The A(ristotle) Team

Professor Lind did not deserve what we did to her.

It’s not that we were horrible. We, the members of her 12:30PM freshman Introduction to Theater Studies class, definitely had our moments. We had spirited discussions about censorship and the NEA Four. We had very creative ideas about how to stage “exit, pursued by a bear.” Most of us even genuinely enjoyed watching My Dinner with Andre!

But then came Aristotle’s Poetics, and it all went to shit.

I was no stranger to theater history: we’d had a particularly thorough theater history class at my arts boarding school, where I learned the meaning and pronunciation of the word “verisimilitude,” that Ancient Greeks wore chitons, not togas, and that “tragedy” translates to “ode to a goat.” By eighteen, I had read Plato, Socrates, Thucydides, and Euripides. But I could not get my head around Poetics. Something about it felt dense and insurmountable to me, so specific to that time in history, and not at all applicable to modern theater. Maybe I had a bad translation. I just remember lots of throwing the book across the room, and many saved Word files with titles like “FuckAristotle.doc.”

The rest of the class seemed to be struggling with it, too. We’d toughed it out through Brecht and Zola, and, being theater majors, had been very eager to read out loud and perform monologues (my friend Devere, in particular, did an amazing rendition of King Pentheus’s smarmy first monologue from The Bacchae, instructing us to laugh sycophantically when he mocked Dionysus). But our classes on Poetics were quiet ones.

“Aristotle says a theatrical work should create ‘pity and fear,’” said Professor Lind. “Why ‘pity’ and ‘fear?’ Do you agree?”

We stayed silent as her voice echoed through the rafters. Class was being held in a church on the Lower East Side. The NYU graduate students were striking for benefits, and Professor Lind, very much a former child of the New Left, insisted “I would never ask a student to cross a picket line!” (She was more considerate than my Writing the Essay teacher, who had us attend class in his friend’s small apartment in Little Italy. I have a strong memory of drying my hands on a stranger’s Superman bath towel.)

Aside from her activism, and seemingly knowing everything about every playwright from Sophocles to Shakespeare to Soyinka, Professor Lind had a career as criminal defense attorney before becoming a professor. A neo-Freudian to her core, she taught classes on Lacan and the unconscious mind, and wrote critical theory essays about psychoanalysis in great works of English literature in her spare time. She was obviously brilliant. Sometimes, though, that kind of brilliance will be lost on a group of eighteen-year-olds — even the kind that know how to pronounce “verisimilitude.”

“I want to know what these words mean to you,” she said. “So, first, I want you to think for a second, ‘what do I fear?’ And then I want us to go around and say it out loud.”

I was in the front row, and had to go first, but I’ll never be able to remember what I said. At that point in my life, I could have said anything. New York scared me. Being in college scared me. Relationships with men scared me, and relationships with women even more so. I must have kept it vague.

“All right,” said Professor Lind, when we were done. “Now ‘what do I pity?’”

I felt uncomfortable. There was a very obvious answer, but I couldn’t say that: I had been trying to transcend my high school role as class smart-ass. It would just be embarrassing for both of us, and I was already on Professor Lind’s nerves for questioning her definition of “sadism” the previous week. Poetics might have been beyond me, but I still wanted to do well in her class. Maybe for “what do I fear” I should have been honest and told her “You.”

“I… pity a… suffering child?” I said. Professor Lind gave a half-nod: my answer was boring and predictable, but not inaccurate. I had played by the rules.

“All right,” she said. “Now, the rest of you, ‘what do I pity?’”

And one by one, down went the rest of the class.

“The Fool.”

“The Fool.”

“The Fool...”

“The Fool!”

“The Fool,” the last student concluded.

Oh god, I thought. They did it. They all did it. This was terrible. They’d embarrassed themselves and her. We’d get a lecture on The Real Meaning of Art. We’d have to read even more Aristotle. We were all so fucked.

I looked back at Professor Lind, awaiting her exasperation. Instead, her eyes lit up, and she nodded slowly. “That is interesting,” she said, as if she had just uncovered something. “Why is it, do you think, that so many of you pity a fool?”

Oh no, I thought. This was even worse. She had probably spent the entire 1980s without a television. She had been in an intellectual bubble. She knew Wallace Shawn as playwright and dinner partner for Andre Gregory, not as Vizzini from The Princess Bride. Any second now she was going to start talking about the death of the Fool in King Lear. There was a suppressed collective giggle from the class, but I couldn’t bear it. It was too much. I raised my hand, and explained Mr. T to the woman who’d taught me the word “verfremdungseffekt.”

“Oh,” she said, and the light in her eyes faded. “Oh, I see.”

We had failed her. The class grew quiet again. I watched as she shuffled her papers on her makeshift desk, her mouth in a straight, contemptuous line, and moved on to explaining “mimesis.”

And in that moment, I pitied her.

Stuff I Did This Week: My episode of The Bechdel Cast went up! Get yourself in the holiday mood by hearing me talk about Elf, and the pragmatic reasons to work on a Christmas movie. (And FYI, Buddy the Elf was played by Sebastian Arcelus in the Broadway musical!)

Stuff You Can Do This Week: You can also get yourself in the holiday mood by giving your friends a gift subscription to Shan’t We Tell The Vicar?

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Fake BBC Show Title of the Week: I Prefer Richard (I wish this one were mine, but it’s not! My dear friend Kyra Sims came up with it. But isn’t it brilliant?)