Thoughts from a Symposium Rookie

Thoughts from a Symposium Rookie

Nick Hutchison was a valued contributor to the National Symposium for Classical Education this past year, and we are very pleased to announce that he will be returning again in 2023.

Registration for the 2023 Symposium is now open. For more information, and to register, visit

Flying into Phoenix for the 2022 National Symposium for Classical Education, I feared that I would be out of my depth: a practical theatrical director amongst erudition and scholarship, unsure what I had to contribute. What is a classical education, how can one define beauty with any precision, and what does “poiesis” actually mean? My conversations with Dr. Robert L. Jackson assured me I would be a useful addition, but the prospect, when confronting me in the flesh, was frightening.

I was also worried that the way I direct Shakespeare might be too mundane and technical for such a topic as the love of beauty; I feared I was about to be swamped by huge themes, wildly confident generalizations and grandiose sentimentality.

I should not have been worried. From the electrifying first keynote by Frederick Turner, I knew this was a forum for precision, for a forensic approach to these mighty topics, and for a discussion of craft.

Frederick, and Carol Reynolds in her talk the following morning, approached beauty in a way that felt concrete. Carol’s description, note by note, of how a Ukrainian folk song was put together and why, lead to the moving experience of a hall full of scholars and teachers giving a rousing rendition of the same.

Anika Prather’s rousing exhortation—“just get them to perform it”—showed us how classical tradition, in this case Greek drama, can convince modern students of the futility of violence. What a clear justification of the need for the classics and for the seriousness of theater.

Frederick Turner’s talk connected closely to my work: his reflections on math as poetry tied in to my thoughts, gleaned from the eminent British director Sir Peter Hall, that the verse form, the ten-syllable metric line, is the key that unlocks Shakespeare. Hall reckoned the ten syllables were as much as the human brain can assimilate in one go; Fred, discussing acoustic presence in the memory, timed it at about 3 seconds. I reckon a good Shakespearean actor delivers about 20 lines of verse a minute: 3 seconds a line. The meeting of our two worlds enriched us both.

My own contributions seemed to work best when the examination of the craft of writing was most
specific: I did a workshop on the “rules” of verse, as mathematical as Fred’s acoustic presence, and the
teachers seemed most interested in the most detailed ideas. My late friend Barbara Mowat of the Folger
described Shakespeare as “crafting the script,” and the craftsmanship of Shakespeare too often gets lost in a sea of bardolatry.

Among many new friends in Phoenix, I spoke at length to James Matthew Wilson, poet and scholar, about our mutual love and respect for T.S. Eliot. In “Little Gidding,” Eliot describes the line of beauty:

Every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every
word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together). . .

Shakespeare, in his grammar school on Chapel Lane, had the benefit of a traditional classical education. He used that education to inform every line he wrote, and found that rightness in every one of them. From 16th-century Stratford-on-Avon to twenty-first century Phoenix, Arizona, the line of beauty is tangible, and the thread unbroken. It is in the love of creation, the precision of craft, that beauty lives, and the scores of teachers and students in that vast hall were all there to delight in it.


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