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Dispatches from the present

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The Play’s The Thing

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A masked high-schooler opens his laptop and puts in headphones. The semester is almost over, but it’s his first day in this classroom. There is just one other student in the room; her head is buried in her forearms, face down atop a closed laptop. The first student turns on his camera. In my corner of the room I have only his digital image to look at, to say hello to everyone.

This particular young man is earnest. He’s really trying. Mid-lesson he asks me a question, and as I answer I see him looking off-screen, looking at me in real life. I turn to him in the real room to answer, but he’s already turned back to his laptop. He unmutes his mic and removes his headphones out of habit, asks his question again, and our laptops now both pick up the noise. There is a grating staccato of feedback. Wincing like lab rats who haven’t figured it out, we retreat to our separate digital spaces and interact in the chat. We apologize, to everyone.

It is in this signification nightmare that I decided to forge ahead in twelfth-grade AP English with King Lear. Not assigning it, but staging it in a half-digital half-in-person space. Straddling modes of reality. It worked, I think, though it’s left me feeling a bit like Lear himself in the storm, stumbling into a mock catharsis while pointing importantly at “the thing itself.”

In Lear’s case, the thing itself is Edgar, a noble convincingly disguised as a naked beggar. The image of this seeming beggar, so abject, so real, provokes Lear into tearing off his clothes and running into the deluge. A realization triggered by a lie.

But Edgar was no such beggar. Lear was wrong. And if I’m wrong too, about how our play went, I also don’t know how to know it.

I assigned students roles, and they turned their cameras on or off to indicate being on or offstage. At first a few good sports dressed up in character, mugged the camera during asides and gestured to empty space around them so that our Google Meet looked like the Brady Bunch intro. I dug up an old colleague’s stash of foam swords and swung them in front of the camera. “Scroll to scene one” replaced “turn to scene one” in my teaching vernacular. Deeply caricatured British accents were hazarded, then mocked and celebrated in the chat. Sometimes we pulled it off. We matched a normal year’s stilted goofiness of teenagers confronting Shakespeare for the first time.

But verisimilitude in hybrid digital theater is not easy to come by. Cameras and mics got left on or off at the wrong times. Calls got dropped mid-scene. When students with speaking roles attended in person, my classroom resembled a switchboard operator’s closet—all of us muting and unmuting mics and volume while delivering lines on separate laptops. As initial enthusiasm waned, costumes were abandoned, accents dropped. Lest they merely assume it to be true, I took to verbally assuring them that this was all wrong, or all sideways. If I couldn’t give them the real thing, I needed them to know it.

“Normally, I’d give Cornwall rubber eyeballs to roll across the ground here.” I paused at the exact line as I’ve done for seven years but set the eyeballs down out of frame, in their box. “Normally, we’d stack the bodies in front of the podium.” “Normally, we’d push desks into the corner to make a real hovel.”

“Real hovel.” A real fake hovel, that I was asking digital students to imagine, as if that were the catalyst for authentic comprehension. As if they were being robbed of a real experience of Shakespearean theater by not getting to huddle into a mangled stack of desks and jump into view facetiously, even though in a normal year I’d perpetrate the same translating, allow the facetiousness but say things like, “I love it, but in a real production, here’s what they’d do.”

And then I’d show them footage from a professional production, thinking maybe that doing so would codify our own experience as more significant. That this translation of significance from professional to classroom would lend esteem to our production and in turn lend esteem to me. That my students would tell their younger siblings to take Sloma for AP Lit, because he made Shakespeare sort of fun.

Lear in the storm, steeped in a material and immaterial chaos he cannot parse, achieves a shade of an enlightened moment. That most fraught of Shakespearean epiphanies: seeming truth arrived at on bad evidence. But as I ask my students each year, does that really need to undermine his experience? Perhaps there’s no need to so quickly invalidate just because we have more or different information.

We finished the play. They loved and hated it in normal proportions—or so it seemed.

I too don’t have great evidence. But I do have some evidence. A hybrid digital production of Shakespeare caused a student to type “this is actually so sad” in the chat while we all imagined a father cradling his dead daughter. There were just two students in the room with me. Three total cameras on, and a wall of polka dots. In the chat, this one girl at least was sad.

I want to know the girl who typed that. When I read her reaction to Cordelia’s death in the chat, I couldn’t enjoy it without translating it from the digital to the real in my head. To the real image of a teenager reacting to literature in my classroom. I want it back.

But this is her Lear now. This will always be how she heard this story. The incursions of an overeager teacher trying to shoehorn a different experience into hers won’t change that.

This student is my thing itself, my Edgar in the storm. My proof that we aren’t throwing away a year’s worth of sham experience. Lear was wrong about Edgar, and I may be just as wrong about this girl who I’ve chosen to see wedged in a couch, alone and teary-eyed, another Shakespeare convert I can add to my collection. I don’t know how to know it. She might have just typed her response absently, without the conviction I’m assigning her. And I too might just be the author of my own farce, desperate as I am to wrest something purposeful from this chaos.