invasion of Poland, which occurred on September 1, 1939. One disturbing tidbit of broadcast informs BBC listeners that 20,000 Poles have died since the start of the Fuhrer’s invasion, and for a moment both Lewis and Freud sit silently pondering this staggering news. Details like this, woven into the fabric of a debate on the meaning of life and death, make for a fitting backdrop.
Freud is ill when Lewis visits him, and is in the terminal stages of oral cancer–an extremely painful, debilitating condition. As the audience, we don’t learn until later how close Freud is to his death, but he candidly shares with Lewis that he has arranged with his physician to end his life soon. He will not tolerate much longer his intolerable condition. He has suffered countless operations, the removal of his palate, most of his jaw and is forced to wear an ill-fitting oral prosthesis that he calls “the monster.” These details make Freud’s sharp and cynical spars against the existence of God, more wrenching, more poignant. Later, Lewis helps Freud remove his oral prosthesis which is giving him excruciating pain. In the pathos of that moment, pain becomes the great equalizer. The men are humbled and both are silenced by pain. Freud’s pain, alienation, and impending death becomes a metaphor for the pain, alienation, and impending death of a world about to enter the tragedy of World War II.
After the play, Eric Metaxes, the author of the brilliant Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, and founder of Socrates in the City, moderated a lively discussion between the playwright, the actors and the producer. It was wonderful to see Eric again after a number of years, (we had met at a C.S. Lewis event in Oxford) and he helped introduce us to a bit of the background story of the play. I would encourage anyone in the Los Angeles area to make a point to see this work while it is on the West Coast! This would definitely be something to take your high school students to as well! You can find ticket information here.
Rea Berg is passionate about children's books and has been republishing classic and historical children's literature for the last 30 years through her company Beautiful Feet Books. She also designs guides for teaching elementary and secondary students history using award-winning classic and historic literature. She holds both an undergraduate degree in English from Simmons College, Boston as well as a graduate degree in children's literature.