The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Paper Chase: Not Prince Hamlet



When I was a boy, I discovered my profession in stages. The first was the television series The Paper Chase, in which the tyrannical (or was he?) Professor Kingsfield is both foe and--not friend, he's too harsh for that--but mentor, manipulatively guiding his students with a sharp tongue but secret hints to assist them in their endeavors. In the film (above) and in the novel, Kingsfield is the anti-hero; his daughter Susan (a sublime performance by Lindsey Wagner) tries to lead the well meaning One L Hart to reject the "paper chase" values which she sees her father inculcating in him.

In the television show, Kingsfield's point of view slowly, over the three and a half seasons the show ran (with a long hiatus between the first and second season), becomes normative. I was young and impressionable when that first season was shown, and John Houseman's magisterial Kingsfield was fascinating to me. So too were the legal discussions, the "Addenda," that PBS used to fill the time that had been allotted for commercials. They led me to explore books on law in the library--John Jay Osborn, Jr.'s novel to begin with, but Holmes's The Common Law, and a handful of volumes of Supreme Court reporters. In reading these, I slowly formed my own political worldview. Douglas over Rehnquist, Brennan over Burger.

I was 12 years old, and the justices of the Supreme Court were forming my political commitments, the values I held and still hold now.

And the film, through John Williams's version of Bach's Little Fugue, got me to take notice of classical music in a truly wonderful way.

So all in all, I owe Osborn, Houseman, Williams, and James Bridges quite a debt.

I got to hear Houseman lecture twice, once at Molloy College, where I just missed shaking his hand and getting an autograph, and once at Fordham, where he charmed us all by staying at a poor enough reception where mediocre wine and good cheese fueled his anecdotes of The Mercury Theater, of Orson Welles, of Julliard.

He was Kingsfield, minus the menace, and an infectious laugh.

The later seasons of The Paper Chase are good. In them, John Houseman gave me one last gift, introducing to one of the few poets words I retain. In an episode in which a grieving father tries to decipher his student son's suicide note, reading simply, "Not Prince Hamlet," the mystery is solved when Kingsfield recognizes the quote, and Houseman solemnly recites the relevant passage from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous –
Almost, at times, the Fool.


The words, the rhythm touched me. They kindled an interest in Eliot that became an admiration that I still feel.

Well, the last half season is finally being released, and I will be able to view this totem of my youth in its entirety, for the first time since it was rerun and then three new series commissioned on Showtime, years after the seeming failure on CBS.

I wonder if my younger self and I will agree on its merits?

1 comment:

RobertJSawyer said...

Just watched that episode ("Not Prince Hamlet") again. It's my favorite of the post-season-one episodes, and it holds up beautifully today.