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‘The Big Picture of Life’ As one of the first Spring Term abroad classes offered at W&L, The Play’s the Thing: Shakespeare in Performance continues to impact the cohort of alumni who took that initial trip to England.

The local patrons of the 13th-century Oxford, England, pub attempted to switch to “stage English” as a way to openly gossip about the group of Americans seated at the next table, comprised of George Ray, professor of English emeritus at Washington and Lee, and his group of eight undergraduates. But little did they know those Americans had traveled to England specifically to study William Shakespeare’s plays as part of their 1973 Spring Term abroad class. When the students overheard a less-than-flattering phrase aimed at their group, they jokingly embraced it as a nickname.

While the W&L group quickly moved on to another pub, the nickname endured — as did the memories from Ray’s The Play’s the Thing: Shakespeare in Performance class. For six weeks, the eight students — Rick Anderson ’74, Ted Blain ’74, Richard Bonnifield ’73, James Hornor ’74, Frank Lewis ’73, Bill Melton ’74, Jim Reyback ’74 and Barney Skelton ’75 — embarked on an abroad seminar throughout England, watching and discussing a wide variety of productions and researching their final papers, which examined the stage history of a Shakesperean play from the Elizabethan era to modern times.

In the dawn of studying abroad opportunities at W&L, Ray’s class was one of the first — if not the first —international education-centered Spring Term courses. Immediately when W&L switched from two 15-week terms to the Spring Term system, Ray knew he wanted to take his classroom to the outside world.

“We were in the dark ages of international study at that time,” said Ray. “There were some year-long language groups that went to Germany, Spain and France, but there were very limited opportunities. I thought, as long as we were changing our calendar, here was an opportunity for different modes of learning, particularly off-campus.”

Scrubbers-at-Rochester-Castle-555x400 'The Big Picture of Life'The class explored Rochester Castle. (Photos courtesy of Bill Melton ’74)

From staying at a bed and breakfast on Gower Street in Bloomsbury, London, to traveling around England in a Ford transit van, the students experienced a different kind of classroom. Ray made it his mission to break down barriers and have his students interact with the local culture instead of just observe. He invited actors and directors to give lectures and asked W&L alumni in the United Kingdom to provide tours.

“It was something completely new and different for me,” said Melton. “I got a feeling of seeing a part of the big picture of life.

“The trip really was an extension of the W&L experience,” he added. “There was the thought-provoking classroom, the close connection with the professor and fellow students, plus the burden and drive of doing a good job academically. Then there was the outside ‘real’ world that was a continuous new and invigorating experience away from home, be it Lexington or London.”

For many of these students, their time in England proved to be life-changing.

“I was a 21-year-old undergraduate in my junior year at W&L, and I was so lamentably, laughably ignorant about England that I had no idea of what I was about to experience,” said Blain. “For much of the time before the trip, I considered backing out because I would miss all the fun of Spring Term in Lexington. Then I arrived at Heathrow and immediately began to realize what an astonishing adventure I had stumbled into. In the end, this trip was the single most profound intellectual experience I had during my four years at W&L, and that’s saying a lot, because I had a lot of profound intellectual experiences under the guidance of Sid Coulling, John Evans, James Boatwright and, of course, George Ray.”

Dr.-Ray-570x400 'The Big Picture of Life'George Ray, professor of English emeritus, led the charge for the Spring Term abroad class The Play’s the Thing.

As the cohort graduated, embarked on careers and started families, the Spring Term abroad opportunity manifested in new ways.

“The experience created a lifelong love for Shakespeare, the theater and England,” said Anderson. “I’ve subsequently been back with my family several times and always included Shakespeare in the mix. Dr. Ray, his teaching, my fellow classmates, their intelligence and curiosity and energy, the size of the group, the newness of the experience and the time of life all contributed to it being a special experience.”

In Blain’s case, it helped him create his own abroad program as an English teacher at Woodberry Forest School.

“When my employer asked me to set up a summer abroad program in Oxford, I modeled it on the curriculum George Ray set up for us,” he said. “And I have been back to London many times to do research in medieval and renaissance drama and to enjoy the abundance of British theater. My love of theater did not begin with our trip in 1973, but, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, ‘I was simmering, and this trip brought me to the boil.’”

As a way to say thank you to Ray and honor the group’s experience, Blain organized a 50th reunion in Lexington on April 22, 2023.

“Having shared such an intense experience when we were very young adults,” Blain said, “I thought it would be fun for us to reconnect and compare notes half a century later.”

Richard-Ted-in-lake-country-600x400 'The Big Picture of Life'Ted Blain ’74 and Richard Bonnifield ’73 explore the lake country.

Though the alums had never done anything like this before  — or even necessarily kept in close contact — they jumped on board. They traveled from across the country to join, with six of the eight able to attend the gathering.

“It was an opportunity to say thank you and recognize George Ray for the gift he gave us,” Anderson said. “It was a joy to see the fine people who made this journey with me.”

The weekend festivities included an evening at the Morris House, where one alumnus read a 58-line “humorous doggerel” in iambic pentameter that was littered with Shakespearean references, and another presented a musical slideshow. Ray’s wife, Pree, and their four children, who also made the trip to London 50 years ago, joined them. The highlight, perhaps, was when the alumni and their mentor recreated a photo the group had taken at Stratford-upon-Avon on Shakespeare’s birthday; the recreation was almost 50 years to the day from when the original was taken.

“That would be my wish for every student, that they take advantage of so many of these wonderful, off-campus opportunities,” Ray said.