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French in Action

June 5, 2014 | by

Mourning Pierre Capretz.


“Robert,” in his ubiquitous Yale T-shirt, with the fetching “Mireille” in a still from French in Action.

I carry vivid memories of a boy named Robert, who insisted on wearing his horrible Yale T-shirt everywhere—to Chartres, to La Closerie des Lilas, to that seedy little rental-car hub on the Boulevard Périphérique, even (sacré bleu!) under a white blazer. What tone-deaf Ivy League foolishness, I remember thinking. The corollary bummer was that Robert wasn’t a caricature of the average American exchange student; he was more or less the ideal version thereof. He bopped through France, always encountering the lovely Mireille, who seemed to appear—without explanation or apology, and often without a bra—around the country’s every corner. And most important, he took every conceivable opportunity to improve his French. Robert was in Paris not to chase tail but to learn the language, to become a citoyen du monde. And yet he insisted on wearing that horrible Yale T-shirt everywhere

Such were my first high school impressions, in 1999 and 2000, of the video pedagogy of French in Action, the language course cum TV series that taught me (and millions of other Americans) the rudiments of the Francophone lifestyle.


Pierre Capretz

French’s wild-haired emcee, Pierre Capretz, died earlier this year, in Aix-en-Provence, at eighty-nine. Capretz’s eyes always brimmed with mischievous possibility. He struck me as Henry Kissinger’s magnanimous French cousin, a man whom the world had weathered in the best possible way, imbuing him with wisdom and a philosophical cheer without which no one who teaches French in America can stay sane.

As I learned more about Capretz, I started to get the jokes, which, of course, included the Yale T-shirt that Robert seemed never to wash. My teacher-guru, Madame Demaray—a sanitization of de marais, “from the swamp”—had helped Capretz beta-test the program at Hotchkiss, a very swish prep school that had taken me in; it wasn’t terribly far from Yale, for which Hotchkiss’s founders hoped to groom their young men and eventually (thank God) their young women. Relations between the two schools were still cozy in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, and Mme. Demaray worked closely with Capretz as he developed his legendary regimen for the oral and aural teaching of French, imparting knowledge through a long-form video narrative that moved with the rhythms of a mystery novel. My teacher, with whom I was in half in love as one is with a glamorous great-aunt, told me in private about the million-plus dollars Capretz had gambled in making French in Action: about securing funding from the CPB and from WGBH in 1985, about the multiple heart attacks he suffered during the scripting, filming, and editing of part two. I saw my hispanoparlantes classmates toting Destinos and realized that the workbook/video/language-lab triad owed its current pedagogical vogue to Capretz, who believed, correctly, that the musical tools of language might succeed where 501 French Verbs had failed. Read More »


Darcy and Elizabeth Go to Summer Camp

January 1, 2014 | by


In the summer in 2014, in honor of the Pride and Prejudice bicentennial, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill held its first annual Jane Austen Summer Program, described informally as the “Jane Austen summer camp” and inspired in part by the Dickens Project at UC Santa Cruz. Our correspondent kept an illicit diary of his experiences, excerpted below.

Thursday, June 27

4:35 P.M. I have been hoodwinked into wearing many hats at this conference, some of them literal. E-mails from the braintrust inform me that I am to play Mr. Darcy at the Meryton Assembly on Saturday night, to which end I must shave my beard and attend two sessions of Regency dance instruction, all while perfecting my scowl. During convocation, I scan the order of the dance: “Braes of Dornoch”; the “Physical Snob”; “Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot.” The more boisterous sounding the dance, the more I fear for my newly fitted tights and breeches on generous loan from the Playmakers Repertory.

Professor James Thompson of UNC is our first plenary speaker. Thompson explains the etiology of the program, suggests that next year’s gathering will likely focus on Sense and Sensibility, and floats the idea of one day holding a summer conference about “Austen and the Brontës.” From the collective intake of breath, he may as well have been talking of 2Pac and Biggie. Thompson also expresses gentle alarm over suspected "crypto-Trollopians" in audience, a joke that lands with shocking force among this mix of academics, various regional representatives of JASNA, garden-variety superfans, Ladies of a Certain Age Wearing Sun Visors, archaic dance enthusiasts, and one very precocious eleven-year-old who takes notes at each of the plenaries. I give thanks that Thompson is a friend and banish anxiety over the tights. Read More »


One Ring to Rule Them All

September 27, 2013 | by


Amid the bustle of this year’s Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), where many attendees sport Regency garb from dawn to dusk, one curious piece of material history is provoking sustained, triumphal glee.

Last year, Kelly Clarkson, winner of the first American Idol, in 2002, bought a turquoise-and-gold ring that Austen had bequeathed to her sister, Cassandra. Clarkson is a devotee of the novelist and, by virtue of her fortune, a serious collector who already keeps a first edition of Persuasion in her personal library. Sotheby’s had placed the ring’s reserve price at £30,000; Clarkson paid £152,450.

Original Austen totems are hard to come by. Slivers of her library have survived, as have a few likenesses by Cassandra, various small items of jewelry (including a topaz cross that Paula Byrne is especially fond of), and whatever portion of the novelist’s letters Cassandra didn’t burn. The scarcity of such items, and the national importance of the writer Rudyard Kipling once called “England’s Jane,” prompted furrowed brows on at least two continents over the prospect that this ring—perhaps she wore it as she wrote Persuasion!—might find an unceremonious home in southern California. Austen blogs and listservs lit up, as did the Republic of Pemberley.

The Jane Austen’s House Museum, in the Hampshire village where Austen spent the last eight years of her life, marshaled this general unease into a pledge-drive campaign. Meanwhile, England’s culture minister, Ed Vaizey, enforced a rare “temporary export bar” that kept the ring in the U.K. and gave the museum until the end of December 2013 to match the Clarkson bid. Vaizey’s statement was simple: “Jane Austen’s modest lifestyle and her early death mean that objects associated with her of any kind are extremely rare, so I hope that a UK buyer comes forward so this simple but elegant ring can be saved for the nation.” Read More »


Mudbone, Sinbad, and the Typhoon Kid: A Pirate’s Life for Me

August 15, 2013 | by

"The Capture of Blackbeard" by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

"The Capture of Blackbeard" by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

"Here was an end of that courageous brute, who might have passed in the world or a hero had he been employed in a good cause."

—Charles Johnson on Blackbeard, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates, 1724

BEAUFORT, NC—Mudbone’s wife encounters the same dilemma each August when she visits Beaufort.

“Back in Greensboro, at least I can pick him out of a crowd,” she says. “But this weekend? Forget about it.”

“Well, I don’t always wear it,” Mudbone adds quietly. “Not when I’m working on windows, for example. But otherwise, yes. All the time.”

Mudbone, for the permanent record, should be easy to pick out of any crowd. His default wardrobe is a many-layered 1740s pirate outfit, much of his own making or else his wife’s. His commitment to detail and historical fidelity is remarkable. One of his pistols, each of which he carved and welded himself, has a retractable mini-bayonet that looks like a grilling skewer. He has blades of varying sizes, a musket slung over his back, and a leather tricorn hat plumed with a three-foot feather. He has hewn several of his blade-handles out of elk antler. He is, to understate the case, a spectacle.

One weekend each August, however, Mudbone blends as though camouflaged into the hundred-plus temporally displaced privateers and scallywags who invade the two main strips in downtown Beaufort for the town’s annual Pirate Invasion. Two things strike you immediately as you enter Beaufort. The first is that anyone under twelve or over forty is dressed, quite convincingly, as a pirate. The other is that all the women insist that you call them “wenches,” an epithet they bestow with lip-smacking pleasure on one another, as often and publicly as possible.

Mudbone does not refer to his wife as a “wench.” In fact, he speaks very little, allowing his weathered face (as though baked by the sun and salt water!) to answer whatever questions his voluble wife does not.

“We got started at a Ron Paul convention, actually,” Mrs. Mudbone tells me. “Mudbone used to dress like Davey Crockett, head-to-toe, as a sort of statement, you know? And then I bought him that gorgeous leather tricorn—which isn’t a sailor’s hat really, or wasn’t at the time, in that century—and people would approach him on the street and ask, ‘Are you a pirate?’”

Mudbone laughs. “Eventually, it started to sound like a great idea.”

“He’s incredibly shy when he isn’t in costume,” his wife confides. “Good luck getting two words out of him. But in the costume, he just transforms. He becomes just a total ham.”

Read More »


Required Reading for Bastille Day

July 15, 2013 | by

Claude Monet, Rue Montorgueil, Paris, Festival of 30 June 1878

Claude Monet, Rue Montorgueil, Paris, Festival of 30 June 1878.

So hangs it, dubious, fateful, in the sultry days of July. It is the passionate printed advice of M. Marat, to abstain, of all things, from violence. Nevertheless the hungry poor are already burning Town Barriers, where Tribute on eatables is levied; getting clamorous for food.
—Thomas Carlyle, History of the French Revolution

The old saw that “an army marches on its belly” was blunted on July 14, 1789, as a half-starved, bibulous mob overran the walls of the Bastille, the Bourbon kings’ infamous political prison-turned-armory. Leaders of the rabble were more excited about hoarding gunpowder and fusils than about liberating the prison’s seven remaining, apparently apolitical inmates. Over the next two centuries, La Fête Nationale (or simply “le quatorze Juillet”) has metastasized from a Gallic celebration of freedom to a worldwide excuse for holding a multiday anarchic party, ideally with decent wine and minimal casualties. Read More »