A Shakespearian Romp
By Don Kissil
Word count = 1,830 words
Zoologically, phylogenetically and taxonomically, a cougar is an animal in the family of cats.
However in today’s lexicon, a cougar may exist as one of two distinct types. Those with four legs, whose outer body is covered with fur, constitute one type, while the second type, when viewed close up, usually walk on only two legs. This type frequently do not display much outer covering at all, but during inclement weather, sometimes they may wear a fur coat. Reality TV today, proudly portrays many two legged cougars.
Today 'Cougar Dating' is a hot media topic, but when I first did it, more than a half century ago, it was indeed a rare event. But permit me here to provide some detail.
Have you ever dated one of your college professors? When a young girl did it, it usually ended up on some sleazy, porno website with the sweet young innocent overtaken by her aged, salacious professor. But what if that were reversed, and the young lothario dated his woman professor, whose age significantly preceded his, as Cyrano's nose did him? I dated one of those, and hence this tale.
All those years ago, as an undergrad, at Columbia in New York City, I was mired in an narrow scientific curriculum that permitted little exposure to the liberal arts. In those days, many techy-type colleges focused your mind and heart, laser-like, into your subject, leaving little time for anything else to creep in. Even though this was a pharmacy college and not an engineering one... as the old joke goes, you can always tell an engineer, but you can’t tell him very much!... some pharmacists today may not be all that different.
But as summer time provided the opportunity to escape that tight mental brace, I thus took the opportunity to enroll, at another college, for a summer-session of Shakespeare 101, under the tutelage of the noted female Professor Ileana Steen.
In her mid sixties, short of stature, with a big chest, close cropped steel grey hair, and a mouth as large as the Lincoln Tunnel, the feisty professor had been, before her teaching career, a professional actress of the Shakespearian stage.
Although valiantly, having fought off throat cancer, only to lose much of her voice control, her present delivery alternated between high, squeaky and an often foghorn-like doom. Thus, she made her meager living teaching Shakespeare to college kids. This was precisely because she knew more about the Bard's oeuvre, than many, and this was New York, mind you, where untold numbers of famous Shakespearian scholars, literally hung out.
She introduced herself as `Fessor Steen', because another vestige of her throat disease prevented her from properly executing certain prefixes and suffixes. While many in her class, of course, immediately renamed her `Fessersteam' and had loads of giggles about that behind her back.
While I was there to: “…brush up my Shakespeare…”, my classmates were young female wannabe grade-school teachers, who had either flunked their creative writing class, and needed remediation via some slam-dunk course, or else, somewhere they could sleep in class at 8:30 on a beautiful summer morning. Boy, were both they and I in for a surprise!
For some reason unknown to me, Fessersteam seemed to take an immediate dislike to me and we battled mightily from the moment our first class had begun. Each morning a typical opening gambit directed to me alone, was often some slight variation of:
"Good morning, Mr. High Class University. Down from the Morningside Heights classes… to sit in with our less erudite masses, are we?"
My classmates all chuckled at those remarks. They seemed to giggle at almost anything, both in and out of class.
Certain that I had somehow stumbled into the first act of the Scottish play, and encountered one of its witches, or maybe having met the hunchback Richard on Bosworth field, I mumbled, somewhat sheepishly:
“A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse… oh, that I could, get outta here!”
However, as our classes progressed, my debating skills with her sharpened, as we bantered about almost everything she presented that the Bard had written. She would deliver such hyperbole as:
"Shakespeare must have known a Jew, in order for him to write the character of Shylock with such sensitivity."
Immediately, I would raise my hand and counter, that he could not have known a Jew, because of Rodrigo.
"Who? Mr. High Class U" she would bleat!
“Of course, professor, you must remember the Spanish - Jewish physician who messed around at court and caused Queen Elizabeth to banish all Jews from England. This lasted for 400 years even after she was gone. Why, it's in all the history books, so how could he have known a Jew?.”
"Oh pshaw, my young oaf, there's nary a truth twixt thy cup and thy lip"… she chortled. And so it went.
Continuing our joust, I wrote my final term paper on Dr. Rodrigo. In it, I continued to argue that this playwright had probably never visited Venice, and had, I doubted, ever met a Jew because they had all been banished from the all the British Isles.
Actually, I continued in my paper, that essentially much had already been written about Jews by the Bard's contemporaries, and by writers in years before him. Shakespeare simply knew his history, and he therefore wrote the character of Shylock as humanely as he did, because he was simply a good story teller and probably a genius. If truth be told, however, the playwright was often so poor during much of his lifetime, that he may have actually had to borrow money from some classic usurer of his time. He probably had done so in secret, as most Jewish worshipers and synagogues, went underground during that reign of terror. I never included that hypothesis in my term paper although my efforts awarded me an A+, as we continued our class battles.
Her crowning achievement however occurred the day we analyzed his play, THE TEMPEST. 'Fessersteam and I were deeply divided, as to the Duke's motivation in some scene or other. Convinced I was in the right and she, in the wrong, my juices were flowing and my voice rose to the occasion.
“Clearly, in this scene, the Duke must have....”
She cut me off in mid-sentence with:
"What did you say?"
I took a beat, and began again this time a few decibels louder.
“Clearly, the Duke says....”
Again, she stopped me:
She responded with ..."I said, Mr. High Class University, what, did you say?"
Almost losing it, I pounded my desk and shouted in my best Bronx voice:
“The Dooke says, I mean the Dooke said...”
`Only to be cut dead with:
"Mr. High Class U”…and she paused, for that traditional theatrical three beat pause, that silently spoke of her years of training….
“Did you not intend to say?... the Dew-k said..."
Crushed, unable to reply…. the classically trained actress had won this battle. My argument was made irrelevant due to my diction!.
That day's class being over, I returned, however, on the morrow... girded for further combat. And on and on, in like manner, we fought, and re-fought, the battle of Agincourt, during the non-air conditioned swelter of those hot August mornings.
At the end of the semester, we both expressed the sadness of our sweet parting or perhaps some silly equivalent, but that's not where it all ended
* * *
I retuned to my mind numbing science that let in very little light. Although in my quiet times I'd often day-dream of our wonderful literary jousts.
So it came to pass, about six months later, that a traveling company of Richard III (with the noted actor, Jose Ferrer as Richard) was to pass through the New York State Theater. As soon as I saw the ad, and without a moment's hesitation I bought two front row center tickets for the opening night. But as the performance drew closer, I realized I'd not made arrangements for a date.
Now, in those olden days, it was just not proper- even for a 20 year-old would-be swain - to attend a major theatre opening without an elegant lady on his arm.
So, in a moment of insanity, followed and hour or so of some extraordinary detective work, I phoned Fessersteam at her home on the morning of the performance, and invited my wonderful professor to attend this impressive opening with me as my date.
Apparently remembering me, she quickly squealed out: "Absolutely not..." and immediately attempted to hang up...but I shouted into the phone ...."it was Richard 111 with Ferrer, and I'll meet you at the theater." That's when I heard the click, as she actually slammed down the phone.
But, just as I suspected, she'd not dare miss the dazzling opening night performance by Ferrer, and, in fact, Fessersteam showed up at the theater dressed to the nines, with her mink stole tossed theatrically about her shoulders. She had arrived a bit early, thinking perchance to buy a scalpers ticket.
Screwing my courage to the sticking point, I walked up to her, smiled and handed her the one red rose I’d bought, just in case…and after the appropriate momentary pause, she smiled back and took the flower, and we entered the theater arm in arm.
All through the performance, as we sat side by side, we continued to argue, albeit softly, as to the finer points of Jose's performance. Sitting so close to the apron of the stage, we thrilled to his pacing, and reveled to the constant swiveling of our heads, to follow the action. During the intermission, we argued the value of Richard III, within the Bard’s cannon and, of course, if Shakespeare the man, ever really existed.
Our time together continued, after the performance ended, as we walked toward, and finally entered, the then landmark Russian Tea Room. There, when we were seated, the appropriately dressed waiter asked:
“What will your mother drink?”
I scowled, stood up and replied in a huff:
”This elegant lady is not my mother… she is my date for this evening.”
Now had I’d known the expression 'cougar', at that time, I’d have used it along with several additional less flattering words to that waiter.
But my professor just laughed it off, and apparently both reading each others minds, we got up and left, without ordering dinner. I walked her back to her nearby apartment.
Apparently, unlike many present-day cougar dates, she did not invite me up for a nightcap, our date then ended with just a peck on the cheek. And no, I never heard her say good night my sweet prince.
Lately, however, in my dreams, I am convinced... she certainly must have, at least thought it!
Today, my date with a cougar, more than 50 years ago, still lives large.