Education: Shakespeare goes down like a dream in class: Martin Stephen, a headteacher, describes how English lessons can satisfy both modernists and traditionalists

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The Independent Online
QUITE casually, at supper, my 12- year-old son began to talk about A Midsummer-Night's Dream. His genuine enthusiasm for the play, and his unthinking acceptance of Shakespeare as a normal topic for discussion, seemed extraordinary. That was the moment that convinced me of something I already suspected: that we were in touch with something special.

I am the headmaster of the school my son attends, but even I was amazed by his feeling for the play: he understood it better than I did, and I have a degree in English.

Simon had been one of a group of boys, from very different backgrounds, who had joined the first form at the Perse School, Cambridge, at the age of 11. They had been told that all their English lessons were going to take place in a room called 'the Mummery'.

Those who had watched too many illicit Peter Cushing films no doubt imagined a sarcophagus- filled cellar with bandaged figures lining the walls and an eternal curse resting on the heads of those who opened the door. The truth is rather less disturbing. The Mummery is in fact a classroom, rather barn-like in appearance, with rafters, a raised stage at one end, and bench-and-table units in the other half.

When a class is introduced to the Mummery the pupils do not really take in at first glance the fact that there is a simple stage lighting system (no dimmers, merely a bank of on/off switches and coloured bulbs with reflectors), or that there is an equally simple sound system and a stage wardrobe. Before they have too much time to think, the Mummery method of teaching is explained to them. Very soon each new class is divided into two 'guilds', each guild taking a different name.

The guild is devoted to the presentation of drama, poetry, speech and mime. Boys elect a 'Master of the Revels', who becomes a significant figure in the success or otherwise of the guild he commands: the ballot to elect him is ostentatiously secret. The boys in the guild then have to choose their own roles. They can ask to be a 'Master Player', or actor. They can put themselves forward as the 'Master of the Lights', the 'Master of the Tiring House' (costumes) or for a string of other posts which represent almost every job available in the theatre.

The aim is to give every boy a job he enjoys, and at which he can improve; it is not the philosophy of the Mummery simply to let people do what they already do well. Inevitably, mistakes are made. Jobs can be changed in the light of experience. Often, those who want out of one job match those who want to take on a job being vacated. The teacher has a casting vote, but the prime responsibility for taking the decisions rests with the guild and its individual members. When the roles have been cast, the fun begins.

Drama is based on an extempore workshop style, with boys speaking from books in their hands, and sometimes improvising. Their texts are many and various, albeit stringently traditional. Ten or 15 periods are spent on each play or work, with each guild acting to the other in its class, and with the Master of the Mummery acting as final judge and arbiter. Very few performances are public. Philoctetes is the only Mummery performance to which I, as headmaster, receive an 'official' invitation: it is presented without books and frequently with stunning effectiveness. The guilds are competitive, their performances being marked by the member of staff responsible for the Mummery.

In the second form, three plays by Shakespeare - A Midsummer-Night's Dream, Julius Caesar and The Merchant of Venice - are studied in detail, as are many other texts. The guilds transform themselves into something approximating to an Elizabethan or Jacobean theatrical company, and change their names accordingly.

The transfer to Shakespeare should not prove too great a shock. Already each guild will have been asked to listen to some extracts from the third act of King Lear, and will then have been asked to present Lear in the storm and Poor Tom in any way that seems best to them. The result can be chaotic; more often it is stunning.

The Mummery is a more complex idea than that outline suggests, but it is wonderfully simple in its effectiveness. It dates back to a marvellous eccentric named Caldwell-Cook who joined the staff of the Perse School before 1914. He found a kindred spirit in the headmaster of the day, Dr Rouse; both men believed that learning should be enjoyed rather than endured. It is not expensive, though it does require five periods a week if it is to succeed, and some kindly timetabling. It provides continual involvement of the boys' imagination in a way that grows more searching as it develops.

The system is sufficiently child-centred to satisfy the most ardent left-wing apologist; traditional enough to bring a smile to all those who want a return to 'old-fashioned values'. It generates a large amount of written work, but also demands a great deal of attention to fine language and how language works. It develops a marvellous verbal fluency and confidence. It cultivates individuality but requires pupils to work together as a group, to discuss and resolve problems as a communal activity. It is a method of teaching that produces young pupils who have a genuine enthusiasm for Shakespeare as a dramatist, not as a national institution. Its original name, 'the Play Way', is not a bad description of a system that lets children scale adult heights of understanding by doing what they enjoy. Its greatest justification is the most obvious: it works.