Instead of Dumbing Down Shakespeare, Smarten Up the Kids

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The Checkup

I marked Father’s Day this June by attending a special showing of “High Noon” at Film Forum in the West Village, glorious on the big screen, with comments afterward by Maria Cooper Janis, the daughter of its star, Gary Cooper, and Glenn Frankel, who wrote a book, “High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic.”

It was a perfect Father’s Day activity for me, as a way of connecting with my memories of my father, who died in 2001. My father loved “High Noon,” and he explained it all to me very carefully before I first saw it as a child, including the anti-Communist blacklist and the history behind the movie.

My father loved to explain things. He was an academic, and in some ways the lecture was his natural format. I’ve spent my life around academics, and there are moments, especially around the dinner table, when you need to try to nudge the format over closer to a seminar. But here’s the benefit: When people teach you about the things they really care about, there is usually a lot to learn.

My father believed that his children could do pretty much anything; tone-deaf himself, he believed that his tone-deaf daughter (me) had potential as a violist (I didn’t). If a child had gone to law school (none did) he would have pictured the Supreme Court investiture right from the first day. This was a happy quality rather than a pushy one. He just had a lot of faith in the people he loved. And he believed that his children could understand adult books and adult plays, if some pedagogically minded person walked them through all the references, the complex ironies, the double entendres.

Explaining all the way, my father introduced his children to Shakespeare, play by play, as well as to classic Westerns. He explained each and every joke in each and every Gilbert and Sullivan operetta (“You shall sit, if he sees reason, through the grouse and salmon season!”). He read aloud an astonishing number of the works of P.G. Wodehouse, explaining the jokes, however inappropriate (in Wodehouse’s Mr. Mulliner stories, each character is described by what he is drinking; a Whiskey Sour said this, a Pint of Stout said that).

The Wodehouse stories involved explicating plots far from the experience of a child growing up in the 1960s in Manhattan and northern New Jersey, but my father was undaunted. Consider “The Great Sermon Handicap,” a Jeeves-and-Bertie-Wooster story about placing bets on which village vicar will deliver the longest sermon; understanding the story means understanding making book and handicapping horses, and also why village names like Upper Bingley (and Lower Bingley) and Gandle-by-the-Hill and Little Clickton-in-the-Wold are funny, under the circumstances. It took a fair bit of explaining, but my father loved explaining, and I cannot reread the story (and I do reread the story) without hearing his voice, full of delight in every aspect of the setup.

He read us the entire Tolkien trilogy, back in the days when it was largely a college student classic. He read Jane Austen aloud, and explained the jokes in “Pride and Prejudice.” If you detect a certain Anglophilia, you’d be right; he had the complex cultural aspirations of a smart child of immigrants, growing up on the Lower East Side in the 1920s and ’30s. But he also read aloud — and explained — the plays of Kaufman and Hart and the stories of Damon Runyon.

He didn’t believe that children needed some special subcategory of books. He didn’t think you could take children to see only children’s plays and children’s movies. It was something that my husband, Larry, and I discovered we had in common: We had both, all through our childhoods, been taken matter-of-factly to see adult entertainments.

Actually, Larry had been to much more sophisticated events, since he had grown up going to the opera, and his father had told him the stories of all the operas; he remembers writing a first-grade book report about “Tosca.” We have on our wall, framed, the program from his first trip to the opera, when he was 6, to see “Aida” at the old Metropolitan Opera House, which closed in 1966 and was torn down in 1967; his parents bought him a small piece of the curtain, and it’s framed with the program, which was signed for him by Irene Dalis, who sang the role of Princess Amneris.

In my family, as we grew up, we were taken to the Shakespeare plays at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park every summer (tickets were free if you waited in line): “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” “All’s Well That Ends Well,” “As You Like It,” “Richard III” (my father had strong sympathies toward Richard III, whom he felt had been badly served by Shakespeare, and he explained that at length).

My kids also grew up going to adult shows. I believed — because I knew it was true — that 4- and 5-year-old children were up to adult theater, and my husband, now a grown-up academic who among other things writes about opera, added in that, of course, they were up to opera. And the 9- and 10-year-olds will want to keep going. Of course, parents have to know their children and be sensible in their choices.

The only child-rearing authority I ever saw address this subject was Judith Martin, in my favorite of all child-rearing guides, the 2002 “Miss Manners’ Guide to Rearing Perfect Children.” She writes eloquently in favor of having children accompany you, to the theater, the opera, restaurants, if they earn the privilege by showing you that they know how to behave. She suggests giving children the sense when they are very young that adults are having all kinds of fun, in which they may be included if they are up to it.

I read Wodehouse aloud, too, though I couldn’t do the range of British accents that my father produced. The children grew up on Kaufman and Hart and Gilbert and Sullivan, and every time I sat down to explain my way through a Shakespeare play or a Jeeves-and-Bertie-Wooster story, I took an extra pleasure in the sense that my father was guiding my explanations and my footnotes. He had endless patience for this, God bless him, for explaining the stuff that he loved, for watching for the moment that a child’s eyes would light with understanding of the plot twist, or appreciation of the unreasonably obscure joke. He made his children want to journey with him, to Middle-earth, to Bosworth Field, where Richard died, crying for a horse, or to Upper Bingley for the Great Sermon Handicap; he never doubted that we would want to come along.