As an undergraduate, I remember an English professor telling our class how important the setting is to any story: “A setting always affects the tone of the tale and adds layers of depth to characterization. Wuthering Heights might have been just another soap opera without those Yorkshire moors.”
I came to appreciate this insight when I travelled to hundreds of schools (from 1983 until I retired last year in 2020) to present literary assemblies for tens of thousands of students on Dickens, Poe, Shakespeare or Twain. I never knew what kind of setting would be provided for me. I performed in every environment from a tiny classroom to an enormous gymnasium and now realize that the setting was often as crucial to my success as a speaker as those moors were to Emily Bronte’s success as a novelist.
Often my school setting has been—shall we say—less than ideal. I once had to speak on Dickens in a lecture hall which adjoined a practice room for the school cheerleaders. I had just finished asking my student audience the rhetorical question – “Do you have any idea how much money Dickens earned with his first novel?” – when, from next door, came the unwelcomed low-ball answer: “Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar; (all for Central stand up and holler)!”
And I won’t soon forget a middle school lecture on Edgar Allan Poe in a small school cafeteria immediately after lunch. I had just reached the dramatic part when I explain how Poe’s beautiful young mother died the horrible death of consumption, drowning in her own blood as her lungs filled. At this point I was interrupted by the elderly school janitor entering by the door directly behind me. Wheeling his portable mop and bucket, he tiptoed in front of me as he headed toward a teacher sitting at the first table. In a stage whisper that could have been heard at the elementary school next door, he asked her: “Is this where the girl threw up?” Never have so many laughed so heartily at the death of poor Mrs. Poe.
Such problems did not arise when my setting was the school auditorium. My favorites, of course, were those in schools built before 1950, for in those days taxpayers could afford magnificent assembly halls which today could not be duplicated for four million dollars (I do not exaggerate). I still remember with awe a magnificent Art Deco palatial auditorium in Miami. I became very familiar with the backstage area, for as the students filed in for my assembly, I was behind the curtain pacing back and forth. I never was nervous, since, strangely, public speaking is the only activity which I believe that I was born to do, but walking up and down both relaxed and invigorated me. I never used notes so I didn’t worry about the lighting on stage. I did insist, though, that the house lights stayed up on the audience. I learned that students in an assembly find darkness a most appealing setting for a variety of activities – listening, unfortunately, not being one of them.
No matter how ornate the auditorium might be, I realized that when I stepped from behind the curtain to face the students, the setting must have seemed quite bare to them: no costume, no scenery, no props, no multi-media screens, no videos, no music. Beyoncé might have blanched at my challenge. I was just some random middle-aged professor with the unmitigated gall of believing that I could keep sixteen-year-olds transfixed for forty minutes. I arrived with nothing more than the lives and writings of Dickens, Poe, Shakespeare or Twain tucked invisibly but indelibly in my little head. But if I did my job properly and filled that auditorium with the inspired and inspiring tales of these great authors, then that bare stage suddenly became a very crowded setting, indeed.
Let those young cheerleaders yell their hearts out for their student athletes. My tougher job was to hold pep rallies for very lively but decidedly dead geniuses.