And yet, for these
Children, these windows, not this map, their world,
Where all their future’s painted with a fog
Stephen Spender, ‘An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum’
Class (from the Latin classis, a division; namely, the division of Roman citizens into higher or lowers orders for the purposes of voting and taxation) is a word that can refer either to its original Roman meaning or to a group of students stuck together in the same room. While the latter meaning still incorporates a sense of division, students grouped into different classes by age, these groupings aren’t inherently understood as more or less superior, only different.
Such ambiguity rests at the heart of David Horan and Iseult Golden’s Class, first staged at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. Recently-separated parents Brian (Stephen Jones) and Donna (Sarah Morris) have been called to a parent-teacher meeting with Mr McCafferty (Wil O’Connell) for a discussion about their son’s low-scores in a literacy test. Although Brian and Donna want the best for their son’s education, they are wary of any stigma which might become attached to him, all the more so thanks to their own bad experiences in the education system.
And yet, despite the play’s title, the tension here isn’t strictly between the middle-class well-meaning teacher and the working-class parents, both visibly uncomfortable at being back in the classroom. Rather, Horan and Golden explore power dynamics and class differences across multiple relationships. As scenes shift between the parent-teacher meeting, Brian and Donna arguing alone in the classroom, and a homework club where Mr McCafferty tutors Jayden, the couple’s son (also played by Stephen Jones) and another student, Kaylie (also Sarah Morris), there are power struggles between teacher and parents, teacher and students, students and parents and husband and estranged wife.
Although physical aggression does make a brief appearance, in Class, language is the weapon of choice. Languages signifies superiority, reveals prejudices, defends honour and harms a body as much as any blow. Mr McCafferty throws down ‘percentiles’, Brian challenges with ‘percentages’. McCafferty retaliates with ‘disparity’, Brian returns with ‘gap’. Later, when Donna refuses to take Brian back, it’s ultimately for what he says rather than what he does.
Class touches on children left behind by the current school system, teachers whose jobs are as much social work as education and the failure of good intentions. But as much as the play dances around class prejudices and preconceptions, it speaks just as strongly of the struggle to sustain human relationships when language often makes it difficult to understand each other. It isn’t really ‘class’ that gets in the way, as Class seems to suggest. It’s we ourselves who do all the damage.
Class is on until 27 August 2018 at Traverse. Click here for more details.