Clarence Coo received the 2012 Yale Drama Series Prize for Beautiful Province (Belle Province). His honors include a Rita Goldberg Fellowship at The Lark, a Dramatists Guild Fellowship, and a 2016 NYFA Fellowship. He received his MFA in Playwriting at Columbia University. He is a resident playwright at New Dramatists and a member of the Ma-Yi Writers Lab. He lives in New York, where he is the manager of academic administration of Columbia’s MFA Writing Program.
An excerpt from Beautiful Province (Belle Province):
Scene 1: Mr. Green’s Farewell To His Class
MR. GREEN, a 54-year-old high school French teacher in rumpled clothes, addresses his class. He stands next to a wastebasket, holding a stack of papers.
He reads a name off each paper then drops the sheet into the wastebasket.
For Edouard — or should I say Ed?— Disappointing.
For Madeleine — or should I say Mei Ling? — Dreadful.
For Christophe — or should I say Topher? — Deficient.
“D.” “D.” “D.” The results of your exam? Deplorable.
Four weeks we spend on two verbs. The result? Disaster!
Two verbs! Granted, they are irregular. But that’s no excuse, for these forms —
Do. Not. Change.
They are immutable!
More reliable than the people in your lives. More stable than governments. More dependable than churches or philosophies. These verbs are your deliverance!
Commit the patterns to memory. Determine the person, the number, the tense. Then remember the form. That’s all there is. To conjugation.
Conjugation. Such a beautiful word. Such a beautiful act.
Shall we attempt the Imperfect before the final frost of winter? Consider the Conditional before swallows sail back in spring? Sally forth with the Subjunctive before our fecund and flowering females ooze out another assemblage of unexpected infants?
Or are we stuck in Present Tense forever?
Can you imagine? Stuck in Present Tense? Time would grind to a halt. Time would stand still! No access to the past. No road to the future.
He reads more names and drops more test papers into the wastebasket.
Yes, there are —
For Matthieu — or Matt — Difficulties.
For Rémy — or Rohit — Dangers.
For Brigitte — or Britney — Disorientation.
Like when I was your age: Delirium!
But French. Is. Worth. It.
French is contemplation.
French is inspiration.
French is liberation.
French makes existence bearable.
Perhaps you ponder how your parents persist existing here? Side by side with steel mills dead and derelict for decades?
Perhaps they’ve numbed themselves cashing unemployment checks to purchase methamphetamines.
But I like to believe it’s because, before closing their eyes every night, they whisper into their pillows the honeyed verses of Verlaine and Baudelaire. And all that is weighty and dark in their souls is expelled into vapor.
For that’s what I do.
Without French, life would be unfair!
But with French, there is expectation.
For in the past, it was English that capitulated to French.
In Chaucer’s Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, the Prioress is ridiculed for speaking bastardized French:
He slips into Chaucerian English.
“And French she spake full faire and fetisly,
After the school of Stratford-at-Bow,
For French of Paris was to her unknow.”
He shakes the test papers.
What was this French from “the school of Stratford-at-Bow?” Not a distant cry from what you have here, my impish urchins, your Level One French of Western New York. Your Level One French of this Heart-of-Darkness on the Great Lakes.
Those English barbarians! Brutes! Payback for the Norman Invasion? They dog-paddled panting across the Channel. And burned down — France. For one hundred years. A Hundred Years’ War! That’s a grand grudge!
But a maid of Orleans appeared on the battlefield. Joan of Arc had a vision. She had a dream. A dream of a world in which children would be judged not by the color of their flags, but by the content of their vocabulary. She had a dream. A dream that one day little French boys and little French girls would join hands with little English boys and little English girls and recite the irregular verbs of both their languages.
But like so many beautiful dreams, she went up in smoke.
The English and French were not yet worn-down from war. So westward, they watched. They wondered. They wandered. The West. This New World. This America. This spacious sky. This fruited plain. Two empires of linguistic thought competing for amber waves of grain.
The English. Their goals: spread slavery. Promote religious intolerance. Encourage the use of tobacco.
The French. Their goal. Simply one. The manufacture of stylish hats! Befriend the natives. Who know the way of the beaver. With their shimmery, shiny pelts! For the manufacture of stylish hats!
Two versions of the future. A date was set for the final showdown. The Thirteenth of September, 1759. The Battle of the Plains of Abraham. The locale? In the very heart of New France, in the colony called Canada, outside the walls of Quebec City. The players? General James Wolfe in red. The Marquis de Montcalm in blue. The result? Collision. Collapse. Catastrophe.
So you speak not the French of Paris, but the English of a frozen, rusty scrap heap, a scrap heap forgotten by people who live on the other end of the highway.
And so you watch not the insightful drollery of Molière, but men in tight pants tossing an elliptical mass of cowhide.
And so you eat blue cheese, not paired with a glass of fine Bordeaux, but as a dipping sauce for chicken wings and celery sticks.
How then to communicate with you? As that is my duty. My vocation. My contribution to society.