Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Hiawatha my school debut

Janette Miller as Hiawatha Rosary Priory 1950

There must be a pivotal moment in one's life when one finds out what one is going to do with the rest of it. At seven I was at Rosary Priory, a convent school for young ladies in Bushy Heath near Watford. It was already evident that I was not going to Oxford as I had only just mastered reading! It was not that I wasn't bright but not being able to read was a bit of a handicap. By complete chance my teachers decided I would be on the stage.

I hated school. I felt that I did not belong there. I was not bought up a catholic although I had an RC mother who had married a non catholic in a registry office. This to the Irish nuns was a worse stigma than illegitimacy but they did try to be kind.

I was in the sevens and one summer day I was bored stiff. A young nun had been assigned to produce the end of term performance for parents day and had decided to do a part of Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Now I come to think of it this was an ambitious choice for very uneducated seven year olds. It is an 1855 epic poem, in trochaic tetrameter featuring a native American hero.

Sister needed a Hiawatha and her idea of casting was simply to ask the class "Which of you can learn lines?"  I having nothing else to do put my hand up, nobody else did and that was it. I was Hiawatha. I was an actress and that is what I have remained for the rest of my life.

I spent a memorable afternoon sitting on a log by the bicycle sheds learning my lines with Myra Charmers, my best friend, who was to play my mother, Nokomis. The rest of the class who were to bee the animals that Hiawatha hunts and the the chorus and actually had to learn much more than me had to continue with arithmetic.

Ann White, Janette Miller, Myra Chalmers, Hiawatha
Rosary Priory 1950

By luck my father had made me a tent shaped like a wigwam. You can see it in his photo and mummy made me a costume which had a little shrimp broach which I loved. I can remember little of the performance which was held on what was supposed to be the croquet lawn. I can recall having to point my bow and arrow at various animals who would say ' Do not shoot me Hiawatha!'.

I must have been a success as I was given parts in every school event after that whether I wanted them or not. Maybe it was just that I could remember the lines which is a help.

I end with the immortal Longfellow verse that began our excerpt. Its rhyme is unique and once heard never forgotten.

       By the shores of Gitche Gumee, 
By the shining Big-Sea-Water, 
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis, 
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis. 
Dark behind it rose the forest, 
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees, 
Rose the firs with cones upon them; 
Bright before it beat the water, 
Beat the clear and sunny water, 
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water. 

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