Essay: Spinning Voices, Why We Write

By John Ballantine

I Sanders Theater

Sitting in Sanders Theater in the fall of 1968 with 825 other students, the life of tragedy, mistaken identity, and laughter was opened to me by a gnomish looking professor with fedora hat on the chair, balding head, and twinkle in his eyes. Bill Alfred read to each of us – the Oresteia was not a bedtime story, yet the chorus cautioned that revenge of Agamemnon’s murder would not sit well with the gods.

“Why should we care about Orestes and the Greek furies when napalm was stripping the forests in Vietnam and my draft number would soon be number 30 when Nixon is president?Why listen to ghosts, to Celtic spirits when the world is not right?”

But we did, Professor Alfred, read the line again, looking at me listening intently, and then up to the balcony. Tragedy broke our bubbles – MLK, RFK, Prague, and now a president who hated the young, the privileged, the establishment. How do we escape the currents sucking us down – Viva La Revolution, Progressive Labor Party, and Black Panthers defending their broken windows. The world we woke up to or thought we knew did not add up.

True for Orestes, Hamlet, Othello, Nora in the Doll House, and, of course, Godot.

Bill Alfred brought these ancient characters, the actors we did not know to the oak stage in the Memorial Hall, a place covered with plaques commemorating the civil war veterans.  Robert Lowell, the rumpled poet – Bill’s friend who could not escape the confines of mental hospitals – wrote For the Union Dead. The legacy of war, of dead, scaring the land, our country. My eyes opened wide.

“Two months later half the regiment was dead.” The memorials surrounding us sighed, the dead still turn in their graves. Wars continue.”

I sat on the hard oak benches transfixed by the long memories of war, of tragedy, of the senseless effort to conquer, Fight back. We want answers, we point to the enemy, accuse the “masters of war,” but it ain’t so simple, is it. “Please, please mister postman...” Bob Dylan retreats from the scene. Bill reminds us that we have to wander too. Maybe not Ulysses, or Dante, possibly with Beowulf, his Anglo-Saxon hero.

Early in the morning, we hear the alliterations bridging the 10-syllable phrase, not understanding where our lace Irish bard is leading us, except that Beowulf fights monsters – imagined or not – and rules the rock-strewn northlands when Grendel falls. If only.

Each week we cross to another century – two plays, a reading, an essay – another struggle to set things right, and then today is center stage. Not the movies that keep me company – the Devil moving chess pieces in Seventh Seal, or Bogart standing on the rain-stained tarmac in Casablanca with Peter Lorre. No, Arthur Miller, shows how easy it is to betray family, to turn on illegals, the wetbacks, In A View from the Bridge, and then he reminds us of the diabolical sitting here in Massachusetts. Women and witches, wanting some quiet and relief from the pointing fingers in The Crucible.

Not far from you… not different from today, as we shout down not just the taxman, but the military recruiters. “No ROTC on campus,” looking for good men to die in another war. Not here we say.

The police put on the bayonets, protesters throw bricks, banks burn, windows are smashed. The war is here.

Where is the laughter, even Brecht’s pickpocket smirks as he snatched my empty wallet, or grave diggers chuckle over the scull of another dead man. Bill Alfred sees the despair in our downcast eyes, knows of war in faraway lands with and without purpose. He knows the dark holes of Sartre’s existentialism will not cure our malaise. That Our Town is too sweet, not possible, even when Rainmakers spin miracles. My Fair Lady may be closer to the romance to calm our hearts, as Maria mourns Tony when the rumble takes down the curtain on West Side Story. We look to our professor. He needs to believe with us.

The broken world is not the message. Bill Alfred brings us to the theater, stretching all the way back. There is a kinder world, beauty too, and maybe nobleness in the words rhyming across the page. We did not know the cure to the chaos cutting across the page; was this man in tweed suit, fedora hat, and ticking clocks our guide? Tales to assuage, encourage, give hope, and help us unravel the predicaments surrounding, Aesculus, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Ibsen, Ionesco, Miller, Bergman, Cervantes, Dante, Becket, Joyce, Shaw, Camus, Goddard, Renoir and so many others scribbling madly. To save us, to get out. We might be lost but we were walking with so many across millenniums. Cold comfort maybe.

Each Tuesday and Thursday morning, the sun broke through the clouds. Eight hundred students opened their eyes not to the cries of hate, of desperation, but hope and the mirage of love.

Each of us sitting in the amphitheater in Sanders held dreams – for me it was Saint Joan when I was the page pointing to the dove flying over the river, or counseled my Saroyan father as I balanced on a beam that My Heart’s in the Highlands, that his dream need not die. I tasted the magic of theater, the characters filling my night-time imagination. Not just Lady Macbeth, but also Prospero, or Peter Pan.  Sitting in Sanders theater we felt the power of words, better worlds. Not only the terror of wars.

Bill took us there, line by line, with his soft Irish lilt and songs to quiet the feverish mind. He a Brooklyn immigrant, breaking into the hallowed halls of Harvard, with Beowulf slaying Grendel not just with a sword but gentle smile and black fedora hat.

In the dark amphitheater, bent over a worn book, in tweed suit, he looked at each of us wanting answers. But the Greek chorus could not, would not point the way out of the maze after the wars – riddles to guide us on our journeys. Killing and revenge would not work; would it save us today? Not if Athena could not protect us from the wrath of Poseidon. The circle of tragedy tightens.

“What does it mean today? Who speaks for the chorus and what if there are no gods?” He with fedora hat who prays each day asks us unwashed students, how to avoid the funeral pyres, the tears? The curse.

Beowulf with alliterations bridging the ten syllabic sentence is no better. Is there is no answer to life’s conundrums? On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, I visit other words, hear new voices, and sit astonished by the dramas opening new doors. Professor Alfred looked at me, up to the balcony, and then breathing in the air surrounding the angst that gripped out souls – we turned the page. Orestes saved; Nora free, Prospero spinning magic.

Back then there was no yoga in Harvard Square, a Hare Krishna novice chanting in orange robe, giving peace a chance was no match for dominos that Nixon and Kissinger were knocking down.

Something happened in Sanders Theater. The actors had a voice. Each character may be traumatized but Nora pushed back, even as the witches of Salem burned. The charred ashes under the crucible whispered, enough, no more dead.

II My Journey

I was turned inside out by the divorce I did not see coming. The assassinations one upon the other of MLK and RFK. Hope crushed like the tanks rolling into Prague. The riots and police billy clubs might silence some, yet we would not exit stage right. Theater taught us to stand tall, to wait for Godot, to break bread at the table and sing with the Madhatter. Bill Alfred stood behind the lectern and read to us -- bombs might be dropping in London, Dresden, or Hanoi -- but the soliloquy in the dark of night fed our spirit. Play upon play, characters turned round on stage, they do not stand mute. Even Chekhov’s players flail at the truths staring at them. Some speak directly like Galileo -- the center of the universe does not spin round us – others are more oblique pointing to the math, the reasons things do not add up.

We hear the mysterious whispers of the spirits who disappear when the lights go up.

What did you learn in that amphitheater, why did you sit there transfixed by the imaginings of so many – long gone – scribblers? How did that professor in black fedora hat with dolce voice shine the light on that scene outside Moscow, or on some distant Aegean Island where victorious warriors were not welcome? We heard the voices on the ramparts, the speeches before and after the battles, the music lamenting the dead, and the women in the kitchen saying stop and listen.

We felt the magic, not the tragedy suffocating so many. The spirit rose and I picked up my pen.

Everything was falling apart outside. Napalm in Vietnam, brick crashing through bank windows, and ghettos burning. Families not talking to each other. The betrayals that turned my world upside down.

Theater could not explain what was happening to my country T’is of there. No pledge of allegiance soared with the burning flag. Drugs, acid rock, Jefferson Airplane, or Arlo Guthrie might save us from the call of draft boards if we wore a tunic with a head of thorns and stood mute when they asked our names. The helicopters took too many down over there. Life was not fair even for the college bound.

Bill Alfred heard all of this – he knew of the troubles, the 200 years of struggle with the Brits. The peat moss and potatoes that did not feed. The rain, the prayers, and why so many wandered, escaped the dark dank stone hearths that froze the spirit. Struggles surrounded his ancestry, still there was a story, a fiddle tuning an air. A jig and music on the high road.

In Brooklyn, the firm mother’s hand, and twinkle of brother’s eyes across the dinner table after prayers, said believe in what’s ahead. A job, a foreman’s frown at the docks where fair pay, or enough to get by, meant dinner and warm bed. A home where siblings from the home country sat in school, learned more than you believed possible and found the first place for those just off the boat in the universities of higher learning. The door of opportunity opening for the lucky few.

Bill was the boy who remembered his home and why he knelt each morning in quiet prayer as others shouted. I did not know what brought him to the Sander’s theater stage. But his eyes twinkled full of mischief, romance, and fortitude. Faye Dunaway dancing and twirling through his circuitous tale of white lies, larceny, and decency of the play each day.

Skullduggery, meanness, love. Nothing too fancy, a warm tweed coat, a frock that sat well with the beauty on stage, and a smile that lit up each room.

Who would win, who would bow, and what was the point?

Bill’s rosy cheeks pointed to hope, even if justice did not prevail. The Greeks knew that too well, and Shakespeare too, so why should his stage, his play be any different? Tragedy sits heavy, yet love burns strong, particularly in the spirit of a beautiful lady.

Listen to the spirits, the chorus, the soliloquy we did not get. Turn back the page, pausing I see the rose on the ramparts, Erik Von Stroheim in Grand Illusion touching hope. The apparition disappearing. The mystery that keeps us going.

“Who wouldn’t wonder at the assassination of MLK. The fires erupting across our cities. Who wouldn’t wonder at President Johnson and Secretary McNamara waging a jungle war to stop the dominos falling. Who wouldn’t wonder at the injustice of our world with George Wallace and Bull Connor pushing back the blacks.”
Who wouldn’t say why me, what have I done, and who made this world so bad? Who is the enemy?

My sentences broke. No voice, nowhere to turn. No game to play. No flowers for the grave. No day, no light. No world for me. Head down, I walked across the quad, through the police barricade, looking for a new world. No way out, no exit.

How do you break the shackles, find the table, break bread, and speak once again?

III My Descent

First, I journeyed with Dante Alighieri. A light brown text in rhyming couplets or something more elaborate. The 14th century poet wandering deep into the dark circles of hell where the ordered logic of the exiled made little sense. A man searching for the meaning to life like me. But the purgatory he traveled through was treacherous strewn with sinners – more so than mine – while the round-faced angels ascending in the Padua frescoes gave me comfort. Giotto and Dante were quieted before the Black Death, where fleas riding back-alley rats eviscerated so many. For what – a plague of a diabolical misdeeds. Not washing hands. My minstrels survived such wrath.

Really John in 1968, you fell back to earth sometime around 1294. Sitting in the Lamont Library half asleep imagining better worldsYou found your way out of the twisting fates of time?

Well not really. I discovered that medieval chains crushed so many for slights, human foibles, not deadly sins. The scales of justice were unfair, the red robed bishops full of hypocrisy and outstretched hands. No different from today. My existential friends sitting in contemporary cafes did not smile. I joined these timeless comrades – mostly men who scribbled, who scratched the walls, and tried to explain. They like me did not like what they woke to, or the ways of the world.

The bombs falling, the napalm, the monks consumed in flames were no different than the barren plains of 14th century Europe. A valley of death. Astronomers excommunicated for saying what – the sun is the center not the earth. Maybe God did not make this medieval garden, this maze in which we wander, fight, and kill. Maybe there is grace, even love if we open our eyes. Giotto painted the girl next door; Dante reached out to Beatrice. I sat in cafes dreaming not of black holes, but beauties just beyond.

“Little boy lost takes himself so seriously.”

Art freed me from the despair lurking late at night. I did not knell in quiet chapels though I wandered through empty naves, still I worshiped what flickered on the screen, not the glass cutting the foot, but the flower, the rose on ramparts, the sparkle in her eyes that said wait. Peace and love will rise.

Really you believed such poesy,such minstrel lamentslike Romeo you diein the evening lightalone with Juliet.

I turned pages, stared at paintings and I did not see death, did not embrace the hate, but found a spirit leading me out. A ghost maybe, aspiration perhaps; certainly, a voice whispering to me. Do not fall into that hole. I heard the bards surrounding me, my teacher on the stage with gentle eyes journeying with me through the trials that await us. The Renaissance scribes turned their backs on the dark ages and so did I.

Come on. really John?A book, a painting, a fresco, and movies in dark theaters delivered you from the pounding revolution, the bombs droppingin Vietnam, the protests, and the police storming streets?

Yes and no. My head heard the call, I wandered with Dante through his circles of hell. I laughed with Boccaccio and saw what Milton spun with the angel Gabriel surveying the garden of Eden. I heard not the bullets flying, nor touched the blood on my hands, but pushed back the depression, the black holes sucking in the unsuspecting. I turned to the smile filling the screen. The eyes of beauty riding the waves with Aphrodite. Dreams through time.

Depression no more – angst in the eyes of those I passed. The war in Vietnam raged on, the raised fists of protests said No More War. I marched with my comrades freed from the confusion surrounding me.

IV Our Teacher

Professor Bill Alfred with fedora on the stool stared at our sorrows, our serious looks, and read to us.  See it isn’t so bad. We are not Orestes returned home to seek retribution – kill our mother Clytemnestra for murdering Agamemnon – with the chorus saying not that path. Nor are we Hamlet turning from ghosts to spread adolescent confusions in houses. Maybe Godot waiting for no one. Or Nora who wants freedom from her wifely duties.

Twice a week, I sat in the theater enthralled at what could be, at the dramas that took too many down, only to rise. Like the rainmaker, Bill Alfred rose with the dawn, after mass, to take his students to a better stage. I sat in churches outlining my conscientious objector essay, even as I watched others go to war. My eyes looked down, my script was tight, my notebooks full. The unfair wars that I did not understand, but neither did they.

Bill saw our eyes, heard the music crying out. The masters of war. The lies of our President. This gnome like man, our English professor became the troubadour that we turned to. Almost Don Quixote, the errant knight, fighting our battles of righteousness and venturing out for the love of Dulcinea.

Yes, John you may write a play, a movie script with me – a rewrite of Sartre’s No Exit, you say. Why not? If you recite the lines of Beowulf with me each week with the clocks ticking and chiming on the quarter of the hour. I with so many other young souls sought guidance, a guide. Maybe Bill was our Virgil.

A cup of Tea, a cracker. Now let us read,see the alliterations, the accents, and the phraseburied deep within the sentence take you back to deeper recesseshear the Celtic tricks, the howling wind, the darkness outside, the mead hall, and the warming beer that keeps the night back, checks the battle to another day.

Now, what did you write, who is saying what, tell me what your heroine is wearing, and that disillusioned man who stands in the corner muttering to the wall. Paint this scene for me. Listen to the voices, let us read these lines out loud. Leave Sartre for another day, John. Let us walk through the forest, touch the leaves, and forget those words in your head, the books on the table. Sit with me and read what you have written, tell me what your characters say. No more Lear, no more Godot, and certainly not the chorus of telling Orestes what not to do. No more of that.

Just you and me sitting here in the scene, the play to come.

We paused, the ticks of the clock echoing throughout the house and then, the quarter hour chiming. ONE minute and couple seconds. Bill smiled, I looked at the page, breathed deeply and imagined the wind howling, cutting across the Celtic land. The mead hall dark, smokey, warm with talk and the rain slanting against the moss cover hall. Good cheer, a hard life even without the dragons or Grendel.

“I want to change the world, write a play, turn existentialism upside down. How art gets at the truth.”

Yes, of course John we all do, BUT let your characters speak. Dress them in everyday clothes, not white robes with eyes staring out. Not looking at me. No more Goddard or Being and Nothingness. Let’s start with a simple statement, not long colloquies. Two maybe three syllable words.

Bill Alfred sat with my earnest search, he let me see how other men could not turn the upside world right. NOT by humorless words, but laughter perhaps. We who could not laugh, who walked with head down; we who tried too hard. Listen, our guides were everywhere – on screen, novels, but not in great philosophic tomes. Too many words.

The clocks ticked another quarter hour. I sat with Beowulf reciting the 6:4 syllables with the alliterations bridging the gap. Crossing the river Styx. I read, heard, did not understand, but felt the song.

The bombs did not fall outside my dorm. It was quiet in the evenings as I walked home, dreaming the moors rolling down to verdant streams. Lost in other worlds, I walked between the music, the wafting weed, and in time my characters spoke in simple sentences. A blank verse, no rhymes. Step by step, I looked down, stared ahead and down and up. My smile emerging with each step.

Back to Beowulf -- count the 10 syllables, the accent, the alliteration bridging the break. Hear the music, before the story, the sound resonating around the mouth. Feel the cold, the warmth of the mead hall, and the laughter. I walked with Anglo-Saxon classics – Early Anglo-Saxon English that I did not understand, that comes some 55 years later when I return to my absent mentor. We found our guide in Bill’s home, clocks chiming, and tea steeping. Some more diligent than me leapt great chasms.

I heard a whisper, the faint call. Not mine yet, but in time movies, books, late night voices would emerge with the figure crossing the stage, the poet with thinning hair speaking softly of his faith – the vision of what was to come. Words, stories, and soft voices – imagined black & white scenes – who would stop the tanks, divert the drones. The flowers of peace pushing back Russia; the dead boys and fires in Chicago, LA, were closer to home.

Time spins the earth around the sun rise again – dawn’s light, a storm cloud and music rises too. I did not stumble into the rabbit hole with Surrealistic Pillow or watch my guitar gently burning. Satre and Nabokov kept me company, a wet snow covered the fields, I looked across the ocean to Norway’s barren winter fields. A play, a movie, another one, and a woman who saw my dreamy eyes, the grasping hand, and held the soft adolescent body that might lead a Natasha down the steps of Odessa to kinder worlds.

Bill read one maybe two drafts of my plays – come down to earth John. Even Godot turns around on an empty stage. No more white clouds, dress her up, what about a sword, a knife, and why not a notebook. John read this part out loud – not words ricocheting in your head. Bill didn’t say, NOT as good as Satre, but I knew even then this was a start. Testing, my head touched the limits. “More laughter, a little irony.”

Go back to Smiles of Summer Night, Seven Seal, Waiting for Godot, the grave scene in Hamlet. Let us laugh, relax. No more tortured souls, just the cup of tea, the ticking clocks, the voices that light the sparkle in his/her eyes. Yes, the romance. Let’s fall in love.

V Step Forward

We stopped on the quarter of the hour as the clocks chimed, not in unison, but across the minute. 4:16 and then the smile. See what I mean, as he turned the page. Look at the picture of Faye Dunaway spinning across the stage in roller skates, trying the navigate the skullduggery of Irish in Tammany Hall. I felt the gentle touch of a professor who walked these paths, turned over many drafts until it was almost right. He prayed each morning before most of us woke.

"With the exception of my mother, my brother, and my beloved son, Bill Alfred has been without question the most important single figure in my lifetime. A teacher, a mentor, and I suppose the father I never had, the parent and companion I would always have wanted, if that choice had been mine. He has taught me so much about the virtue of a simple life, about spirituality, about the purity of real beauty, and how to go at this messy business of life."

Sylvia Plath and the Bell Jar were not the way out or the rumpled sonnets of Robert Lowell who could not escape Mclean Hospital’s lockup, even as he and Elizabeth Bishop steered aspiring poets from the precipice. Bill did not say turn away from that darkness, yet with a chuckle and eyes full of deep affection he stopped me -- drawing a portrait of Faye Dunaway dancing across the stage in Hogan’s Goat, his play sculpted after ten years of early morning rewrites.

He knew the fragility of every day, how psyches not fully formed could take the wrong path. Why Pound stumbled, so many times, even as he turned The Wasteland round. Bill Alfred read our plays, our poems, our essays and then, hand up stopped us – let’s see the smile turning to laughter, the alliterative trick bridging the line, and the magic of words reaching across time. Characters may kill their fathers, even marry mothers, and not listen to the chorus spinning riddles to guide each of us forward. Bill knew that we die again and again, each night on stage, the story saving us from the treachery stalking the gates.

Tragedy lurks, laughter delights. Theater stops for those who listen.

Bill’s home and gentle voice, lilting with lace Irish lisp said, let’s touch that kindness in your heart. Read the line again, don’t tear it up there is something special in between the spaces. Like the sparrow, open the door, let the beauty of each moment illuminate the page. See the love.

He did not say this to me, or my fellow Harvard students. We read the lines once more, listened, and walked across the campus a little lighter after our tutorials. I still dove deep into my diaries – trying figure it all out -- listened to Jazz late at night, smoked some weed, heard midnight screams, but I saw the light on the horizon, nudging the chapel bells. My spirit shifted as cities burned and those in high places continued to lie. Come fight the war with me; put your finger / body in the dike, push back the dominos.

“It is alright ma, I’m only bleeding” Bob Dylan, 1965

I heard another call, sipped cappuccinos, and danced across the stage full of possibilities. Dreams not nightmares. My head full of words, pictures, actors – imagining better worlds.

VI Open Heart

Bill Alfred opened our hearts, of course he would say that I did it, through his lectures to all 800 of us sitting in Saunders theater – those Greek tragedies with terrible falls, or Elizabethan dramas leading to Ibsen shouting out at the absurdities of modern days, now past. Not happy stories, no easy path, yet even Euripides and Becket believed there was a way out.

“John, you believed between the tick tocks of the chiming clocks. Read the last soliloquy.”

Yes, there was catharsis, some light, a breath before the curtain falls or the credits close the film. The spirit held, like the forsythia blooming each spring, breaking the cold winds of winter. 

My world still rocked with bombs killing too many, cities burned, and leaders lied. The foundations of democracy shook, but with Bill’s gentle nudge, finger pointing to the laughter, the romance, and the dreams – the illusions of my characters – Bill Alfred’s readings carried me from the darkness. My voice emerging slowly with Beowulf’s lament. My heart opened, not letting the head dictate. I traveled with so many across time, through killings, betrayals, and purges. A knight, a warrior, or prodigal son returning home.

Nothing so prosaic, yet a cup of tea, some kind words, and the words on the page filling the room took me across the barren dessert. The roiling sea and the storms that darken too many days. The destiny of too many.

“Not that way, step back from that abyss”

I turned and turned in the darkness of winter, church bells silent; not alone, but lost. I got out – how, I do not know. I sit here 55 years later surrounded by dark books, the notebooks telling of my escape.

Embarrassed, when I look, to see the earnest lost boy – scratching with every tool, musical tune, and tale. A friend to stop the bleeding.

VII Writing

Back then, like today, pen in hand, I scribble until the water is clear. I turned from the circles of hell, the tumbling angels, with our Professor Alfred leading his lost souls out of the wilderness, play by play over the centuries, and for those particularly mired in the muck he tutored us. Read that again John, listen to the voice, the black man, the women, the archetypes you’ve created. Listen, hear. The clocks tick, the tea simmers, and finally I understand.

After 55 years, not as embarrassed by earnest boy sitting by my side, I smile. My existentialist cloud evaporating day by year with sun breaking through the clouds. My heart opened with those characters breaking free. Agamemnon dead, Ulysses home, Godot wondering why and me hearing my words. Bill whispering, read that again, a little louder now.

After 55 years, thank you. Gentle, not pointing, as he let me open the door. Here I sit with love and my dreams. Thank you, Bill Alfred, for letting me win the devil’s game. Darkness falls, the light prevails.

John Ballantine is an emeritus professor renowned for his contributions at Brandeis International Business School. A graduate of Harvard University with a bachelor's degree in English, he pursued further academic heights, attaining a master's degree from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in economics from NYU Stern. His economic insights have graced the pages of esteemed publications including Salon, The Boston Globe, and The Conversation. Beyond the realm of academia, John's writing serves as a profound reflection of his familial bonds, the mathematical equations that come alive in his classroom, the tomes he delves into, and the cinematic worlds he explores. Over the past fourteen years, he and his family have cultivated a tradition of "poetry potlucks," a testament to their shared passion. John has honed his craft through workshops at The Writers Studio and the Concord-Carlisle Community School, guided by Barbara O’Neil's "Writing Down The Bones" methodology. His literary prowess shines through numerous outlets, with his works finding a home in Adelaide Literary Magazine, Apricity Magazine, Arkansas Review, and a host of others including El Portal, Existere Journal, Forge, Lime Hawk, and Santa Clara Review. John's remarkable essay "Half of Something" has earned its place as a finalist in The Adelaide Literary Award Contest for The Best Essay 2018, marking yet another milestone in his illustrious writing journey.