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Essay

A Method to his Comic Madness

Over the 57 years since I left the place, Andover has gone coed, and, in general, become both far more humane and far more culturally and socially sophisticated.  No longer would I describe its atmosphere as “arid,” or invoke comparisons to a monastery.  That said, it is unlikely that anyone like Stephen Whitney could be found on its staff, or on the staff of any other private, let alone public school, in Anno Domini 2020.  His highly theatrical personal style would be incomprehensible to a generation raised with computer technology and zero sense of occasion, and his casual attitude toward drinking, gambling, and other seamy aspects of late 19th and early 20th century life wouldn’t pass the muster of contemporary political correctness.  So be it.  I remain grateful for the opportunity to have studied French with him afforded by an era far more generous intellectually than our own, if more restrictive socially.

In the arid soil of pre-coeducation Andover, MA’s Phillips Academy, a place aptly described by one of its most famous graduates, writer Tracy Kidder, as having been pretty much like a monastery, there grew and indeed flourished a true comic genius, Stephen Whitney by name.

          For four decades, Mr. Whitney held forth in the school’s French department, turning the generally difficult and painful experience of learning la belle langue into the closest equivalent, this side of the pond, to a trip to the Comedie Francaise.  Of average height and relatively slender build, he at first glance seemed unremarkable, but on closer inspection quickly proved to be one of a kind.

          Take, for instance, his clothing.  No one else was wearing suits and sport jackets like Mr. Whitney’s in 1960, though many actors in 1930s’ and “40s’ screwball comedies had.  At a time when most professional men dressed like undertakers’ apprentices or Methodist divinity students, in narrow-lapelled black or grey suits with skinny ties, Mr. Whitney’s wardrobe featured massively thick Truman-era Harris tweed jackets, navy chalk-stripe suits with wide peak lapels, detachable-collar shirts and a seersucker suit complete with suspenders.  But if his costumes got your attention, it was his voice that held it.  An instrument of remarkable flexibility, that voice, which ranged from low baritone to basso profondo, was never loud but always clear and penetrating, whether he was narrating a dictation, delivering one of his trademark asides, or relating one of his large stock of anecdotes.  So powerful and penetrating was his voice that he often gave the impression of being a much larger man than he actually was.

          His anecdotes alone were worth the price of admission.  I can still remember his description of his father’s expression as the senior Whitney dropped, and saw tumble into New York Harbor, a bottle of rare Armagnac he had smuggled back from France at the height (or depth) of Prohibition.  Beyond priceless.  My memory of the story he told about the joke he and his fellow Yale students would play on their professor, a troglodytic gent much given to using the nearly-obsolete imperfect subjunctive verb form in ordinary speech, is even clearer.[1] On seeing the old gent start to wind up toward an imperfect subjunctive, by hooking his thumbs into his vest pockets and fondling his pocket watch, the students would ready themselves in their seats.  Then, just as he reached his climax, the students would fill in the verb form for him:  “. . .qu’il mourût!”[2] As an actor myself, I’ve heard some great comic deliveries over the years, but I have yet to hear one that could top Mr. Whitney’s imperfect subjunctive.

          He was just as good one-on-one as before a full audience.  On returning from spring vacation, I told him (en francais, naturally) that I’d been having trouble understanding some of the French on a Montreal radio station I`d been tuning into late at night.  ”That`s OK,” he said (also en francais).  “I don`t understand a lot of those guys very well myself.”

          His teaching style was perfectly suited to his curriculum, ordinary at first glance, which on closer examination, revealed itself to be downright subversive.  Sure, there were the dictations, the grammar drills, the readings of short pieces from 19th and 20th century French literature.  But what readings!  At least half were on “mature” subjects such as getting drunk, dealing with a New Year`s Day hangover, gluttonous feasts, or the pain of unrequited love.  You weren`t just introduced to the French language in Mr. Whitney`s classes; you were introduced to adult life and to society.  I`m sure that it was at least in part due to those classes that I had little trouble making my way through Europe, travelling, like most European students, with a Eurrail pass and a blanket roll, the summer after my junior year at Andover.

          In addition, Mr. Whitney was past master of the comic aside.  “Heard you the first time, Charlie!” he would drawl when the noise from a talking student threatened to drown out his discussion of verb tenses or the finer points of a Maupassant story.  That line never failed to leave us laughing in our seats.

          But the crown jewel in his diadem was a simple sentence which he encouraged us to use on any and all occasions when we were having difficulty keeping up with a French speaker, rather than revert to English.  “Pourriez-vous parler un peu plus lentement, s’il vous plait?” [3] he more than once urged us to say. With windup and appropriate accompanying stage business, the thing could be drawn out to 20 or even 30 seconds. It was a sentence that I, at least, never forgot, because it was a sentence that, in the lingo of the literary or dramatic critic, didn’t just tell, but showed.  With this instruction firmly ensconced in my linguistic arsenal, I never again feared any encounter with a French speaker, from the most genial of hosts to the rudest of Parisian waiters.

          Did Mr. Whitney have the purest of Parisian accents?  Perhaps not.  Did he teach us any more about the niceties of grammar than other French teachers would have?  Probably not.  But what he gave us was of infinitely more value than a pure Parisian accent or an appreciation of the distinction between the passé simple and passé compose. What he gave us was courage under fire and a survival skill that, if practiced at least occasionally, would last us the rest of our lives.  And he did it laughing all the way through to 6:00 and dinner, teaching at an hour when in many other classes, boys exhausted by afternoon sports and three or four other classes earlier that day would have been “Threaten’d, not in vain, with sleep,” in the words of Alexander Pope.

          Stephen Whitney was far too cagey ever to divulge his trade secrets, but I nevertheless remain convinced, as I was when a student in his class, that there was deliberate method behind his apparent comic madness.

          Copyright © 2020, Jon Peirce


[1] The imperfect subjunctive is a literary form normally reserved for formal writing, and no longer often used even there.

[2] “. . .that he must die.”

[3] “Could you please speak a little more slowly?”

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