Give her a girl who is at an impressionable age, and that girl is Jean Brodie’s for life.
That’s Miss Jean Brodie, the teacher who is more enlightened than those around her if, for no other reason, than because she is in her prime.
She can live, love and laugh how she wishes. Or eat, pray, love.
Wait, that’s the title of another story, isn’t it? This story is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which began as Muriel Spark’s 1961 novel, a work playwright Jay Presson Allen adapted for stage in 1966.
The play opened in London in 1966 with Vanessa Redgrave in the title role, then moved to Broadway in 1968, where Zoe Caldwell won a Tony Award for her portrayal as the girls’ school teacher.
Allen then adapted the play for film in 1969, where Maggie Smith delivered probably the best known portrayal of Jean Brodie. The performance won her an Oscar.
Now the teacher’s story will play out at LSU when the LSU Department of Theatre opens The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie Friday, Feb. 15, in the Claude L. Shaver Theatre.
Opening night will be preceded by a pay-what-you-can performance on Wednesday, Feb. 13, and a sneak preview on Thursday, Feb. 14.
And it’s here where Miss Jean Brodie once again will announce her motto not only to the impressionable girls in her classroom at Marcia Blaine School for Girls but everyone in the audience.
“Little girls, I am in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders, and all my pupils are the crème de la crème,” she’ll say. “Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life.”
But sometimes life is shorter than even Jean Brodie realizes, with some of the impressionable never reaching their prime.
And it takes only one betrayal to topple the world Jean Brodie has constructed through the years. Imagined or not, Jean Brodie believes in her world view, and she shares it with her impressionable students.
Jean Brodie teaches a classroom filled with girls, but only four are special. They are Sandy, Monica, Jenny and the new girl, Mary.
They are known as the Brodie set.
“And they love her,” Jenny Ballard said.
Ballard is in her third and final year in the Theatre Department’s Master of Fine Arts program. She’s Miss Jean Brodie in this production and will be playing Sadie Burke in Swine Palace’s production of All the King’s Men in April.
“I tell people that this is my light role,” Ballard said, then laughs. “That’s a joke. Both roles are pretty heavy, and I will be following one with the other. And I’m also working on my MFA thesis in the middle of it. But I love it; I love everything I’m doing here.”
Ballard also teachers one theater class each semester.
“And playing this role makes me think of the impression I make on my students when I’m teaching,” Ballard said.
Jean Brodie is 40-something and unmarried. Her story unfolds in 1930s Edinburgh, Scotland, home to the Marcia Blaine School for Girls.
Jean Brodie is a tenured teacher, which serves as a buffer between her and the headmistress. See, all teachers are expected to abide by the school’s curriculum, but Miss Jean Brodie believes her calling is higher. She romanticizes such fascist leaders as Benito Mussolini and Francisco Franco and bypasses hard knowledge for the acquisition of culture.
She also engages in illicit affairs with coworkers and deceives others to achieve her aims.
“Jean cares for her students, but she doesn’t realize how misguided she is and how impressionistic her students are,” Ballard said. “They adore her, and they take everything she says at face value. She’s trying to encourage them to be strong and independent, but her influence leads to her students taking chances that may be noble but are dangerous.”
One student, in particular, takes such a chance, the result of which leads another to betray her. That’s not really giving away any surprises, not when the play opens with the betrayer telling the story of what led to the betrayal.
“Mary is the student who betrays her, and she’s a nun when she tells this story at the beginning,” Ballard said.
But the cause will require a trip to the Shaver Theatre, where a 23-member cast will transport audience members back in time.
“One of the main reasons we decided to do The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is, like most theater programs, we have more women than men,” Richard Holden said. “So, we try to do a play once a year that gives more roles to women.”
He’s an assistant professor of acting and directing at LSU, as well as co-head of the Undergraduate Performance program. He’s also director of this production, which mixes a cast of undergraduate and MFA students.
“A typical question here is how much control should a teacher have over his or her students regardless how much they’re loved,” Holden continued. “Everyone has someone like that in their lives.”
“And it’s complicated, because as a woman, I appreciate how progressive and free-thinking Jean Brodie is,” Ballard said. “But as a teacher, I find her terrifying.”
In the end, Jean Brodie’s goal isn’t really to injure but to influence by broadening horizons.
“But she’s created this world she lives in,” Ballard said.
And its horizons.
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