Wednesday, December 10, 2008

One small moment in time

When I was in college, I took a lecture course on modern drama. The professor was Robert Chapman. For reasons that had nothing to do with Chapman, the course was not an especially happy experience; and I never got to know Chapman, not being an English major or a student actor and feeling, predictably if perhaps stupidly, that I had no reason to go to his office hours.

One morning about halfway through the course, Chapman strode to the podium and announced, without preface or throat-clearing: "George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House is the greatest play written in English since Shakespeare." Wow, I thought. Nice opening line. Dramatic. Then a student who had actually been keeping up with the reading raised his or her hand and informed the professor that, according to the syllabus, the day's lecture was not supposed to be on Heartbreak House but on some other play. Chapman abruptly turned around, went back to his office, returned with a different set of notes, and proceeded to give the correct lecture. His lecture on Heartbreak House had been spoiled for that semester.

I knew virtually nothing about Robert Chapman when I sat in his course, and indeed it was only very recently, when I was prompted for some reason to find his obituary online, that I learned something about him. Among other things I learned that, although a tenured professor in Harvard's English department, he had no graduate degrees: he had a bachelor's degree from Princeton and that was it. Apparently he liked to boast that he and the famous critic and scholar Harry Levin were the only members of the department who lacked graduate credentials.

I remember little else about that week in 1976, or maybe that month; but I'll always remember the morning when Robert Chapman began his lecture on Shaw with that dramatic flourish, and then had to stop, turn around, and go back to his office. I think I might have felt a little bit angry at the student who informed him of his mistake. I still do.

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