If you put the teacher-student relationship, the Western literary canon and a descent into madness into a blender and added some heavy dashes of profanity and anti-conformism, you’d have something close to “Fremont’s Farewell,” a two-act play written by East Hampton’s Shelby Raebeck and performed recently by actor Gerard Doyle at LTV Studios in Wainscott.
The play tells the story of Ronald Fremont, an unconventional teacher at an East End private school, whose life is unraveling at the seams. The first act consists of a series of increasingly unhinged lectures — the audience plays the part of Fremont’s students — on “King Lear,” synonyms (cinnamons, in his words), justice versus vengeance, the benefits of profanity, and more. Fremont badmouths the school’s administration, he calls his students out individually, he argues with them for being too studious. As such, he’s constantly on the brink of being sacked, and his final lecture comes after he’s been let go. The second act, set years later, after Fremont’s been released from a psychiatric facility and written a New York Times Notable Book, is his commencement speech at the same school that threw him out the door. A blend of contrarianism, philosophical riffing, and madness defines Fremont, the sole character we see in the play.
“You get a character going and the character gets a life of his own. I started with this idea of this guy whose boundaries are breaking down,” Raebeck said. “And once you have that conceit of boundaries breaking down, it really opens up lots of possibilities, you can just go, you can go crazy. And in real life, I can’t go crazy. Right. We have to be sane, we have to keep our jobs. Fremont is not bound by real life. It’s a wonderful thing. It’s kind of why people write or do art.”
“Fremont’s Farewell” began as a short story in Raebeck’s collection “Louse Point: Stories from the East End,” and then evolved into a one-act play, which Doyle performed a few times locally. Raebeck added a second act, set 10 years later, in his next collection of stories, and Doyle performed the full play twice, just before the pandemic. Raebeck reached out to LTV Studios and proposed a live taping, in front of a studio audience, of a staged reading of the play, which will be broadcast on LTV. The one-night-only performance was attended by friends, family, and fellow teachers. Raebeck, who hails from Amagansett and now lives in Springs, is an English teacher at the Ross School in East Hampton.
“I think it’s a lot of teacher’s fantasy,” Raebeck said, of Fremont’s contentious exit. “Dr. Jekyll is letting his Mr. Hyde out, letting his just full, full-on uncensored, to hell with it [side out]. The longer you teach, the more the rebel knocks, shakes the cage to get out. For me, at least. I’ve always been an anti-institutional institutionalist and that’s part of the contradiction of teaching English literature, which is a big part of [the play].
“Fremont’s addressing the truth, the way the structure of school dampens and weakens and censors the real truth,” he added. “Great literature is all about blowing things open. So you’re teaching about blowing apart these structures, these revolutionary ideas in a very conservative, structured format …
“I’ve always struggled with that contradiction. The conflict is built into the profession itself.”
Some of the literary works Fremont cites include Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” and a good bit of Shakespeare. But what animates him more than the canon are the concepts, the big ideas behind the big writers. Those powerful ideas are what get him into trouble, what make him push the boundaries. For a teacher, he’s very anti-school, telling his invisible students “You learn despite school, not because of it” and giving them the assignment to skip classes for a day. In his last class, he wishes his students failure, exile, and abject degradation, so that they might find the strength and grace to go on. Hallmark probably couldn’t find a worse greeting card writer.
Doyle, who plays Fremont, had a long career in theater but now works mostly as an audiobook narrator and also teaches at Ross. “Fremont’s Farewell,” in the multiple versions it’s been performed as previously, is the first time he and Raebeck have collaborated. This was the first show Doyle’s done since the pandemic, and he spoke of the challenges in a recent interview post-rehearsal.
“Bits of it are coming back to me, but I’ve still got a lot of work to do to really find the focus of every moment. It’s kind of mercurial,” Doyle said. “[Fremont] dodges around from thing to thing … There’s eventually a through-line, but he’s a little bit inconsistent in how he gets there really, just flying off on tangents and then steering it back around. To make those sound as if they are just coming to me out of the blue is kind of difficult, but [jokingly] it’s called acting.
“One is an actor after all, I suppose,” he added. “It’s not the easiest piece I’ve ever done.”
With his recording work, there’s always another take, another run through of a paragraph. On stage, there’s no backup, especially if you’re performing alone, with minimal staging.
“This is, it’s very different. I mean, an audiobook is a performance, but you have a safety net … Whenever you’re on stage, you have to imagine that everyone’s looking at you, you can’t hide, you can’t relax, because if you do it’ll stick out like a sore thumb,” Doyle said. “Being the only person as the focus of the audience’s attention is a whole extra pressure.”
Another thread that runs through the play is the inherent tension within teaching: the boundary between being just an instructor and becoming a friend, or a caregiver. An episode within the play is partially based on Raebeck’s own experience teaching in New York City.
“One of my favorite scenes in the play is where he goes and visits this student of his who writes this poem called, “F— the SAT,” Raebeck explained. “Corey Johnson [the student character] is a kid who gets passed around from foster home to foster home. He lives in six foster homes, gets caught in a fire, his face gets burned badly. He goes into the hospital for cosmetic surgery. Fremont goes and visits him, and he has this scene where he backs off and the kid wants him to be there for him and Fremont can’t quite deliver.
“You can’t be an intimate. You can’t be a father figure, but you can be a supportive teacher,” he added. “He draws this boundary, and backs off, and regrets it … A lot of it is autobiographical in spirit, but the details get jacked up.”
Fremont’s Farewell will be screening on LTV public access station, for more information on LTV visit www.ltveh.org/. Shelby Raebeck is currently working on selling his novel. His most recent book, which includes “Fremont’s Farewell,” is “Night Life: New and Selected Stories.”