Monday, February 16, 2015

From Judy Suther (written to Anita Moss)

Here's a reminiscence that I think is funny and is  typically Jim.  

When I taught 20th-century French theatre at UNC Charlotte, I always had the students perform a one-act or a scene from a longer play.  The performance I remember best had Jim in it, which is why I remember it.  He played the role of Train Conductor on the Paris metro in Les amants du metro by Jean Tardieu, usually translated into English as Underground Lovers.  The students could handle the role of passengers, the Lovers, because the lines are written and can be memorized.  The Conductor, however, has no set lines.  Tardieu's stage directions instruct him to improvise in the style of a music hall impresario.   A role obviously meant for Jim.

Essentially, Jim's job was to elaborate on the already long list of prohibitions posted in every French train before the era of the TGV (high-speed or so-called bullet trains).  Don't lean out the window, don't break the window, don't smoke in the corridors, don't smoke cigars period, don't spit on the floor, don't touch the heat control lever, don't pull the emergency cord unless someone dies in your compartment, don't sit here unless you're a disabled veteran, don't sit there unless you're pregnant.  Like every visitor to France in a certain era and, I suspect, most French people with a sense of humor, Jim thought these prohibitions were hilarious.  He was thrilled at the chance to intone them in his best baritone and then invent silly variants that usually rhymed.  The one I couldn't get out of my head for years, and still can't, is "Ne crachez pas par terre dans la presence de ta mere" (Don't let your mama catch you spitting on the floor).  He'd run up and down the stage-set aisle of the metro compartment admonishing the passengers, the Lovers, not to do these things, when all they wanted to do was sit in each other's laps and smooch.

If the play is "about" anything, it's about the imperviousness of bureaucracies to people's real lives.  Or the absurd disconnect between a legalistic pronouncement and a human being.  I think the students got it, no high-flown theory needed.  They got it mainly because Jim performed the disconnect--in the excellent French he learned in Bordeaux, in his rollicking music hall persona, and as one of them.  A fellow student.  He loved the role, he loved the students, and they loved him.  

So that's my Jim memory.  I like this one because it highlights his gifts as a teacher, even when he's being silly, playing a comic role in an acquired language.  

Dear Anita, I don't want to think of all the talent, all the wit, all the generous humanity gone, gone....

Love,
Judy

      

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