One thing I love about working at B&B is the chance to tackle some of the icons of American theatre—Death of a Salesman, Of Mice and Men, The Crucible (to say nothing of Moby Dick). And now I get to tackle possibly THE iconic film of the 1960s, The Graduate, even getting to utter the one line that probably everyone remembers. Except, of course, that it is so NOT the film, as you’ll see.
But I didn’t start out to be an actor. In fact, the idea never occurred to me. No, I majored in political science, with a minor in history. What else do you study when you grow up in the nation’s capital and you’re attending an eastern establishment university literally halfway between the White House and the State Department? And so, though I now have more than 40 years’ experience on stage, I still don’t come at these things from the same angle as my BFA/MFA-educated friends.
And what strikes me most, and what gives me my own sort of insight into these characters, is what isn’t in the play. Of all the characters, Elaine is the only one who expresses even an interest in anything outside herself, let alone any knowledge of what’s out there. She describes her feelings on seeing the Mona Lisa, she tells Ben about taking part in a civil rights march, she expresses her sympathy with people struggling to get an education in the South, and she mentions a monk’s self-immolation on the streets of Saigon. Ben himself, though he appears to have majored in political science or some related field, says in no uncertain terms that he has no interest in politics.
Remember: the play is set in 1964, a time when many of the things Americans held dearest in the post–World War II era were beginning to unravel. JFK had been assassinated only a few months earlier. People in the South weren’t just struggling for education, they were literally dying for the right to vote. Meanwhile, the Republicans nominated their first hard-right candidate for president, Barry Goldwater. This was the year of the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the first openly acknowledged American bombing on North Vietnamese territory, the first step on the long slog that led to another iconic image eleven years later—the helicopter evacuation of the American embassy in Saigon. None of this is present in the play.
Now, I’m a near-contemporary of Benjamin. He graduated from college in 1964; I reached that milestone three years later. And to me the most remarkable omission is any mention of the draft. People who’ve reached age 18 in the last 40 years will have no memory of this, but that card in your wallet with your draft number and your 1-A status was an ever-present reminder that Uncle Sam was going to come looking for you sooner or later.
And a major part of every young male’s attention was devoted to figuring out what to do about that. Of course, there were ways of getting out of it—marriage and children would do it, college would be good for four years, the Peace Corps for two. And if you lived in a low-college-attendance area, where the local board had no trouble making their quota, they might never get around to you. But in 1964, most just accepted it and went off to serve their two years. But nobody—nobody—pretended it didn’t exist.
And that’s my key to getting into these people’s heads. Whatever they might know about the outside world (and Ben, after all, did major in “that crap”), they simply don’t care, being completely wrapped up in their own immediate concerns. When Mr. Robinson learns of his wife’s relationship with Ben, his sole concern is what Ben has done to him. Not very admirable, maybe, but then admirable people aren’t all that much fun to play. But that’s a subject for another blog, I think.
Actor, Mr. Robinson
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