Watching Childhood End in My Back Yard
Jun 28, 2023
By Jill Lepore
Maria was the Pirate King. She was five. She was tall for five and she was dauntless and she was swaggeringly piratical. She wore a red bandana, a black felt pirate hat, and an old terry-cloth bathrobe of her father’s cinched around her waist with an orange scarf. We’d made an eye patch out of black construction paper stapled to a shoelace, but it bugged her so she yanked it off. Louisa, Maria’s little sister, tried putting it on the dog, but it bugged him more, so she chucked it into the notional ocean, Penzance harbor, the parched and patchy grass of our back yard. We’d rigged the house’s back deck to be a pirate ship: a white bedsheet for a mainsail, a Jolly Roger painted on cardboard nailed to clapboards, and, for life preservers, inflatable pool floaties lashed to the deck railings with clothesline. With apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan, it looked awesome. Maria strode across the deck of the ship, slashing at the air with a wooden sword, and singing:
For I am a Pirate King!And it is, it is a glorious thingTo be a Pirate King.
And it was, it was.
This exclusive, one-time performance of a radically abridged adaptation of “The Pirates of Penzance” was held on a Friday afternoon the week before Maria started kindergarten—the end of preschool, the beginning of school. I have exactly ten lousy photographs of the show. There were no iPhones then and most of the grownups held not cameras but babies and toddlers slathered in sunscreen, slipping out of our arms like seal pups. The audience sat on wooden benches and borrowed chairs. Two sisters, Charlotte and Phoebe, aged five and eight, sold tickets and popcorn and lemonade—a quarter each or a dollar for everything—from the window of a wooden puppet theatre, and no one complained that the math didn’t work out. A boom box blared out a D’Oyly Carte Opera Company CD, but the show was mainly pantomime plus dancing: spinning, wriggling, the occasional cancan.
That year, there were eight kids in our madcap back-yard summer-theatre camp; seven years later, there were eighteen, not counting house dogs and stray cats and pocketed frogs and whales we built out of black garbage bags, blown up like balloons and duct-taped to broom handles, for a world-première production of M. T. Anderson’s “Whales on Stilts.” I still have my favorite prop: a painted plywood sign from “The Princess Bride.” On one side it says, in red, “THE PIT OF DESPAIR”; on the other, in blue, “MIRACLE MAX, QUACKERY 25¢.” I keep it in my study, flipped to one side or the other, depending on how the day goes. I like how there are only two choices.
If it rained, we’d make a giant pile of pillows on the floor and flop down and watch the Marx Brothers on DVD: “Duck Soup,” “Horse Feathers,” “Night at the Opera.” You can get to know a kid pretty well by finding out which Marx brother he likes the best. (Harpo. I love Harpo.) “This is casting research,” I’d say if my husband wandered by, raising an eyebrow at all of us. “Casting research? But you let everyone have whatever part they want.” Nights, he wrote the scripts. “Disappointment shouldn’t start before you learn how to tie your own shoes,” I told him. Reading skills, learning disabilities, talent, ability to carry a tune: irrelevant. “Rule No. 1,” I’d say to the kids, “anyone can be anyone.” As if this made sense, as if this were an actual rule, as if growing up isn’t about being trapped in one role, forever, and forgetting that it’s just a part, and that you’re the one who made it up.
The Playhouse started because two things happened at the same time: Charlotte and Phoebe’s mothers decided to get married—same-sex marriage had become legal in our state that spring—and the local Gilbert & Sullivan Society, which regularly held a milk-and-cookies matinée for the under-ten set, announced that its fall production would be “Penzance.” To get ready to see the play, I bought the CD, and, for the wedding, I bought my little boys cheap polyester three-piece, bow-tied suits, in which they thought they looked like pirates, although in truth they looked like Vito Corleone’s great-grandchildren going to a christening. They’d put on their suits, I would play the CD, and they would dance, stomping and shouting and being nautical, not to mention historical, mathematical, and quadratical.
It started for a more practical reason, too: there’s no day care or summer camp in the last week of August, which is also the week college begins, and I had to teach. So I said I’d have a bunch of kids over to my house for the week and organize some kind of pint-size production, because that was the kind of thing my mother would have done, and because my next-door neighbor, Liz, volunteered to cover for me when I had to run to campus for a class.
Mostly, it was the usual drill. Drop-off at 8 A.M., pickup at 4 P.M., bring a hat and a swimsuit. For snacks: orange juice and goldfish, baby carrots and sliced apples. At noon, everyone went to Liz’s for lunch: cheese quesadillas on green plastic plates on orange paper tablecloths. Afternoon naps for the under-fours. I clipped a baby monitor to my back pocket. We’d rehearse, paint sets, make props, mess around. I’d take everyone to the playground or set up the sprinkler in the back yard or we’d head out to the basketball court and play Fishy, Fishy Cross My Ocean. We ran through a lot of Band-Aids and bug spray and self-adhesive mustaches.
For the kids who were old enough to read, I’d print out scripts and put them in colored folders. The kids decorated them with their names and the usual doodles: rainbows, hearts, race cars. Simon kept his folder by his bed, and read through it every night before going to sleep; in the morning, in the shower, he would sing all his songs. His breakout role was Leo Bloom, in “The Producers,” when he was eight. “I have a secret desire / Hiding deep in my soul / It sets my heart afire / To see me in this role.” He wore a buttoned white shirt, black pants, and suspenders, and carried a blue flannel blanket. “Look out, Broadway!” he belted, doing his best to tap-dance in sneakers. Eat your heart out, Matthew Broderick.
We never went to Broadway. But the kids made posters and tacked them to telephone poles and notice boards all around the neighborhood, and it got to be a thing, these back-yard plays staged in front of curtains made of paint-spattered drop cloths stitched to torn plastic shower curtains and stretched between pitch-backs. Grandmothers came by car. Elementary-school teachers took the subway. We had to borrow more chairs. We ran out of popcorn.
My permissive approach to casting meant some characters were played by more than one kid. Our “H.M.S. Pinafore” had Buttercup, played by Liz’s daughter Zoe—and also Cutterbup, played by Louisa. If you were in the audience and didn’t know the story, watching the action wasn’t always much help. Hence the scripts relied rather heavily on narrators.
NARRATOR: It is 1880 and we are aboard Pinafore where she is docked in England’s Portsmouth harbour. This is the finest ship inall Her Majesty’s royal navy, blessed with an honest, hardworking, andmostly happy crew. I say mostly because there are those on board Pinafore whose love is unrequited: they love without any hope of beingloved back. . . . Behold the particularly fine seaman up there on thepoop deck. His name is Ralph Rackstraw.
Rackstraw was Ben, six, missing four teeth, up on the balcony, hoisting a sail topped with a Union Jack, and trying to look at once wistful, lovelorn, and patriotic. His little brother Daniel only watched that year; he later got his big break in “The Princess Bride,” when he played the Albino and got to rasp, at Prince Humperdinck’s prisoner in the Pit of Despair, “Don’t even think of trying to escape!”
Trying on roles is what little kids do every day; they’re always playing parts. In “Pinafore,” Rayne played an able seaman dancing a hornpipe, the natural two-step of every toddler. Maria, a swashbuckler, liked parts that required a sword; she was Dick Deadeye. Year by year, kids perfect their parts; that last week of summer, they’d get to play outsized versions of themselves. In “Pinafore,” Rayne’s brother Emerson, eight years old and born to command, wanted to be Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty. Every year after that, he’d twirl a cane, with cornstarch graying his hair. In “Oliver!” he was Mr. Bumble, Master of the Workhouse; he was, inevitably, also Captain von Trapp. Gideon had every firstborn’s tendency to tyranny. “It was good,” he’d say. “I got to be bad.”
But then there were the kids who wanted to play anything except the selves they were becoming. One of Gideon’s brothers, when he was five, had a hand-me-down Flash costume: a red polyester suit with a yellow lightning slash on the chest, and a mask.
CAPTAIN: They are an excellent crew.
SIR JOSEPH: Yes, I am sure they are. Now where is this BEAUTIFUL daughter of yours. I should like to meet her finally!
DIRECTION: Flash runs up the gangplank, onstage, and off the other side. Crew, captain, and Sir Joseph look on, confused.
SIR JOSEPH: Who the heck was that?
CAPTAIN: I’ve no idea!
NARRATOR: I’m not sure, but it looks like Flash, the fastest man in the world—though what he’s doing here, we may neverknow.
That’s how I felt when I had to dash to campus to play The Professor—the black gown, the mortarboard hat. I’d stand at the front of the lecture hall. What I was doing there I never really knew.
The kids got to choose the plays. One year, Gideon and Maria nominated “Whales on Stilts,” M. T. Anderson’s very funny book about a twelve-year-old, Lily Gefelty, whose father works for an evil corporation that’s housed in an abandoned warehouse. Ben, then seven, and unerringly earnest, seemed fated to play Lily’s friend Jasper Dash, Boy Technonaut, who’s stuck in time and forever saying things like “Dash it all, chums, that sounds like a mighty pickle.” We made Jasper’s Titanian Bullet Mobile out of an old bicycle trailer covered with aluminum foil. “This newfangled buggy is capable of speeds of up to five miles an hour!” Jasper announced. Emerson, a dastardly henchman, got to growl, “You mean for me to dispose of him, boss?” Maria, now eight, got to play a half-man, half-whale who’s always dumping a bucket of brine on his head, with water made out of blue confetti. M. T. Anderson lived in our neighborhood, and I e-mailed him an invitation. When I had to tell the kids that he declined, it was a Pit of Despair day.
“Whales on Stilts” is the first show I’ve got on film. Someone brought a camcorder. After every performance, we’d have a potluck—hot dogs, potato salad, watermelon. The kids started a new tradition: they got hold of that camcorder and conducted on-the-spot interviews. “How did you like the play?” Ben, still in his Jasper Dash costume, asks the boyfriend of somebody’s babysitter. “I want to interview!” Simon squeaks. “I haven’t gotten a turn.” He films his bare feet walking around the back yard until he finds Maria’s dad, Dan. “What did you think of the play?” he asks, very Mike Wallace. “I thought the play was fabulous,” Dan answers. “It was exciting. It was funny. It was deep. It had social commentary. It had everything.” Simon goes back to filming his feet.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression. Wes Anderson didn’t produce these shows and I’m not Mary Poppins. These kids weren’t precocious, and I was near useless at directing them. The shows were terrible, truly terrible, but for a long time the kids were too young to notice that other kids went to real theatre camps, or music classes, or dancing schools where they acquired actual skills instead of doing things like reading “Oliver Twist” out loud or spending three hours holding an all-hands meeting about how to incorporate the green plastic slide bolted to the swingset into Act II. The badness is why I loved it: I got to stow away on the seaworthy ship of their childhood, with its courageous captains and intrepid crew, their bravery, their beauty, their zany, chaotic daring. I don’t think I understood that it couldn’t last.
Every year, the kids got more serious about the plays, more ambitious but also more self-conscious. In “Oliver!,” they wore capes and top hats and ragged dresses, and the orphans went barefoot and smudged dirt on their faces, and Miles and Perri’s mother, Amy, stepping in as musical director, taught them how to sing. My “anyone” rule began to bend. “Some birds are songbirds,” my husband would say, listening, wincing. “And some are not.” By now, the oldest kids were busy, too, becoming more themselves, creating a part and sticking with it. They wanted to learn how to act, not pretend, and I didn’t know how to teach them. Will, eleven, loved having a big brown beard pasted to his face to play Charles Dickens, but all the other boys wanted to be bad guys, and, to be fair, those were the best roles. Calvin and Malcolm, nine and eight, were Bill Sykes and Mr. Monks, and Simon, in an overcoat the size of Pennsylvania, was Fagin, but it took some work to convince Miles, eight, to play Oliver, who, admittedly, is as interesting as a busted toaster oven. The day before the show, horsing around in the basement, Miles climbed on top of the puppet theatre, fell off, and nearly broke his nose. “I think it makes him look more like an orphan,” Perri announced.
The plays also got longer and the kid vote more complicated. The year after “Oliver!,” the boys wanted to do “The Producers” but the girls wanted to do “The Sound of Music.” Me, I was just worried about the Nazis. In the end, we compromised, cut out “Springtime for Hitler,” and the kids wrote a mashup called “The Producers Produce der Sound of Music.” Maria played Maria. Zoe was sixteen going on seventeen, except, really, she was eleven. We got a feather boa for Louisa, as Ulla. Gideon and Calvin, ten, sang “Der Guten Tag Hop Clop”; everyone’s littler siblings got to be the von Trapp children; and, in a Flash reprise, a four-year-old ran from the chapel at the convent to the offices of Bialystock & Bloom, wearing Superman pajamas.
In the lore of the Playhouse, “The Producers Produce der Sound of Music” marked the beginning of the end. This summer, I asked Maria what she remembered about that year. “Perri and I spent hours writing a very drawn out, narratively insignificant scene for the script full of jokes and physical comedy, including a doorbell falling out of the door on a spring,” she e-mailed me. “I remember feeling like a real-life comedy writer when most of our jokes were cut from the final draft.”
I hadn’t remembered that, cutting anyone’s jokes. Had I done that? Was that why seven years of theatricals had ended? I asked my oldest kid what he thought happened. He likes to torment me. He texted back, “In ‘The Literature of Exhaustion,’ John Barth suggested that, after Kafka and Joyce, there were no more novels to be written and all that was left were literary games of the sort Borges plays in ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.’ This led Barth to write his 900-page faux Puritan relic ‘The Sot-Weed Factor.’ It also, I think, led Lepore to ‘The Producers Produce der Sound of Music,’ a rather high concept idea for a play borne less out of uncompromising postmodernism than out of the compromises of the incipient end of childhood. . . . A kind reviewer might have called the final product episodic.” This is why you should never allow your children to major in English.
“The kids really wanted to do a longer play this year, with more lines,” I e-mailed the parents the summer after “The Producers Produce der Sound of Music,” sending along a copy of a forty-two-page script the kids had drafted, an adaptation of “The Princess Bride.” How could we possibly pull that off in a week? Inconceivable! (“I do not think that word means what you think it means,” Malcolm said, wearing stilts as Fezzik the giant.) It rained for three days. Stuck inside, the kids invented a game that they called Total Pillow Guerilla Warfare, but which I thought of as Eighteen Kids Might Be Too Many. Maria wanted to play Inigo Montoya, the swordsman, but so did Ben, who had a broken arm, and so they both did. “You killed our father!” they cried out in unison. “Prepare to die!” And still the Dread Pirate Roberts defeated them. The playbill read:
Act I: In the medieval town of Florin
Act II: More of the same
There will be a brief—five-minute—intermission.
That intermission turned out to last a lot longer than five minutes. “The Princess Bride” was our last play. The kids, sweating and exultant, took their final bows in front of the plywood sign, which was turned to “MIRACLE MAX, QUACKERY, 25¢.” And then they bolted, tossed off their costumes, threw their hats in the air. The camera pans around the back yard, a kaleidoscope of tree-dappled light, catching kids eating watermelon and giving piggy-back rides and breaking into song and sliding down the slide, one after another, into a wriggling, giggling heap. It was, it was, a glorious thing. I’ve never missed anything so much.
Phoebe got married this summer. Charlotte’s a pastry sous-chef. The boy in the Superman pajamas is starting college this fall. Perri’s in law school. Will works for BritBox. (Dickens would be pleased.) Miles, if not a Modern Major General, is a naval officer. Maria’s a cellist. In college, she wrote a senior thesis about “the culture of virtuosity in classical music education.” She’s against it, against pressure, against perfectionism. She’s training to be a music teacher. I saw her this spring. She’s still a Pirate King. ♦