I’m still adjusting to the once-a-week, three-hour-long format that most of my classes follow. Although it is incredibly difficult to pay attention for three hours straight, it’s impressive how much can happen within one class period. (To be fair, we usually get a 5- or 10-minute break mid-way through.) Here’s what I did this week:
British Art & Architecture
We took a fieldtrip to Sir John Soane's Museum, one of the cookiest and creepiest museums in London. Created in the early 1800s by a rather eccentric architect, the museum is full of bits and pieces of history, all hung helter-skelter on the walls of Sir Soane’s old house. Roman ruins, Grecian urns, and an Egyptian sarcophagus crowd the main room. (For a great virtual reality tour of the room, click here.)
The basement “crypt” of the house is dark and eerie, home to masses more artifacts, as well as the tombstones of his wife and son. It's the perfect place to shoot an intellectual horror film. From the staircase, you can see a skeleton hanging in an inaccessible room. In fact, the skeleton is composed of the bones of various bodies, both male and female. It was used by artists for sketching.
Because Soane conceived of the museum as a place to study classical art, rather than classical history, there are no descriptive labels on the items. Everything is out of context. The safe, sanitary, museum-y feel is also missing; it’s more like you just stumbled into the house of an eccentric old man. And in a way, that’s exactly what we did do. Thank God we made it out alive.
British Life & Culture
For the first time in three weeks, we had class in a classroom this week. We talked about the British class system and how it has manifested itself in the education system. We talked about George Orwell. We talked about Virginia Woolf. We talked about The Three Guineas. We talked about war, peace, and imperialism. We talked about feminism. We talked about the Victorian ideal of marriage and compared it with serial monogamy and open marriages. We even talked about the sex lives and dalliances among the Bloomsbury Group of writers and intellectuals. (They were famed for “living in squares and loving in triangles.”) At the end of class, the whiteboard was covered in words that seemed completely unrelated -- because they largely were.
It is absolutely remarkable how deep and broad a conversation can be had in three hours! My entire understanding of British culture was revolutionized within one class period. After class I visited the National Portrait Gallery, where I searched out portraits of and by members of the Bloomsbury group. (I should mention now that I live in the Bloomsbury area of London, so the history of those intellectuals feels especially relevant.) Victoria Bell’s painting of her sister Virginia Woolf was much more meaningful than it had been before. Likewise, looking at portraits of Lytton Strachey felt like looking at a friend, like being in on a secret.
We took our second and final trip to the Globe Theatre, Tuesday. Their production of Love’s Labor’s Lost was impressively enthusiastic, but the dialogue remained largely inaccessible because of the number of funny references that have since lost their meaning. Would you understand jokes about prickets and sores and sorrels? I thought not.
Nevertheless, the actors were very enthusiastic – an impressive feat when you know your audience doesn’t understand most of what you’re saying. One poor actor had broken his foot the week before, and he hopped around the stage with the assistance of “Elizabethan-era NHS-issued crutches.” Ha!
The next day, during our actual class period, we analyzed the play and the production. And then we spent an hour and a half on Macbeth! Did you know that "weird" is a Scottish word for "fate"? Did you know that Guy Fawkes's name was really Guido? Did you know that British tobacconists sell fireworks during October? Did you know that the celebration of Guy Fawkes Night (November 5th) is facing increasing competition from Halloween (October 31)?
In addition to being absolutely full of trivia, our professor, Gene, is brutally honest. "Don't bother reading the scene where Heccat starts a song and dance," she told us yesterday. "Shakespeare didn't write it, and no one performs it on stage, but they put it in all the books because it was in the First Folio." Well, then. You don't have to tell me twice!
By the end of most classes, I have a headache and pages full of notes. Although this class format is not for the antsy or the easily distracted, the amount we accomplish in one class period is remarkable! In comparison, Dr. Oudekerk's 105-minute Views of the U.S. class seems to whiz by. I laugh to remember the days when Hendrix's 75-minute Tuesday-Thursday classes seemed interminably long.