The Hutton House Lectures: Where Town Meets Gown
(One in an occasional series)
On a bright sunny day recently 22 adults packed into the wood-paneled library at Lorber Hall heard a relatively heated discussion about Arthur Miller’s classic play, “Death of a Salesman.” Up for debate was whether Lee J. Cobb’s performance in the title role as the tragic Willy Loman superseded Dustin Hoffman’s recent portrayal, based on what they’d seen on YouTube.
The jury was still out when in walked the professor teaching the afternoon class, John Lutz, chairman of the English Department at LIU Post. They greeted him with warm applause as he took the lectern, smiled, adjusted his glasses and proceeded to thumb through his copy of the play to get this session of the Hutton House Lectures underway.
Last spring, Prof. Lutz tackled Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children,” an epic novel chronicling the birth of modern India after it shed British colonial rule. In the winter semester, he devoted two separate courses to Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” and “As You Like It.” Based on an informal poll, many of his adult students can’t get enough of his teaching. “Our only problem is that he thinks he deserves a summer vacation,” one lady volunteered. A Port Washington retired elementary school teacher with a degree from Columbia University exclaimed that if Lutz were teaching a Hutton House course on the telephone book, “I’d take it with him!”
To discuss what is arguably one of the most powerful indictments of the American Dream ever put on stage, every seat in Room 104 was full. One student had driven in from Hauppauge in Suffolk County, others from Nassau and Queens, to pay attention to what Prof. Lutz had to say.
For this class, he wanted to explore how the playwright artfully exposes how dysfunctional the Loman family is. “We see in detail the dishonesty, the denial, the anger beneath the surface,” Lutz pointed out. “All the characters have different kinds of anger.”
Even the stage directions came under scrutiny as Lutz noted that the recurrent flute music used throughout the play serves as “a haunting reminder of the past,” since Willy’s father used to make and sell flutes himself. The professor reminded his avid audience that Miller’s original title was going to be “The Inside of His Head,” as the playwright intended to portray Willy’s psychic disintegration, citing how the set’s walls and doorways lose their permanence once Willie starts to relive the past. “The stage is designed to visibly dramatize the breakdown of his mind,” Lutz explained.
The play’s the thing, of course, but the lively discussion ranged far and wide during the two-hour class, touching on the dignity of manual labor, corporate downsizings, immigration, Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” Dale Carnegie’s how-to-succeed courses (“You notice how self-help books are rarely read by very successful people,” Lutz joked in an aside), commodity fetishism, serotonin levels in human leaders’ brains, genocide in the Belgian Congo under King Leopold, and the definition of a tragic hero in classic Greek drama. On that score, we learn that Willy Loman fills the bill because he gains insight from his fall from grace. “He has greater understanding of his own contradictions,” Dr. Lutz observed, “And in a Greek tragedy, that makes him a hero.”
Throughout the afternoon Professor Lutz kept his students fully engaged and involved, as they shared their thoughts on the matters at hand—and some beyond the classroom—but never strayed too far from the lines on the page. No doubt, Arthur Miller would have wanted it that way, with or without his stage directions to guide them.
Starting Sept. 10, Professor Lutz will teach a completely different topic—three challenging novels by William Faulkner (“Go Down, Moses,” “Light in August” and “As I Lay Dying”—in that order). His classes routinely fill up fast with adults wishing to continue their education for years to come. His time outside the classroom will be filling up fast, too. Among his new duties this fall, he’ll become chairman of the Philosophy and Foreign Languages Departments as well as English.
For more information about the Hutton House Lectures at Lorber Hall, call 516-299-2580 or click here.