Wednesday, January 03, 2007

History, Poetry and BlackAdder

History as I remember it in school was a dull parade of facts, dates and names to be memorized and regurgitated onto a piece of test paper at the appropriate moment. Anyone remember the slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler too?", "What was the signifigance of the Teapot Dome scandal and when did it occur?", or "Who fought whom at the Battle of Hastings?"

Not so in our house. We apparently learn history through much more entertaining sources. Like, say, Blackadder.

For those of you Philistines who don't know what Blackadder is, you can start with the Wikipedia entry and proceed directly to your Netflix queue, where you should bump it immediately to the top. One of the funniest TV shows of all time, it tells the story of Edmund Blackadder and all of his descendents through various stages in English history. The characters encounter medieval battles, Richard III, Queen Elizabeth I (played by the incomparable Miranda Richardson), the French Revolution and the Scarlet Pimpernel, and WWI, including Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, the battle of the Somme, and the famous poppies of Flanders field. Along the way, we've had lots of great discussions about the topics at hand, the historical figures, and related subjects. After we watched the final episode of the WWI series, I read them In Flanders Field and a short bio of its author, Lieutenant Colonel John McRae.

Over Christmas, we also watched The Reduced Shakespeare Company's DVD in which they manage to squeeze all 37 of Shakespeare's plays into 90 minutes of sheer lunacy and comedy (including the "60 second Hamlet", Titus Andronicus as a cooking show, Othello as a rap song, and Monarch football in which all of Shakespeare's Historical kings pass the ball around the field - and King Lear gets flagged on a penalty for being a fictional character). The kids thought it was a hoot, and on the way back from our snowy cabin Christmas, we discussed a lot of the plays.

We also watched The General and some more of Buster Keaton's silent movies last week. It's amazing how well truly good theatre (in particular, comedy) can stand the test of time and entertain kids who have all the latest in special effects and video games at their fingertips. The cover of the DVD almost put them off, but I told them I thought they would love it and they did, begging to watch all of it in one sitting. Since The General was filmed near here, and one scene occurs at a place that we go to frequently, it was fun to watch from that angle as well. We talked about the Civil War and why the South would not let the movie be filmed there, even forty years after the end of the war.

The cool thing for me is that just through basically entertaining ourselves - having a good laugh and a bowl of popcorn, the kids have learned more about history than I remember in many a dull and dreary schoolroom hour.

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