Sex scandals are abundant on Chicago campuses right now. After the recent controversies with Northwestern’s sex toy demonstration, UChicago Hookups, and Vita Excolatur’s latest issue, Theater Oobleck’s production of There Is a Happiness That Morning Is seems very relevant. Happiness is a story of two professors who, after committing an act of public indecency, must justify their actions through examining poetry and its relevance to daily life.
Bernard (Colm O’Reilly) and Ellen (Diana Slickman), the two professors in question, both teach the poetry of William Blake. One evening, as they read Blake’s poetry out loud to a group of students, they become so inspired that they remove their clothing and have sex on the spot. The president of the university, who happens to pass by at the wrong moment, is outraged. The play unfolds as the two professors attempt to apologize and explain their actions in class.
Bernard, who has little academic experience and teaches only one class, attempts to justify their act with the poem “Infant Joy” from Blake’s Songs of Innocence, while Ellen, a seasoned Ph.D., justifies the public nature of the act with a poem from Blake’s later cycle Songs of Experience. As they wrangle with the decision to either apologize for their actions or attempt to justify them, they embody both the conflict of innocence and experience and the conflict between free love and its consequences.
Blake is not the only poet central to the piece. The playwright Mickle Maher, who currently teaches on the University’s Committee on Creative Writing, actually managed to write the entire play in rhyming iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter is a meter that comes naturally to English, which perhaps explains why the text sounds so logical despite its unusual form. However, this natural feel doesn’t extend to the plot. The play, which at times feels slightly absurd, is filled with surprising and bizarre twists. Bernard, it turns out, is unqualified to teach; Ellen is dying from a tumor; and the dean of the university is a voyeur. Despite the strangeness of the subplots, the play’s bizarre nature does allow for bountiful humor.
Theater Oobleck rendered this play successfully, despite the formidable challenges it posed. Though they lacked a director, the three actors pulled off their large roles in stellar fashion, all while maintaining rhyming pentameter. With a bare-bones set consisting of a blackboard, two podiums, and almost no props, the play gives the audience the impression of being set at a real college, giving the audience the rol eof students listening to a lecture. This is where the play’s message lies: Whether you’re a current student or an adult with your college years behind you, this play takes you back to a time when you spent your days attending classroom lectures and struggling with questions of meaning and relevance in literature.
In our quest for knowledge and the life of the mind here at the University of Chicago, it is important to realize that the answers to the most important questions are not clear-cut, and don’t necessarily even exist. The most important classes and the most profound literary works are the ones that ask questions instead of giving answers. This play, in its simulation of both a classroom and a poem, has done just that.