Shakespeare and Mrs. Winona Thompson
ALAN SIMPSON: I first experienced Shakespeare when I was in Cody High School in Cody, Wyoming. Grew up there, wonderful little town, still there. Had a teacher named Mrs. Winona Thompson and the auditorium today in the high school is named the Winona Thompson Auditorium. She made us like Shakespeare. This was right after the war. The war ended in '45 and I was fourteen then in Cody High, graduated in '49 at the age of eighteen.
She came in one day with this heavy set of records. I know people don't know what records are. I'm not talking about records of paper, I'm talking about Decca records—plastic, whatever they were, wax. And she said, "I have here Othello and it is twelve records," or something, or fifteen, or whatever, and she said, "the role of Othello is played by Paul Robeson," who is one of the most amazing men in America's history. He played Othello. Iago was played by Jose Ferrer, and Desdemona was Uta Hagen.
Well, I tell you, the imagination of that is better than any television, or any theater, because it was just as clear as crystal, and it was as detailed, and every word you heard. And she then finished that, and then the next week or two she did Hamlet with Laurence Olivier. And then the movie Hamlet in black and white appeared—came out in the 40s. The original Hamlet with Olivier, and the closest it played was Laramie, Wyoming, and our class drove to Laramie, Wyoming, 360 miles, 400 then, to see Hamlet portrayed.
Through the years she was very proud of me, and I would tell people that she shaped me, and she did. She was about 83 and she came here to Washington, with her sister because her sight was failing her. And I said, "Mrs. T.," we called her, "I want to take you to the Folger Shakespeare Library, I've called over there." And down to the vault we went, and that's a hallowed place in the world. And then she asked questions that she'd waited a lifetime to ask and put her hand on things that she's waited a lifetime to feel and smell and get the sense, the tactile sense of Shakespeare. It was a very emotional time. And we got out in the street, and she grabbed my hand, gave me a kiss. She said, "If you'd have done all that in high school, you'd have got a better grade." (Laughs)
She went back to Cody. She lived another few years. Her sight continued to fail. She lived down the street from us toward the end, with her sister, who had to be with her. I got a call from her, she said, "Alan, come over here." And I would go see her anyway. "Get over here, I want to give you a hug." I said, okay. I walked down the street, about a block and a half. She said, "Go under that table over there and get that out of there." And I said, "God, it's heavy, I'd almost get a hernia getting that out." She said, "Those are the Decca records and they're for you." And I play them, and not only Othello, but Hamlet, and they're heavy, they're wax, you know, they weigh lots and lots of poundage. But that was a great day. Wonderful.