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 any child from any class allowed to speak in authentic tones before the mid-nineteenth century?   More frequently than we might think, at least in the case of the elites.  A place 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 actor who would to deliver the play’s prologue.

Thomas Sheridan, Jonathan Swift’s good friend, wrote a prologue for an amateur theatrical  Westminster School staged in 1720.  In English, it was the prelude to a performance of a tragedy by Euripedes in the original Greek.  A six- or seven-year-old had to learn a longish piece of verse and Sheridan gave him the opportunity to tell the audience just how ghastly the exercise of memorizing it had been.  So ghastly that he wished he could throw away his book and get back to whipping gigs and playing marbles.

Cotsen 5744.

The presence of an “I HATE SCHOOL” speech in a steady-selling school book like Newbery’s The Pretty Book for Children, a primer, a speller, and elementary reader in one volume, seems rather subversive for humorously undercutting the message that children who love their books become “great” men and women. Perhaps the compiler was wise enough to know that the educational system would not be toppled if his readers heard an imaginary school boy sound off.  But it was cut later.

So here is Sheridan’s prologue to Euripides, with the boy’s extended negative comparison of his book to his toys. A top can spin, a ball can bounce, a kite can fly.  A book is too heavy and awkward to do any of those things.  The only thing it is good for is a support for his knee when shooting marbles.  Any reading, his mother says, will stunt his growth, so for his part, he would be a much happier boy if he never cracked open another book his entire life.

So there…