A Sabbatic Report: London, Fall 2005
During the fall semester 2005 I realized one of my wildest dreams: to spend more than a mere short vacation in London, England. Each semester a lucky teacher from Ithaca College is provided a house in south London (Collier's Wood) in exchange for teaching a course at the Ithaca College London Center and chaperoning group trips run by the center.
The excellent leader of the London Center, Bill Sheasgreen, along with the fine director of its drama programme, Tim Kidd, gave me advice on what sort of course I should teach. I concocted a seminar called "A Tale of Two Theatrical Cities: Performing Arts and the French Revolution," as I was aware that Tim's knowledge of British theatre dwarfed mine, and as I was eager to take students on a trip to Paris! I used mostly British work as the center of the course, including three novels that had been transformed into plays, musicals, and films: A Tale of Two Cities, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Scaramouche. But I was not shy about including material from other countries about that great historic (and highly dramatic) event, particularly if strong productions had been mounted in England. Primary among these was German writer Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade, which was given a landmark production in the mid-1960s by Peter Brook for the recently formed Royal Shakespeare Company. I also made use of four operas about the revolution, even a Soviet ballet on the subject from the mid-1930s.
The course was offered as a substitute for a department requirement, Senior Seminar, and also as an Honors Seminar. I taught it one day a week, on Thursday mornings, and I think most of my students will agree that it was quite a success. We took advantage of London's cultural riches to see a production of Dialogues of the Carmelites at the English Opera, to tour the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, and to visit the excellent Wallace Collection for its 18th century French Art as well as the Kenwood House for an example of a stately 18th century British country house, in which Sir Percy Blakeney might have lived while concocting his daring plans to rescue French aristocrats disguised as the Scarlet Pimpernel. I also took the students on a walking tour of London that Dickens featured in telling his famous story. The highlight of field trips, however, was our weekend in Paris, where we walked along the route the carts would have taken towards the guillotine, and where we visited the Conciergerie, with Marie Antoinette's cell, and the Carnavalet Museum, which has an outstanding collection of memorabilia about the revolution.
But the course met only one day a week, which meant that I must find something to do on my six-day weekends! Both Bill and Tim were tremendously helpful here, as were my other colleagues from the faculty and staff of the London Center. Bill leads students on excellent and informative walks throughout different neighborhoods in London. I tagged along on as many of those as possible. He also leads out of town tours, and I happily joined in on all of these, which included three trips in and around great Britain. The first included Chepstow Castle in Wales, Glastonbury (resting place of the legendary King Arthur), Bath and Stonehenge. Because we had a partularly large group of theatre students in Fall 2005, I organized tickets to a play at Bath's historic Theatre Royal, to You Never Can Tell, a comedy by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Sir Peter Hall. The second trip took us to Warwick Castle, Stratford-upon-Avon, and Oxford. In this trip Tim Kidd leads a brilliant tour of places Shakespeare lived and frequented, and we see a play at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, this year A Comedy of Errors. Bill had to be away at a conference, so I was asked to chaperone the students solo in Oxford. I called this the "blind leading the blind" tour, as I had never been to that great university city myself. After an initial moment of collective panic, we managed rather nicely, and I lost no one during our afternoon there. The third organized trip was to Dublin. I had never stepped foot in Ireland, so this was most welcome. We visited the infamous Kilmainham Gaol, went on a musical pub crawl, and visited the coastal area near Dublin, including the Joyce Museum and a climb along the coast that featured spectacular views. While in Dublin I could not resist seeing a play at the famous Abbey Theatre, and took about 20 students along with me.
I also took several trips on my own. The prime reason for a few of these trips was to videotape interiors of historic theatres. The first of these trips took me to a charming country town not far from Cambridge called Bury St Edmunds, where it turns out that St Edmund is indeed buried! The Theatre Royal there dates back to 1815, and on a theatre tour I was allowed to video as much of the interior as I wanted. As Bury St Edmunds is only a bit over an hour out of London by train I did this as a day trip, but took the time to have a delicious lunch at the Angel Hotel in that town, and to stroll in its pedestrian zone. My second theatre videotaping was the most exciting for me, as I was able to tape the interior of the only Theatre Royal that still retains its Georgian rectangular shape. This was in Richmond, in the beautiful North Yorkshire countryside. There is a small museum attached to the theatre as well, and the people there went out of their way to give me every assistance. I did the Richmond trip as a day trip out of York, one of the most beautiful cities in England. I spent three days there in October, and liked it so much I took my guests the TenEycks back to it for Thanksgiving. It was on this second trip that I was allowed to tape the interior of York's Theatre Royal, and while it is not as unique as the Georgian theatre in Richmond, it was very much worth it.
Another trip took me to Canterbury, nearly as lovely as York, and easily accessible to London. You could even do it as a day trip, but there is too much to see to limit yourself. This trip was on school business, as the University of Kent, located on a hill high above Canterbury (a bit like Ithaca College over our own town), wants to do a student exchange with us. I spent the better part of a day on that campus, meeting faculty in Theatre, English and American Studies but took two more days to tour the city of Canterbury, and to see a play there at the Marlowe Theatre, named for the famous Elizabethan playwright. I also took a great day trip from Canterbury to Dover. The city is not much, but the white cliffs are everything they are cracked up to be, and the castle at Dover is amazingly well preserved, especially considering that the oldest part of it dates back to the 11th century.
On my way back from my second trip to York, I spent two nights in Cambridge, another city that I've fallen in love with. I enjoyed it more than Oxford, though I did have more time to explore it. I saw a Handel opera at the well-known Cambridge Arts Theatre, had a great chop of pork at Brown's, and sat in the choir of King's College Chapel during Evensong to hear the world-renowned boys' choir. In fact, if you like music and cathedrals, I hightly recommend evensongs. You don't have to pay to get in to the cathedral, as you are going for a service and not as a tourist, and you get a free concert -- I did this at Westminster Abbey in London, at the gorgeous York Minster, and at Canterbury Cathedral, as well as at King's College.
While I didn't get to as much of England as I'd initially planned, I saw some of its finest towns, as well as some lovely countryside. But I didn't limit myself to the U.K. in my travels. Over fall break I visited italy, a country which holds a near fatal attractiion for me. We stayed at Pisa, and visited Florence and Cinque Terre as well. Florence is one of the greatest attractions in Italy, but as I'd been there four or five times, we took only a short visit. Pisa is known for its prime sight, the leaning tower and the Campo dei Miracoli, and the tower, along with the cathedral and baptistry shining white on a field of green, IS stunning. But Pisa is a hip university town, with lots of good places to eat and a great pedestrian zone. Quite wonderful. And of course Cinque Terre is one of most beautiful places in Italy. There's little better than a lunch of pesto and vino bianco sitting outdoors in a restaurant that overlooks the Mediterranean. Bumping into four of my students, totally by accident, in the lovely village of Vernazza was an additional treat.
To conclude my meanderings on trips, as I was going to take students to Paris in November, I was forced to take a practice trip in mid-September. The weather was perfect, and while my first visit to Paris had been less than glorious (on my previous sabbatic in Spring 1999) I really fell in love with the city the second time around. It's a great city to walk in, but I also took a boat tour down the Seine, which was well narrated and really worth the time. On the September trip I also spent the better part of a day at Versailles, where a guided tour included the beautiful court theatre there. And on my second trip, in November, I attended a concert version of an opera in the theatre where Stravinsky's Rite of Spring ballet provoked riots on its opening night. And the food!
This essay is getting a bit long, and I've not even raved about specifics in London. I don't intend to, in fact, as I am realizing as I write that it's a separate essay. I will say that I took several very well-guided walking tours, not only Bill's but trips led by excellent certified London guides. I also explored portions of the city I'd never seen before, took day trips to Greenwich, Richmond and Hampton Court, among other places. And I saw more than 40 plays, musicals operas and ballets, most of which were excellent. This was not only a highlight, it renewed my faith in the theatre.
On that high note, I'll end this essay, but if you're interested, take a look at the new photo gallery of sabbatic pics!