Kids Are Playing With Ideas Again


All right, what is the problem this year? Where are the pro-Royalists? Where are the Third World Firsters? The War Is Serious Stuff centurions? The Skiers for a Nuclear Winter? The We Are Not Amused set?

The reason for this clarion call to moral rearmament is that North Harford Middle School has chosen its annual play. And again this year, it won't be "You Can't Take it With You" or "The Man Who Came to Dinner," or some other safe chestnut from the trunk of old school plays.

Rather, it's "The Mouse That Roared," a comedy best known for the cinematic version starring the inimitable Peter Sellers in various roles. Before the movie, it was a best-selling novel by Leonard Wibberley, who also co-authored the screenplay and theatrical script.

Though it appears to be a harmless farce set in the nuclear brinkmanship era of the 1950s, the play does have some stimulating messages, if you're looking for them.

And teachers Tom Berg and Virginia Huller are always looking for such challenging ideas to present to their eighth-grade students.

For them, the play's not the thing. It's the topics and questions that stem from the dramatic production that are most important. That's been their guideline for the past 15 years in choosing a play for their combined social studies-language arts course.

It's a most popular class, limited to about 30 students. The tradition is so strong that younger members in a family look forward to reaching eighth grade so they can follow in the footlights' footsteps of their older siblings. The April public performance is a highlight of the Pylesville school's calendar.

Eleven years ago, the performance drew an audience from as far away as New York City, when a bunch of students drove down to attend in support of the production. That was when the class chose to put on "Inherit the Wind," the drama about the Scopes trial and the conflict of religion and the theory of evolution taught in schools.

While "Inherit the Wind" treated events of six decades before, that play was seen as sufficiently threatening to certain Harford residents to prompt a nervous school administration to cancel the public production.

So Mr. Berg and Ms. Huller got the American Civil Liberties Union to intervene to allow the show to go on. It did. But future plays chosen by the teachers were given closer scrutiny by parents and the school board.

Last year, it was the seemingly innocuous comedy based on the humorist James Thurber's life, "Jabberwock," that raised the public hackles. The script contained profanity, a good deal of it, that was used mostly by a crotchety old grandfather railing at change.

Since the play was first written for a college presentation, the language was unexceptional. But declaimed with feeling by 13-year-olds in public -- well, those same words would have been enough for suspension from school if voiced on the school bus or in the classroom.

In response, the teachers carefully excised most offensive words from the script. They left five such lines for character definition, to retain the integrity of the script, they explained. The character's use of "bad words," the reason behind his outbursts, was the subject of a class discussion, part of the learning process for adolescents that goes beyond stagecraft. Finally, they changed those words, too, at the insistence of the edgy superintendent.

In the meantime, adults who had re-read the play found other "morally objectionable" ideas in it, and they tried to get the play's authors to rescind permission for the sanitized script. That effort failed, and a full house greeted the play's public performance last spring.

"There's no problem I know of with this play," Tom Berg said last week of "The Mouse That Roared," with what could have been a nervous chuckle. "The playbooks have been ordered and we're going ahead with auditions."

The farce involves a mock invasion of the United States by the tiny bankrupt European duchy of Grand Fenwick, which hopes to surrender quickly and receive American aid. But that effort leads the invaders, armed with bows and arrows, to kidnap a scientist with the secret to a doomsday weapon, and then . . .

Needless to say, "Mouse" provides a fertile field of ideas for discussion: The role of monarchies, the status of small countries, the prospects of nuclear war, the power of the individual, the diplomacy of nations. And other topics that these resourceful teachers will undoubtedly raise for their bright young charges to ponder.

Of course, Mr. Berg and Ms. Huller would prefer to teach their classes with the low profile often favored by educators. Loud publicity and controversy may sell tickets on Broadway, but they don't help to make a success of a school project.

For students who have been through the class, and those who've seen the theatrical results, however, the thought-provoking experience has always been boffo.

Public performance of "The Mouse That Roared" will be 7:30 p.m. April 30 at the school. Ticket proceeds go to charity.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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