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Friar Shakespeare

VISITING professors, who are members of religious orders, get to stay in our Community of Priests and Brothers living on the campus of St. Sebastian College in Manila. It is a dormitory living arrangement. Each rectangular-shaped room opens in front to the second floor balcony overlooking a quadrangle and at the back a two-step patio facing a busy street. It has a bed, desk and bookcases, shower, toilet and Internet connection. Breakfast is served after the 5:30 Mass in the chapel. During lunch time from 11:30 to 1 p.m., you help yourself from covered trays and hot plates set up on a counter.  Dinner is communal, served after the Social Hour that follows the evening prayers.

I recall Brother Simon, drinking Scotch over ice, casually saying, “If I knew then what I know now, I would have been an agnostic.”

When the visitors leave, after teaching a semester or two, we remember them by things they did or shared with us. We had a brilliant Mathematics professor from Saigon, Brother Joseph, who was about to fly to Berkeley for a conference at the start of the Vietnam War, when the Communists caught up with him and put him jail. He was released after the war. He once said that the film Good Will Hunting was based was on a true story about a Vietnamese janitor at MIT who was revealed to be a Math genius. In the film that won Academy Awards for screen writers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, the janitor is Caucasian.

We had a Black singer from Tennessee who taught Gospel Music. He amazed us with his rendition of “Ole Man River,” his voice in the lowest bass voice and ending in high baritone. We had Brother Simon from our school in Minneapolis, who gave a PowerPoint lecture on the Burgess Shale fossils, reputed to be over 500 million years old. He used the findings to undercut, without saying it, the Old Testament version of the origin of life and endorse Darwin’s evolution theory. I recall Brother Simon, drinking Scotch over ice, casually saying, “If I knew then what I know now, I would have been an agnostic.” Simon fell in love with the tropical climate (“St. Paul is snow-bound in winter, mosquito-bitten in summer”). He petitioned his Superiors if could stay on, and taught at our school for fourteen years.

We also remember visitors by trivial things. Do they drink non-alcoholic beverages, Scotch, bourbon or beer at the Social Hour? At breakfast, when we have a choice of cold or cooked foods, do they eat cereal with milk, bread with ham or eggs, rice and smoked fish or longaniza, favorite of Filipino Brothers? I recall Charles from Yorkshire who skipped breakfast to watch televised clippings of Princess Diana’s fatal accident.

At present, we have Brother Harry from Australia. He counsels young Filipino aspirants wanting to join our Cistercian Religious Order, and loves to brag to fellow retirees, especially Robert from New York and Benedict from Chicago, that his monthly Australian Social Security pension is twice that of the American. Whatever the amount, the check goes to the Community that gives the Brothers equal amount of monthly allowance to update their cell phones, or treat friends at a Szechuan or Italian restaurant.

No one took up Simon on his remark on agnosticism. No one asked, “So, what do you believe now?” Too often have we debated loss of one’s faith and its consequences. To be honest, we’re tired of this debate, as much as we are of the feminist proposal to ordain women or allow priests to marry.

When it hits the news, we do talk about Anglican bishops from the U.K. who convert to Catholicism because they object to the ordination of women. As for the vow of celibacy, we’ve concluded that it’s really a matter of conscience, being true to a pledge or promise. It means that when faced with a decision, you consider all possible consequences. Unlike marriage, however, the God you make a promise to at ordination is present only in spirit, if at all. The ritual of incense, music and prayer evokes his presence, making the vow more solemn, but the promise of celibacy made is not as intimate as the face-to-face promise of fidelity that married couples give to each other.

Still, as a monk who does not baptize, hear confessions and say Mass, I often wonder what a priest feels when he moves from belief to disbelief, from agnostic doubt to atheistic denial of God’s existence. If the latter results in loss of faith, does it make him feel like a hypocrite when he absolves a penitent at the confessional or unites a couple in the sacrament of matrimony? One loses trust in a spouse who proves to be untrue, but how can you prove God to be untrue? God’s existence cannot be shown by a telescope or electron microscope.

A VISITOR from London five years ago showed me other ways of looking at questions about faith. His name was Cyril Mulvaney. On his application written on the stationery of Xavier College in Streatham, South London, he wrote that he was a Brother of the teaching order of the Congregation of Francis Xavier, founded in 1839 by Theodore James Ryken in Belgium. Before coming to our school, he had taught at La Salle College in Western Australia. He taught Shakespeare for us, but we did not extend his contract after one semester because of what we found out.

“As we with do with other literatures, we study them because they show us how to live,” I said.

“Friar Shakespeare” is his nickname now when we talk about him. We don’t use “Friar” ourselves (we prefer “Brother”) because it brings back painful memories of the Spanish colonization of the country for three and a half centuries. It’s not easy to forget Cyril with his black-rimmed glasses, sideburns and moustache trimmed close to his oval-shaped face. If not engaged in conversation, he seemed to pull back into himself, as though meditating. When you talked to him, it wasn’t his face that told you he was listening. It was his eyes shading pleasantry, assent, skepticism, and amusement. What impressed me most about him was his voice, the way he spoke English. It was the speech of James Mason and Dirk Bogarde that I enjoyed in film.

One Saturday evening, when jeeps and buses were still sloshing on the street fronting the campus, after a two-hour downpour had flooded Manila earlier in the afternoon, a few had returned after supper to the recreation room where we have the social hour. A refrigerator stands at a corner behind two angled counters with raised bar stools in front, nearby a rattan sofa and coffee table. Father George, the Austrian priest who teaches Philosophy, was at the bar drinking dark San Miguel beer with Benedict. Across the room on the opposite corner Brother Harry was watching a rugby game from Melbourne on a flat-screen TV. A Brother from Malaysia and another from Vietnam were reading newspapers at a table beside a newspaper rack by the door. I sat at another table with Cyril and Bernie who ran the school’s Alumni Program. Cyril had brought out a bottle of mead brewed in Salisbury and a roll of chocolate-layered cookies, “digestives” Cyril called them. He had bought the wine and cookies at an import store in Ayala.

At one point in the conversation, Bernie said, “I hear you give a pretty good reading of Shakespeare in your class.”

“Thank you,” Cyril said, raising his cup.

“I’d like to hear you recite a soliloquy?”

Cyril grinned. “You’re kidding.”

I chimed in. “Me too, I’d like to hear an English voice recite Shakespeare.”

Cyril squinted at me. “Who teaches Shakespeare among the Brothers?”

I raised and quickly dropped a hand.

“Andrew, I would have guessed,” Cyril said, patting me on the shoulder. “I’m curious. How do you teach Shakespeare?”

“As we with do with other literatures, we study them because they show us how to live,” I said.

Cyril flashed a skeptical smile.

“Ours is a Catholic school, don’t forget,” Bernie said.

We first try to get what the text is saying,” I said. “Elizabethan English is tough for Filipinos.”

“It’s tough for everyone,” Cyril said.

“We paraphrase lines, put them in English we understand. For diction lessons, we play recordings made by the Royal Shakespeare Company. We also show DVD clips. I use Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, Al Pacino’s Merchant of Venice. Of the many versions available, I still prefer Lawrence Olivier’s black-and-white Hamlet.”

Cyril nodded. “It helps to teach the play, but only scratches the surface.”

“So, how do you do Shakespeare?”

Cyril looked up as though gazing at the stars, and intoned, “Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew!”

“Well, the text of the play is like a music score. You have to read it aloud, try different readings. Perform the text, in other words.”

“We do oral reading, if that’s what you mean. Perhaps, we don’t enunciate as clearly as the recordings.”

Bernie said, “Perhaps not. I’ve heard theater snobs say that only the British can perform Shakespeare well. Is that true?”

“Not at all. However, it’s true that actors who are afraid to sound British tend to flatten the language, make it sound like ordinary speech.”

“Not poetic, you mean?”

Cyril took his cup to an empty table and sat. He raised the cup to eye level, and spoke in monotone, “To be or not to be, that is the question.”

We made a gesture of polite applause when he finished. Cyril said, “I wanted you to think of Brad Pitt about to order another drink.”

I smiled. He was telling us to interpret his reading.

Bernie caught on. “That’s flat diction, I see. How about another reading?”

“Name it,” Cyril said, warming up.

“You did Brad Pitt,” I said. “How about Peter Sellers speaking Indian English,” I said.

“Andrew, you’re a devil, but I’ll oblige you.”

Harry had turned off the TV. Father George, Benedict, and the Asian Brothers were now looking at Cyril. At first we kept quiet as Cyril began, mimicking Peter Sellers faking Indian intonation. Pretty soon we were in stitches, and clapped loudly at the end.
“I can’t do that in my classroom,” I said. “I’ll stay with the Royal Shakespeare Company.”

“Olivier’s Hamlet, I see,” said Cyril now aglow. “I can do that too.”

Crossing his arms, Cyril looked up as though gazing at the stars, and intoned, “Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew!”

A chill rippled down the back of my neck.

Bernie said, “Wow! Three ways of reciting Shakespeare.”

“No, three ways of performing Shakespeare, so many other ways.”

“Okay, performed or acted, however you put. But what’s the point?”

“Brother Bernie, I’m glad you said ‘acted.’ Actors become the characters they are portraying. They strive to be the character, try different ways to say the lines and express the character’s being.”

“Whoa,” I said, “speaking, saying, being--we’re entering Father George’s territory.”

“No need to go into philosophy. Do you find yourself asking someone what he’s trying to say?’”

“Yeah, when someone uses so many words for a simple idea.”
Bernie said, “I see, it’s like trying on different shirts until you find the right fit.”

“That’s why we rehearse. Try different ways of saying lines, moving on the stage, until you get it right. A lesson here is not to start speaking until you find the right words to for what you want to say. Keep silent, listen what your heart feels, hear what your mind thinks, and then speak.”

Anything you say about a character’s meaning or action has to be supported by Shakespeare’s words. The class is alive, I tell you.”

Bernie chuckled. “That seems like a homily.”

“Oh, but a homily is something else as part of the drama of the Mass. The priest or celebrant giving the homily is like a dancer in classical ballet doing a solo, or a concert pianist playing a cadenza. The homily is his contribution to the script of the Mass. It can intensify faith, make believers of the undecided. If spoken well, the homily sets up the mood for the climax of Mass. When he performs the words of Jesus, Do this in memory of me, he can make his voice tremble at this solemn sacramental moment, or utter it as a plea for remembrance by a friend who is about to die.”
TOWARD the end of that semester, the chair of the English Department Dr. Isaac Cruz called me to his office. A literary critic and playwright, Cruz has guided the department in its dual mission of literary study and creativity. Graduates have gone on to pursue master’s degrees, and become teachers, poets and journalists.

“Brother Andrew,” Isaac said, “I need your advice. We may have a problem in the department.”

I nodded.

“A couple of weeks ago, we got an e-mail from an Oxford address in England. It simply said, “You have an imposter in your midst.”

“Brother Cecil?”

Isaac nodded. “My first thought also. We only have two visiting professors this semester. The other is a Japanese professor from Osaka.”

“Do we have the sender’s name?”

“Roland G@ox.ac.uk it said. I checked the web site of Xavier College. His name isn’t on the faculty list.”

“Have you contacted the school?”

“No, but I got in touch with one of our graduates, now an instructor at the La Salle College in Australia, where Cecil said he taught before coming here. She’s never heard of him. I need your advice on how to proceed. We could simply ignore the letter or confront Cecil about it.”

“An imposter? Someone’s idea of a joke. How could Cecil be an imposter?”

“He could be a fake friar but a true bardolater.”

“What’s that?”

“Coined by critics, it labels one who idolizes English poet, a Shakespeare friar.”

Is that a compliment or a put down?”

“That depends. I’ve studied Cecil’s syllabus and audited his class. No criticism, no history, just the plays. Anything you say about a character’s meaning or action has to be supported by Shakespeare’s words. The class is alive, I tell you.”

“What about grades?”

“No final exam. A student chooses a scene to perform solo or with others. He has to submit a four-page paper commenting on the performance, how he interprets the text and stage business.”

“You can’t download that assignment from the Internet.”

“That’s right, no plagiarized paper. The students study the play as though they’re preparing to present it on stage. They get to know the play from the inside out. I have no problem with the grades Brother Cecil submits at the end of the semester.”

I WISHED the e-mail from Oxford was a prank. We found out that Cecil was neither a Brother of the Congregation of Francis Xavier nor a member of the faculty. He did have a bachelor’s degree from the Queen’s University in Belfast and had acted at the Old Vic Theatre in London.

I had to find the right time to talk to Cecil, as I promised Isaac Cruz. It would hurt as much as confronting a student who had submitted a plagiarized paper. I had to do this twice in my teaching.

The moment came one evening when Cecil approached as I was stirring a cup of instant coffee after supper.

He said, “Andrew, I’d like a word about my teaching assignment for next semester.”

“Let’s go to the social hall,” I said. “Have some coffee.”

“I’ll have tea.”

Carrying our cups, we nodded at Brother Harry who had turned on the TV, and sat at the rattan sofa by the bar.

“I have to give this to you straight,” I said. “Dr. Cruz got an e-mail weeks ago saying ‘You have an impostor in your midst.’ It came from a Roland G. with an Oxford, UK address. We contacted Xavier College in London and La Salle in Australia. It seems you have not taught at La Salle. You but you apply to teach Drama at Xavier but wasn’t accepted.”

His head and hand twitched, the moves out of sync, as though he was struggling with himself. I had to look away and my eyes fixed on the TV across the room. Was he going to say, I’m sorry? I meant no harm? Forgive me? Easier to perform literature, I thought, than cover up a lie. Think of the consecration at Mass as dramatic climax, if you don’t believe in transubstantiation.

I looked at Cecil again, surprised. It seemed the twitching was merely a rehearsal for the calm and composed look he now presented. Quietly, he said, “I shall depart at the end of the semester.”   

© Paulino Lim, Jr.

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