Jack Hrkach

Professor Emeritus, Theatre Arts


A Sabbatic Report: Spring 2006

Sabbatic Report -- Spring 2006

Jack Hrkach 

The spring portion of my sabbatic was in many ways nearly as fine as the first semester. It was, however, influenced and truncated a good bit by my mother’s increasing weakness and ultimately, her death, from pancreatic cancer. I had the opportunity to be with her as her major caregiver until hospice took over, but alas I was not able to do as much academically on this portion of my sabbatic as I had proposed.

I had been granted $2400 in IDF funds to explore portions of Europe I had not yet seen, in order to enhance my Theatre History and Contemporary Developments classes. To that end I had minutely planned two month-long journeys in Europe. For my first trip, in January to the south, Southern Italy and Greece, all hotels were booked, the Eurail pass was bought, and I was very excited to go. Then, two days before Christmas and still in London I learned that my mother’s chemotherapy had failed, that she had rejected more treatments, and that she would have only a short time to live. I canceled part one of my sabbatic plan and dashed back to Florida. My experience with pancreatic cancer (sadly, two recent cases in Ithaca, and one of those from Phil Tavelli  of Ithaca College) was that it raged through a person, and was a very quick killer. My mother lasted longer than I expected, so that instead of a postponement of my first trip, it was not able to happen.

Instead I planned on my own dime (well, considerably more than that!) a trip to the carnival at Venice, one of the most theatrical times to be in an already highly theatrical city. Again, the hotel was booked, my flight paid for, but shortly before that trip mom’s condition worsened significantly and again I cancelled.

I realized that while mom lingered on, weakening daily, I might not be able to fulfill any of my IDF plan, so I talked to others in my family who agreed that I must take one month in Europe in any case. So I booked a second trip to Southern Italy and also to the Scandinavian countries that were to be the focus of my second month trip.  Again the hotels were booked, I had extended my Eurail Pass and re-booked a flight (with considerable financial penalties).  And once again, my mother’s condition plummeted a few days before I left. I am convinced that this was to a point psychological, as she panicked knowing that I would no longer be with her. The family and I decided that no matter what, I must take this second trip, but that I would stay in close touch (ah, the joys of internet cafes!) and would be ready to dash back if necessary. I took mom to her oncologist the day before I left, and when he saw her diminished condition he called in the hospice. This was the best thing that could have happened, both for mom’s sake (she would get excellent care) and for mine (the three months with her had created a subtle but deep depression in me, and I needed for myself as well as for my IDF grant to take this trip!), and on 18 April I flew from Orlando FL to Rome Italy, from which I took a fast train to Naples.

Naples is a very important theatrical city in Italy. Not only is Naples the home to the clever and sometimes nasty servant of the commedia dell’arte, Pulcinella (forebear of Punch of the Punch and Judy shows -- I purchased a mask for use in theatre history), but also the Teatro San Carlo was the first important opera house to be built in Italy after the earliest public auditoriums in Venice, and well before La Scala. I was able to take a guided tour and to photograph that theatre, and also found a beautiful tiny 18th century court theatre in the Palazzo Reale, only a few steps away from the San Carlo, in which I also took several excellent photographs for theatre history. I did not see any modern Italian plays while there, though since the 1950s Naples has been the home to excellent Italian playwriting (Edoardo de Filippo the best of these). I know some Italian, but the Neopolitan dialect is notoriously difficult, and it is in this dialect that the plays were written.

I was however only a short distance from both Pompeii and Herculaneum. These two cities, along with Naples, were part of my original IDF proposal, and I came away from each (I did them on two separate days, to give myself plenty of time) with more excellent photos for history. Of course those slides (now all on powerpoint) will become the property of the department when I retire, so the department and school benefit greatly from these efforts.

My next planned stop was Bologna, for only a few days. Certainly there is a famous theatre in that city as well, the Teatro Communale, and to continue the commedia motif, Bologna is the home of Dottore, one of the famous “blocking” characters in that genre, usually a medical doctor who is a quack or a professor who babbles incoherently in atrocious Latin – in other words, a character very like myself!  Of course Bologna is also home to the earliest university in Europe, which makes it interesting to me. That the food was outrageously fine is only incidental. And in fact it was meant merely to be a jumping off place for my visit to Scandinavia.

As soon as I arrived in Bologna, however I received an e-mail from my brother, who wrote that mom had fallen and was now on oxygen in a hospital bed set up in her living room, unable to get up and weakening rapidly. He insisted that I need not return, and in fact I didn’t, but I had already used up a lot of money (far beyond the value of the IDF grant). My return flight was from Rome as well, and I made the near instant decision to change my plan. I cancelled all my hotels in Scandinavia and remained in Italy, primarily to be able to get back to Rome and fly out if necessary, using the ticket I had already in hand (after of course another penalty fee).

I was greatly disappointed, as I had planned to visit places I’d not yet seen in order to develop my history and contemporary developments classes, but I made the most of the rest of the trip, visiting cities in Italy I’d not yet seen that had interesting contemporary theatre or that were of historical interest theatrically.  These places included Lucca, home to the great opera composer Puccini, and Bergamo, home to the clever servant Arlecchino, aka Harlequin (yes, that commedia motif again). The Puccini museum in Lucca was closed for reconstruction, but I was able to see a performance of arias from some of his most famous works, and to photograph the Teatro Giglio, where many of his operas were and are performed.

I also returned to Milano, where I had been towards the end of my 1999 sabbatic.  While I was unable to get a ticket for Manon at La Scala (I had paid 90 Euros for a great seat in La Scala for my January trip, but of course that ticket was never used) I did get to see a good bit of the auditorium and a special exhibit on Mozart at La Scala in its excellent Museo Teatrale, re-vamped considerably since my last visit.  But the theatrical highlight of my Milano adventure was to see a play at the fabled Teatro Piccolo di Milano. This theatre is one of the most important in Europe, and welcomes productions from other famous theatres as well. I was lucky enough to be in Milano when Lev Dodin’s troupe from the Maly Theatre in St Petersburg Russia was there, presenting King Lear -- in Russian, of course, but with Italian supertitles. My Russian is better than my Italian, but neither is proficient enough for Shakespeare. Fortunately I have taught the play on several occasions, and know it very well, so the excellent production values shone through. This evening will inform not only my history course, but also contemporary developments, as Dodin is a world class director, and to repeat, the Piccolo is a theatre I talk about in both courses, and from now on with a good bit more authority.

I also re-visited Florence, staying in a hotel very near the station from which I could make day trips. But as luck would have it, there was a an excellent production of Verdi’s Falstaff (based on Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor) playing at the Maggio Musicale, and I got a great seat for a great deal of money!  Ruggiero Raimondi played the title role (though the women were even better than he) and Zubin Mehta conducted. The stage director of the piece was legendary Italian director Luca Ronconi, another director I mention in history and speak of in more detail in contemporary developments, and while it was foolishly updated (Bardolfo as a sort of over-the-hill punkster – if you’ve ever been to Windsor you’ll know that the city retains a beautiful Tudor character, so thank god they didn’t muck as much with the sets as with the costumes) it was very well sung and quite enjoyable as well as instructive.

These are only the highlights of an excellent month. I could have regaled you about the heavenly seafood mixed grill I had at Da Giorgio on Capri (no theatres there that I could see, or cared to!) or the excellent tortelloni in Bologna...And I couod have gone on and on about Cinque Terre, Portofino and Lake Come, but I'll stick with theatre this time! Italy is so filled with theatrical history and contemporary dramatic movements that I could learn even more from yet another month there, so the time was hardly wasted.

I had lit candles for mom in every Italian church I visited. When I returned home my mother was barely able to speak. Indeed, one of the hospice nurses said that she was convinced it was only my return for which mom was waiting. And indeed she passed away, as peacefully as possible under the circumstances, in less than two weeks after my return. In her last 24 hours she was actually at a Hospice house, and they made it as easy on her as possible. I was with her for an hour and a half on the morning she died. Indeed, I sensed that it would be then, and left her because I did not want to be the one to see her last breath.

Partly to fulfill my IDF obligations, and partly because the best therapy for me is travel, I am taking myself (again on my own dime – if only it was a mere dime) back to England in July. Once every four years in the beautiful cathedral town of York, the famous medieval mystery plays are re-enacted by the townsfolk. I have never seen these, and it is just my luck that I was able to book a flight and even the same small hotel I had stayed in this fall, when I videotaped the Theatre Royal in York, for the plays on 9 July. I have bought my seat, and look forward greatly to finally seeing this great event in the history of western theatre. I will also spend a few days in London, where among other theatrical treats, Tim Kidd of ICLC has arranged for him and me to see a platform reading at the Royal National Theatre of an obscure but historically interesting play by Richard Brinsley Sheridan called Pizarro. An early 19th century melodrama, it began as a vehicle for John Philip Kemble, but remained on the boards as a vehicle for lesser stars through much of the century, including those touring the hinterlands of New York State, and yes, even Ithaca. More juicy stuff for theatre history!

While it wasn’t what I had specifically planned, the sabbatic was quite a success. As more than one good friend pointed out to me, “Greece isn’t going away, Jack, and you will never regret, indeed will always treasure, this time with your mother.”  I hope next summer to visit Greece, and the following summer to visit Scandinavia, with the object of getting to what I missed during this sabbatic. But, what a year it was!