Beowulf in the White House

As readers of this blog know, I am a big movie fan – I’m actually supposed to say ‘film’ or ‘cinema’ but not ‘film’ – big deal!  And I’ve also been a great fan of certain types of TV programs ever since I got hooked back in the day on that utterly marvelous detective series known as Peter Gunn, which ran on then network TV from 1958 to 1961.  It wasn’t only that show’s eponymous protagonist played by inimitably cool and suave Craig Stevens with his smoothly voiced threats and compliments (he almost reprised that kind of persona in the later series Burke’s Law [1963-1966] – but not quite!); it wasn’t only that classy sexy chanteuse Edie Hart played by beautiful Lola Albright; and it wasn’t only that proto-soft-jazz-rock theme by Henry (well, listen for yourself to this [be sure your computer’s sound is on] version and that version) Mancini that truly cooked – no, it was the happy combination, the slick confluence the seamless convergence of those three factors that ‘made’ the series for me, and I still watch it with great pleasure from time to time via NETFLIX (somebody should do a study of that series and its Nachleben as it were).

The series West Wing, which ran for seven seasons (1999-2006), is another program that captured my imagination, and from time to time I watch that one too, on my own DVDs. It had an excellent ensemble cast of actors (with Martin Sheen playing the president), story lines written as well as they were plotted, and – in my view – believable acting of the highest order.

Given that Dee Dee Myers, White House press secretary in the early Clinton years, was a consultant on the program, I assume it was based at least in part on goings-on in his White House.  And the irritating omniscience imputed to the fictional president Bartlet reminded me of the adulatory fawning at the time by a credulous press over Kennedy’s putatively hydrobatic accomplishments – the sad sham of it all brought to light only many years later, by comparison rendering Clinton’s dalliances tame stuff indeed.

The West Wing president was previously a professor of economics who won the Nobel Prize, and now is a notorious know-it-all:  staff and family run from him when they sense he is winding up for another ‘lecture’ about whatever.  His character is certainly up on everything, it seems.  (In one episode [??], for example, saddened beyond grief by the accidental death of his secretary – a woman he had known since he was a teen-ager – he curses God in a church and does it in Latin, but – inappropriately in my view – Latin that sounded to me as if it had been cribbed straight out of Plautine comedy!)

But in episode 17 of season 3 this knowledgeable president proves to be a fine illustration of Alexander Pope’s famous couplet (lines 215-216) from An Essay on Criticism [1711]:

A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:

Donna Moss, one of the ladies working in the Bartlet White House, asks her immediate boss, Josh Lyman, to intercede with the president to have a proclamation issued in honor of a Mrs. Morello, a high school English teacher with whom she had studied who, now retiring, was a strong influence on her development and, Donna feels, deserves some real recognition.

[Many of us have been lucky enough to have had a Mrs. Morello in our young lives:  for me it was Mr. Keith for Algebra I and Miss (sic) Shade for Latin I in the ninth grade at La Jolla High 1950-1951 just north of San Diego.  Yes, they were brilliant teachers and indeed taught me Latin and Algebra, but their real contribution to the rest of my life was to awaken in me the notion that I had a mind and that there was more to life than the endless summers of surfing, swimming, and (pre-aqualung) abalone diving in and around and beneath La Jolla’s beautiful coastal ecologies.]

The president then tells Donna he can’t just issue a proclamation but does set up a surprise telephone call between Mrs. Morello and Donna in the Oval Office.  The president is also present, and when Donna chokes up on the phone, he steps into the breach.  The following exchange takes place:

PRESIDENT:  It’s Jed Bartlet, Mrs. Morello. I’ve got a few questions. When you taught Beowulf, did you make the kids read it in the original Middle English or did you use a translation?
MRS. MORELLO:  We used a translation, Mr. President.

So much for Mr. Know-It-All  aka the erudite U.S. President!  So much for Mrs. Morello aka the inspiring  English teacher!  Surely she should have called him on this gaffe … even if he is the president.

Bartlet – and Mrs. Morello – either confused the poem Beowulf with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales from some three to five centuries later, or Old English (the language of Beowulf) with Middle English (the language of The Canterbury Tales).  The latter you could read after a fashion without special study, but Old English – I think not.  But, hey, one mistake (that I know of!) in 155 programs … not too shabby … and since I don’t watch West Wing to brush up on my early English literature (or my Latin, either, for that matter), well, … let’s cut a little slack here, sit back, and just enjoy the series!

This entry was posted in FILM REVIEW, GALLIMAUFRY. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Beowulf in the White House

  1. heather says:

    The BBC has a program in which all anachronisms, goofs, etc. are exposed. Some folks are really good listeners/viewers. Like you!

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