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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Erich Segal: Does He Have A Choice?

By Christopher H. Foreman

ERICH SEGAL is a Harvard man. In case you had any doubts, check the recent statement of his Yale chairman explaining why he had been denied tenure. Neither his teaching prowess nor the quality of his publications were questioned. As Professor J.J. Pollitt told The New York Times, "Mr. Segal does other things besides teach classicle literature." Too bad the "other things" had to be so successful. Lucky for Harvard professor and playwright William Alfred he wasn't teaching at Yale when Hogan's Goat became a smash.

Of course, Yale can't totally dispense with Mr. Segal; his lectures are the largest at Yale. With the current budget squeeze the bosses are counting heads. You can't afford to lose a guy who so dramatically increases your department's enrollment. Nec tecum nec sine te, as the man might have said. So, Yale offered Segal three years of something called a senior lectureship.

IRECALL vividly seeing Erich Segal for the first time on a night last December, somewhere in the bowels of Vanserg Hall. He was lecturing to some Humanities 3 students on the drama of Euripides. His style was pure enthusiasm. Eschewing the podium, hopping about like a praying mantis with a bladder problem, he leaned into our faces to make a point or answer a question, suddenly pulling back to continue his remarks. Small and thin, he did not appear especially athletic, though he runs marathons. He was a bit darker than I had expected. Black, thinning curly hair framed a rather youthful face. He appeared rather more Italian than Jewish. (Actually he once played a gondolier in an Italian film.) But Segal held us spellbound. He translated not only the words but the spirit of his subject. That the class was so successful is all the more remarkable since Hum 3 students are not known to be excited by Greek letters. Traditionally, their concern has rarely gone beyond cramming for an alpha.

ONCE WHEN I was in New Haven, I caught Segal alone in his apartment. He was informally (sloppily) attired in mangy T-shirt and dirty corduroy pants. When I promised not to mention Love Story, he agreed to discuss his early life.

Segal was born in Brooklyn in 1937 and came to Harvard in 1954 out of Midwood High School. He majored in Classics, a discipline representing individual preference as well as the influence of his rabbi father. He also ran for the track team, wisely but not too well, though he fondly recalls his tutelage under Bill McCurdy. "McCurdy is one of the glories of Harvard. He is one of the finest teachers you have."

There was also, in the fall of 1955, a brief attempt at a Crimson competition. Publishing only two unsigned cartoons, he was never elected to the staff. By chance the Crimson president at that time was J.J. Iselin who was president of Harper and Row when Love Story was published. "The only good training in prose style I ever got was while comping for the Crimson."

For his graduation in 1958, Segal was chosen both the Class Poet and Latin Salutatorian, the only time a student has received both honors. In his senior vear, Segal attempted his first play. The result was an eminently forgettable Hasty Pudding show called The Big Fizz. "Even then I was a prude. I refused to write those typically gross Pudding jokes. So the guys ad-libbed the most incredible raunch you can imagine."

Three years later in May of 1961 when he was a graduate student. Segal's Homeric spoof Sing. Muse! was performed in the Leverett House dining hall. Even the Crimson liked it. It was so well received that it attracted an off-Broadway producer. Opening that December, Sing. Muse! lasted only 39 performances. But Segal's career as a playwright was launched. "And I must emphasize, if began without my trying, you know. I wasn't down there making the theatrical scene. I was up here getting a Ph.D. And I wrote something for Leverett House 'cause they wanted it for spring weekend, see? But the professionals bought it and put it on. And then by God, I was a professional!" No, he hadn't tried. But the exposure left its mark. The grain of interest, shoved by unsought accomplishment, gradually snowballed into ambition.

Segal says, "It was the difference between knowing a Beatle and being one. How would you feel about Ringo teaching Latin 112?"

Graduate school proved to be a strain upon a flagging family budget, so Segal taught, first as a sectionman in Humanities 7 and then in John Finley's Hum 2. "I really found myself, I think, in '59, despite the fact that it was a personal crisis in my own life that made me turn to teaching."

"Qui docet, discit," Segal will say. "He who teaches, learns." Teaching became his vocation no less than his avocation. The zestful, enthusiastic approach I saw last December had germinated in 1959 and was transplanted to the Yale campus in 1964 when Segal accompanied Eric Havelock, then chairman of the Harvard Classics department, who had been lured by Kingman Brewster to the paradise of New Haven. "I'm tremendously chauvinistic about Harvard. The longer I was at Yale, the more I appreciated Harvard." Yet he admits that there are things about Yale that are better. "The sheer educational system; the fact that at Yale you are more likely to get an assistant professor for what you might get a graduate student at Harvard. It bespeaks a kind of respect for the undergraduate which I admire."

BUT SEGAL still maintains that the Harvard experience is a uniquely profitable one. "The education you get is from your fellow classmates. Harvard is an excuse to put together (now I'm being superchauvinistic here) the thousand brightest kids in the nation who for the next four years will educate themselves. It is an experience supplemented by classes."

Some might take issue with Segal's evaluation. It is admittedly, biased and spiced with an implicit egotism. Does Segal deem himself one of those "thousand brightest"? No doubt he does, but his flagrant Harvardism has still another aspect. Segal loves and deeply misses the tolerance of idiosyncracy, of eccentricity, he found in his decade at Harvard. His theatrical endeavors were permitted, even encouraged at Harvard. On the other hand, the Yale community obviously brands such doings as the sign of one who is not "serious" about his academic profession. "I really bristle when I hear that adjective. I resent it. So many things can be done with gusto and commitment and joy that the word 'serious' doesn't seem to have relevance."

Indeed, upon inspecting Segal's Roman Laughter, a study of the Roman Plautus, one finds in the very first paragraph of the Introduction, a brief put-down of all the "serious" scholars who find Plautus insignificant.

The concept of "seriousness" has caused Segal considerable grief in his fight to reconcile academic commitment with theatrical diversion. "Look, some people went back to their rooms on Saturday nights to socialize. I used my leisure time for things that were ultimately on public display. I was just amusing myself."

Though Sing. Muse! launched his professional self-amusement, Segal winces at any suggestion that he set out from the beginning to make a show-biz name for himself. "I wasn't knocking on anybody's door or having agents submit my goodies to people. Negative! Negative! Negative! I began my theatrical career by accident in the Leverett House dining hall!"

Sing. Muse!, though not a hit, called attention to Segal's potential. Later, Slyvia Herscher of the William Morris theatrical agency became his agent and presented him with jobs translating French plays and doctoring works in trouble out of town. "So I got known in the business as a guy who could write fast and under pressure. I rewrote many a show that appeared in Boston while I was a graduate student at Harvard." Segal did not deliberately seek theatrical acclaim. He stumbled upon it. Finding it to his liking, he grabbed it, igniting the fires of his own professional cremation.

Eschewing the podium, hopping about like a praying mantis with a bladder problem, he leaned into our faces to make a point or answer a question,...

In August 1967 a call came from London. A man persistently referring to himself as "Big Al" Brodax wanted Segal to doctor the shooting script of some animated film with the Beatles. "There were about 120 pages of Yellow Submarine of which 119 were unusable. So I redid the whole thing."

Big Al's invitation was based on Segal's growing reputation as a Broadway ghostwriter as well as the fact that, somewhere along the merry way between Cambridge and London, Segal had been selected by Richard Rodgers to co-author a new musical with him. The collaboration produced a musical which was indeed announced in The New York Times but unfortunately it never opened because the rights were lost in a protracted legal battle. "That was one of the saddest moments of my life, the fact that I could've written a whole show with Richard Rodgers and never see it take the stage." Still the abortive attempt gained him enough notoriety to inspire the plea from Big Al to save the film Yellow Submarine proved to be more than mere consolation. Though written in a round-the-clock whirlwind, it was a critical success.

YELLOW SUBMARINE also made Segal something of a celebrity on the Yale campus. Yalies would bring their weekend football dates to the window outside his first-floor suite at Ezra Stiles College to point out, with an unabashed reverence, the room of "the guy who knows the Beatles."

Segal wrote two subsequent screenplays, both box office disasters. The Games was a badly-directed epic about four Olympic hopefuls and the sacrifices each of them was willing to make for victory. "Fox gave five million bucks to a director who never ceased to repeat that he hated track. They finally believed him when they saw the movie." A kind of track-style Downhill Racer, its significance lay in the irony that Ryan O'Neal starred and Francis Lai scored the music. Thses elements were to combine with Segal in a later somewhat more successful venture. Also, Segal recruited the producer's son (Fred Linsk 74) for the Harvard track team.

Stanley Kramer's R.P.M. * (Revolutions Per Minute) was Segal's next screenplay, and it met sudden death at the hands of critics and public alike. In spite of its resounding failure. R.P.M * is a script Segal is proud of. "It has more intellectual content than anything else I've ever written for the screen." It was about a professor caught in a crisis of values. It was, he says, loosely based on Harvard. The premise: Blacks and white radicals at the quasi-mythical Hudson University occupy College Hall and the president rather than inviting the bloodshed of a police bust, yields his office to a radical professor (Anthony Quinn). The film. Segal feels, is very well argued intellectually. But serious production errors killed it before it ever got started The casting of Ann-Margaret as a Radcliffe-type undergraduate did not help matters (although she got her acclaimed role in Carnal Knowledge as a result). Nor was 32-year old Gary Lockwood entirely credible as a Harvard SDS leader. "Jesus, if they hadn't cast it from a geriatric ward we'd have had half a chance." As it was the film got mired in a morass of Hollywoodism. "But I got to meet Quinn, who is a real original and I admire Kramer though our bomb was of the multi-megaton variety."

In the fall of 1968, Segal had a leave from Yale. Professor A.M. Pappenheimer, then Master of Dunster House where Segal had once been a resident tutor offered him a suite. In Dunster J-39, he completed half of a monograph on Euripides and Menander. He also wrote Love Story.

BY THE WINTER of 1970, Erich Segal was riding the top of the best-seller list with a novel that was not so much phenomenal literature as it was a literary phenomenon. The book and the movie brought Segal international fame (out selling Sagan in France and Mishima in Japan). It also supplied proportionate hassles. That Yalie reverence, inspired by his association with Yellow Submarine, evolved into cynicism and hostility. It was exacerbated by the cooling of an initially cordial critical reaction. Why didn't they love him more when he was more famous? Segal says, "It was the difference between knowing a Beatle and being one. How would you feel about Ringo teaching Latin 112?"

His free-form, unconstrained lecture style which had been considered masterful was suddenly dubbed "showboating." In the spring of 1967, The New York Times quoted his students as believing, "Erich Segal does for Latin what Christ did for Lazarus." But by 1971, Segal himself seemed to look a bit leprous. "The very things I was doing before I went electronic were the very things that hung me, (like) the fact that I used to come into class at Yale with one note card. They would think 'one card--the bastard hasn't prepared!' In truth I had memorized almost everything. My students were unable to cope with the dichotomy of seeing me on television the night before and seeing me live in class the next day. I was functioning on the very premise that thay could. It was then that I began to realize that some people are not as media-sophisticated as they could be."

SEGAL TOOK his relationship with the classroom for granted. He felt that, Love Story notwithstanding, his primary commitment would go unquestioned. He was still there, wasn't he? He was doing the same things, wasn't he (even if four or five photographers were always shooting it from the balcony)? Even Erich Segal wasn't as media-sophisitcated as he could've been. He badly needed a term's leave to adjust.

Only during the past year has Segal begun to recover from the emotional shell-shock resulting from everyone's over-reaction--including his own. After all, his persona scholastica does include a Guggenheim Fellowship, nearly two dozen articles and reviews, a collection of essays on Euripides, Roman Laughter, the first study in English devoted entirely to Plautus--Rome's first comic playwright--as well as English translations of Plautine comedy. An extensive treatise on Terence, a kind of sequel to Roman Laughter, remains unfinished as Segal develops new insight from recent findings of the Greek playwright Menenader which may place the whole of Greco-Roman comedy in better perspective. In the meanwhile, his Death of Comedy, a study of comic theory from Aristophanes to Samuel Beckett will be published in January 1973.

Segal's versatility has cost him. To be sure, Hollywood and New Haven are an unlikely combination. And by dealing in realms as diverse as the screen and scholarship he runs the risk of being considered illegitimate in each. Indeed, Erich Segal has been called a bastard on both coasts. Is it worth it?

"Do I have a choice?

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