By: Hannah Rapp, Young Adult Librarian
A couple of weeks ago, I spent a wonderful day in Spring Green, Wisconsin, watching two excellent productions of classic theater. The American Player’s Theater (APT) is a theater in the woods, so isolated I couldn’t get service on my phone there, and they produce a wide variety of plays every summer performed on an outdoor stage. But the setting is just the icing on the cake–the real magic of APT has always been phenomenal acting and iconic and brilliant plays.
I did a comedy and tragedy double feature, with An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde in the afternoon sun, and King Lear in the dark of night. This was my first time seeing classic theater in a few years, and it was such a joy to re-discover just why these plays are considered so great. King Lear has been my favorite Shakespeare play (or at least, tragedy) since I was a teenager, but somehow I still didn’t remember how powerful, and how timeless, it really is. And although I love Oscar Wilde, I was still surprised by the depth of characters, the hilarity, and once again, the timelessness of An Ideal Husband. It made me think about the other classics that it might be time to re-visit.
I know, I know–as students, you’re assigned classics all the time, and have to force your way through them whether you like them or not. But I’m going to make a case for giving classics–maybe go for those that aren’t assigned?–another chance. Because there are a lot of great reasons that they’re considered classics. And I know I, for one, often get so caught up with new releases and the latest book everyone is talking about that sometimes I forget how much I love Jane Austen, or I never quite get around to giving Toni Morrison a shot, and that’s a shame.
One thing that was clear to me watching the plays earlier this month is that a classic, a true classic, has a timelessness that makes it easy for us to connect with things written decades or even centuries before our time. Who hasn’t experienced what it’s like to see a family fall to pieces, or a loved one come apart in old age? Who doesn’t understand the power secrets hold in our lives, and the worry of disappointing those we love best? Shakespeare and Wilde, respectively, understood those themes in centuries before us, and wrote them in such an accessible way that even today they ring true, despite the differences in language or clothing when we see them performed. And similarly, J.D. Salinger understood what it’s like to be a depressed, grieving, anxious teenager, and wrote truths that ring true today (whether or not you love Holden Caulfield); Zora Neale Hurston understood what it’s like to try and become your own person and make your own life in the face of societal and personal pressures long before the present day, and wrote a character whose struggles we can still relate to; ancient poets like Catullus and Sappho experienced the same feelings of love, heartache, betrayal, and anger that we do today, and gave those feelings a voice that still sounds familiar.
So whether it’s something you’ve read before and want to re-visit, or a classic you’ve heard of but that hasn’t been assigned yet, give yourself a chance to find timeless truths from another era. And don’t worry, this isn’t required reading–if you don’t like what you pick up, you have my official librarian approval for putting the book down and trying another classic. There’s plenty to choose from!