Why Toys Are Better than Books: A School Boy Makes His Case

A boy whipping a gig. Christopher Comical, Lectures upon Games and Toys (London: F. Power, 1789). Cotsen 2039

The adult writer has the privilege of impersonating the child, throwing its voice as if it were a ventriloquist’s puppet.  How often was the child allowed to speak in authentic tones before the mid-nineteenth century?   More frequently than we expect and one of those places where it was permissible was at performances of school plays.  Old public school boys could share vivid memories about the horrors of the educational process through the boy designated to deliver the play’s prologue.

The one written by Thomas Sheridan, Jonathan Swift’s good friend, for an amateur theatrical staged at Westminster School in 1720 is a great example.  It was in English and introduced the performance of a tragedy by Euripedes in the original Greek.  A six- or seven-year-old had to lean how to declaim it and Sheridan gave him the opportunity to tell the audience just how ghastly the exercise of memorization had been.  So ghastly that he wished he could throw away his book and get back to whipping gigs and playing marbles.

Cotsen 5744.

A steady-selling school book like Newbery’s The Pretty Book for Children, a primer, a speller, and elementary reader in one volume, does not seem like an appropriate venue for an “I hate school” speech.  Its presence in an otherwise earnest text humorously undercuts the message that children who love their books become “great” men and women.  But perhaps the compiler thought letting his readers hear an imaginary school boy sound off would not  topple the educational system…

So here is Sheridan’s prologue to Euripides, with the boy’s extended negative comparison of his book to his toys.  The only thing a book is good for is to kneel on when shooting marbles.  Any reading, his mother says, will stunt his growth.

So there…