"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Teaching plays with audiobooks

English teachers are divided among themselves about the use of audio books for reading assignments. Many feel that offering audiobooks permits students to avoid the hard work of deciphering text visually, a skill they will need to acquire. I am of the school that listening to a story still requires deciphering and interpretive skills; I encourage students to use audiobooks while following in the book; and in many cases this is simply the only way many struggling readers will acquire the material at all. (I also believe there are more undiagnosed cases of reading disabilities than we know.) I have been known to distribute CDRs with Mp3 files of audiobook versions of books we're studying when I believed it would be of genuine assistance to the student.

There are a lot of audiofiles out there, but many of the free ones available (such as LibriVox) are made by volunteers, so you should check out how they sound before recommending them or supplying them to students.

The one less disputed use of audiobooks is in studying plays. Most of the time, my students are enthusiastic about reading aloud when they can take specific roles (as contrasted with reading ordinary prose). Sometimes, however, classes are shy or students are reluctant to read expressively. Also, Shakespeare can be very daunting to read alone, especially when reading "cold." And I usually pass over the text several times in the classroom to insure students have maximum exposure to this challenging material.

Often I used my own or borrowed recordings to rip Mp3 files. But I have located some links for free downloads of some plays, which I thought I'd share with you. As I find more, I'll share them with you. Most of the files are in compressed format and will require expander software. For Windows users like me, I like 7-zip, which is free and has been completely reliable. Some of these downloads are in Mp3 format.

Let's start with one that's on a lot of syllabuses--I've been teaching it almost my whole career: The Crucible.

Then there's Hamlet, and there are several versions to offer. First is the BBC Radio Version featuring Kenneth Branagh leading the Renaissance Theatre Company. It may not be absolutely complete, but it's about as complete as you can find. The files have been uploaded in three sections, which we shall refer to as one, two, three and four.

Next we have the recent production seen on public television here, with David Tennant as Hamlet and Patrick Stewart as both Claudius and The Ghost. It is in a single Mp3 file.

And just for an exotic difference, here's the Nicol Williamson Hamlet of the late 1960s with Marianne Faithful as Ophelia, Anthony Hopkins as Claudis and one of the first angry-young-man interpretations. Again, this is an Mp3.

While we're on the subject of Hamlet, some Honors and AP teachers work with Tom Stoppard's brilliant Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead. There is no audiobook of it yet, but here's a rip of the soundtrack of the film, which, while visually dull, tracks the text of the play very closely. Also, it has Gary Oldman and Tim Roth, who are perfectly cast as the title characters.

Speaking of honors classes and absurdism, there are two good recordings of Waiting for Godot. One is with Bert Lahr, E.G. Marshall and the original American cast, in two parts, one and two.

The other is a starry BBC Radio version with Ian MacKellan as Estragon and Patrick Stewart as Vladimir, also split into Act I and Act II.

Meanwhile, back with Shakespeare, the next most popular play in the classroom has to be the (shhh!) Scottish Play. This is a BBC Radio version with Richard Eyre directing Kenneth Stott and Phyllis Logan, again split into sections one, two and three. (BTW, can't wait to see the television production later this year with Patrick Stewart as an unspecified Eastern European despot sporting a 20-something hot trophy wife Lady Macbeth. Interesting interpretation.)

Another fairly common play in the classroom is Othello, which can be heard in a production starring Anthony Hopkins, with Bob Hoskins as an inspired Iago, again split into parts one and two. The text is virtually complete.

I remember well reading King Lear during my senior year in high school, and I wish I could have heard John Gielgud, Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench, Bob Hoskins and company. Files are divided, like Lear's kingdom, into parts One, Two and Three. The text is virtually complete.

If you crave novelty, you can also check out Sir Alec Guiness's Lear here, somewhat abridged.

Many schools teach The Tempest, which can be downloaded here with a cast led by Sir Ian MacKellan.

In my first school, I initiated the teaching of Shakespeare in our middle school. Reasoning that I wanted something readily understood, and that most high schools in the area taught Midsummer's Night Dream or Romeo and Juliet in the freshman year, I opted for Taming of the Shrew, which can be downloaded here in parts one and two.

It's a shame more schools don't teach Richard III, because for a history (or is it a tragedy), it's rollicking good fun. You can go with a complete rendition by Kenneth Branagh and cast, posted in parts one and two; or you can go with the abridged soundtrack from the film starring Laurence Olivier. (Branagh just spends all his time catching up with Olivier, doesn't he?)

If you're really intrepid, this is not very clearly marked, but there is an entire archive of all of the Arkangel Shakespeare recordings here, arranged so you can download just what you want. I'm sort of lukewarm about this library, as they don't boast as distinguished casts as most of the productions I've posted here, but it may be the only place to find a free copy of some of the lesser plays, in case you're teaching Measure for Measure, Titus Andronics or Two Noble Kinsmen.

I wanted to post audio versions of those all-time favorites, Julius Caesar, Midsummer's Night Dream, Romeo and Juliet and Merchant of Venice, but I'm still looking for excellent free copies. If I find them, I'll post them. Meantime, you could use the Arkangel versions posted above.

And for a lighter touch, you can introduce younger students to Shakespeare with The Complete Works of William Shakespeare by the Reduced Theater Company. The DVD is probably better for the classroom, but if you want an audio version, maybe for yourself to listen to in the car, the entire radio series of six half-hours can be found here in parts one and two.

1 comment:

  1. For mac users, these files should unzip automatically with the built-in archive tool.