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Speaking Out

Teetering on the Brink

An Open Invitation to all Pennpeople

Any objective observer of the University scene (as a humanist, I am used to thinking in terms of small audiences) will have to admit that Penn is not often identified as the source of modish innovations in higher learning. Too often we have been content to follow the lead of Harvard, West Chester State, and other institutions. But now that we are teetering on the brink of real greatness, according to the D.P., we need something original that will give us the little push that will result in what future generations will surely refer to as The Great Fall Forward. As you may have guessed, I have contrived what I think is just the thing.

The thing is "The Student Prints," an original musical comedy based roughly on the Franco-Prussian war. The production of this work, which by its subject and nature is a striking and multifarious example of interdisciplinary, ethnic, and area-studies outreach, can, by casting it from all parts and levels of the university community, including Physical Plant, truly achieve the close relationships among students, faculty, administrators, trustees, and employees that have been touted in speeches and public relations handouts.

It must be admitted that the number of featured roles is not great. In a less disciplined and effectively structured institution this might lead to unseemly competition and unruly auditions. Fortunately, our hallowed, although recently established, tradition obviates such hugger-mugger. Clearly, these featured roles will be played (and rightly so, I hasten to add) by members of the Board of Trustees. They are as follows:

Ulrich von Spiegelwasser: an aristocratic student, whose weakness for hard drugs (he is often called the Junker junkie) and his inability to write cursive script (hence the title, as you may have surmised) has forced him to drop out of a university and to join the Prussian army. He is in love with

Betty: an exotic, tempestuous Gypsy princess, who, in an imperfectly converted bus, sells Magyarburgers to both the French and Prussian armies. She is also loved by

Franco Prussian: a French draftee, whose name obliged him to become a double agent. He is pursued by

Francois Petard: an explosive French intelligence officer, formerly a philologist, whose career peaked when, at the age of twenty-three, he invented the imperfect subjunctive. Later, in desperation, he became a dean, from which fate he was rescued by the outbreak of war.

Fortunately, there is a large chorus and enough minor roles to accommodate a representative sampling of the entire university community. However, to avoid oppressive sexual stereotyping, we shall be looking for male persons whose superstructure will not repel peasant blouses, and female persons whose infrastructure will make the wearing of jackboots and spurs seem plausible, if not actually attractive.

Should this production be the success that I confidently expect it to be, we can move swiftly to establish a Center for Interdisciplinary Musical Comedy Dynamics (the astonishing proliferation of centers in universities has been called by the Journal of Higher Education "a triumph of academic entrepreneurship over financial stringency and the desire for peace and quiet"). Although the choice of the director for this center seems obvious, one cannot be sure of anything these days. In any case, the Center can then capitalize on the success of "The Student Prints" by rushing into production another musical comedy that is already taking shape in my mind. It is about a man who wins the presidency of a major university in a lottery. Its title is, of course, "Won University." I look forward to seeing all of you when the casting call goes out.

Clifton Cherpack,
Cuisinart Professor of Free French Literature

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Originally published in Almanac October 7, 1980




Cherpack Letters Index: