What a New Play Says About Higher Education

What a New Play Says About Higher Education

J. Williams: A Seminar on Broadway

by Theresa Rebeck
directed by Sam Gold
Golden Theatre, NYC

The new play Seminar centers on an old type, the gruff professor, performed with relish by Alan Rickman, who mercilessly insults his students but turns out to have a heart of gold. However, the play, which might more aptly be named Workshop since it depicts Rickman as a well-known writer going over the work of four fledgling novelists, has a curious twist: the gruff professor is not a part of the university but an entrepreneur. He is the new professor, no longer available through public means, a private consultant offering select services to those who can afford his steep rates.

The workshop occurs in the New York apartment of one of the young writers, Kate, played somewhat stridently by Lily Rabe. The rent-controlled apartment, passed down through her family, provides a running commentary because it only costs $800 a month for seven or eight rooms on the Upper West Side (with river views, no less)—a particularly inside–New York detail. (Nowhere have I heard people talk more about rent and apartments than in New York.) Kate and the other students are in their late twenties or thereabouts, six or so years out of college and struggling to find their way as writers. As we eventually find out, they have each paid $5,000 for ten sessions in which one of the students presents his or her work for discussion.

Leonard starts the first workshop by reading one of Kate’s stories, which he relentlessly skewers (the first line, where he stops reading, plays off Jane Austen’s “It is a truth universally acknowledged…”). In a subsequent workshop he targets Douglas, a pretentious but already successful writer (played with humor by Jerry O’Connell), riffing on how his craft is like that of a good whore. While withering, Leonard is also very funny, and there is something delicious about hearing this kind of insult, as the popularity of “roasts” would suggest. Is it because his barbs represent a fantasy fulfillment, when one can say the things one otherwise suppresses? Perhaps, although part of Leonard’s appeal is his mastery: he seems deftly to pinpoint the problem in a piece of writing, so we admire his skill and intelligence.

CREATIVE WRITING is a relatively recent invention as an academic field. Most earlier teaching scenes occur in a staid lecture hall and take up a traditional disciplinary topic. For instance, in The Paper Chase (1973), a film based on John Jay Osborne, Jr.’s 1970 novel, we see Professor Kingsfield (played by John Houseman) lecturing on legal contracts. In Animal House (1978), an English professor played by Donald Sutherland implores students to read the poetry of John Milton. But over the past two decades the workshop has become a more familiar setting, allowing for interaction among students as well as between student and teacher. For example, in Wonder Boys (2000) the students lay waste to a story by James Leer (Tobey Maguire) and Michael Douglas, playing a haggard professor, consoles him. In Todd Solondz’s Storytelling (2001), we see a professor tell one student that his story is “banal,” “predictable,” and “shit.”

The appearance of workshops follows the widespread establishment of creative writing in the university: as the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) reports, the number of degree-granting programs climbed from seventy-nine in 1975 to 319 in 1984, 535 in 1994, and 719 in 2004, ushering through flocks of creative writing BAs, MFAs, and PhDs, as well as housing a fleet of professors to teach them. In fact, it is a common complaint that there are too many programs and that they are dulling contemporary fiction.

Seminar, however, leaves the university, moving from the seminar room to a private living room. One can make too much of one play, but it is striking that it recasts a customary setting and emphasizes, as I mentioned, the apartment. It is also striking that it foregrounds how much Leonard is paid. In some ways, this is a return to the world of Henry Higgins (the main character of George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play Pygmalion)—a period before mass higher education in which only those with private incomes have access to the luxuries of literature and culture. But Higgins was still a university professor; in the world of Seminar, prime services are no longer available through public institutions but only through private ones. Higgins is independently wealthy, and his wealth enables his interests. The new professor gains wealth after the fact, from work and acclaim, and is a private service provider.

In the mid-twentieth century in the United States, the professor was a beneficiary of the expanding public infrastructure of higher education, and in some sense an ambassador for the postwar welfare state that provided it. Now, in a time when public institutions are being abandoned, education is a commercial transaction, like consulting a trainer or life coach. It has been recast, in the public imagination, as a private matter of the individual, rather than a public cultivation of the rising generation.

Seminar shows another trend: the resolution for Leonard’s students is not that they find their voices, but that they get jobs. The play concludes with Leonard sending Douglas to Hollywood and setting up Kate in an editing position. Education is not about exploration or curiosity (don’t those classic humanistic values sound quaint?), but finding one’s market niche. Leonard provides his students with market connections. Seminar is quite blunt about this, and the students are very aware of what Leonard can do for them. Unlike ordinary workshop teachers, he does not require the students’ work to be circulated beforehand and instead reads it on the spot. But it doesn’t really matter whether Leonard reads the stories; it matters whether he can hook them up. He delivers what he’s paid for, not as a teacher but as a consultant.

The play is thus quite cynical, not because it gives voice to Leonard’s sneering but because it sees the world as already decided. It is of course not a bad thing that the students find jobs, but Rebeck’s script casts Leonard as discerning their inalterable abilities rather than teaching them. It abnegates education. One would think that Kate might learn how to develop her writing under the tutelage of a good teacher, but the play denies that possibility. I’d like to think education offers new possibilities, and that you can learn to do things like write even if you didn’t start out that way.

Jeffrey J. Williams is an editor of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. He teaches at Carnegie Mellon University.

Photo by Benjamin Solah, via Flickr creative commons

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