“Art is never without consequences, and indeed that says something for it.”
Along with working on your revision for your text analysis, you’ll be reading in preparation for our discussion on the theatre practitioner who has perhaps had the most influence on 20th-century thinking about theatre’s possibilities, Bertolt Brecht. His work as a director, playwright, theatre-viewer, and careful theorist of his own work all funneled toward a radical rethinking of theatre’s previous priorities, one that saw an audience’s empathetic connection with a character or performance as deceptive and troubling. He borrowed a large number of techniques (and texts!) from Chinese and Japanese theatre forms in an attempt to rework and challenge Western tradition. The play you’re reading for this week is a revised parable. I’d like you to read a few selections from Brecht’s theoretical work as well, because he provides a great model for being very specific about how his abstract ideas and goals about theatre’s social function ought to translate to stage performance.
If you are able, meet together with others to read Brecht’s play aloud. In your blog, discuss one element of Brecht’s work (drawn either from his theoretical writing or from his play) that is refreshing or stimulating to you, and one element that is difficult or troubling for you. Accomplish this before lecture on Tuesday, and then spend Tuesday and Wednesday responding to the blog entries of THREE of the other members of your group. Can you help calm another person’s troubles, or answer a question? Can you upset someone’s surety with a question? We’ll begin class next week with your interest and difficulty, and then we’ll try to stage some of Brecht’s concerns by determining a mode of developing characters through his ideas.
Readings for this week:
Brecht’s He Who Says Yes/He Who Says No (reader)
Zenchiku’s Teniko (reader)
Excerpts from Brecht on Theatre (handout)
Chart on the back of this page comparing dramatic and epic theatre
Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka could be considered an exercise in border-crossing of all kinds—challenging the borders of our Western understanding, probing the borders of earthly existence, and the highly problematic border-invasions that characterize Western imperialism. In the interest of moving beyond borders and boundaries here in class (moving beyond the individual into collaboration) I’d like you to meet for a discussion on the play Death and the King’s Horseman. Bring central ideas, questions, concerns, and fascinations to class on Thursday.
If you find yourselves unable to meet in the same place at the same time (I know it is difficult to coordinate schedules) stage a discussion on a chatroom or discussion board. You might use one of your blogs to start and the discussion can consist of a series of comments. I encourage you, though, if at all possible, to meet in person.
Possible discussion points (this is not all-inclusive—choose what’s helpful and create your own as well):
o One way of thinking through the border-crossing in the play is by way of the idea of liminality. Liminality, the state of being in-between, is an important current through Soyinka’s play and a notable feature of theatrical performance as well. What characters occupy spaces of liminality? How can you trace the different manifestations of this phenomenon through the play? What does Soyinka reveal about each cultures’ attitudes toward spaces of liminality? In short, why is liminality central in the play?
o How is it possible to understand the differences in conceptions of death by the two cultures? How do the characters try (or not try) to communicate these differences? Why is death a profitable site of investigation for a play?
o What is the function of women in the play? What does Soyinka say about the role of women in each culture? How does he challenge notions of gender roles, or use gender to enhance the conflict in the play?
This will be a play unlike many of you will have read before, and the first scene especially is likely to catch you off guard. Consider both what is difficult about the play, but also what is accessible for you.
This week the time you spend for this class should, naturally, focus on the text analysis. However, to keep us progressing through this class you’ll be reading Charles Ludlam’s Stage Blood as well. It’s a quick and delightful read and ought to serve as a nice alternative to writing for an hour or so. It’s a send-up of the entire acting profession, but specifically tragedy and especially Hamlet. It indulges in lots of inside humor but will largely be accessible to any audience. Enjoy—and I think if you read it again at the end of the semester you’ll get nearly all the jokes!
o Please email me by Saturday evening (before I would wake up Sunday, in other words) with the thesis statement and audience you’re planning to work with. I will email you back by the end of the day Sunday with my comments.
o Don’t hesitate to call, email, or set up a meeting with me if you are having trouble.
o I encourage you to decide before next Thursday if you will be attending the peer response workshop. If you do, you should bring two copies to class on the 17th, one for me and one for you to take to the workshop. I will set your paper aside once you turn it in and wait to receive your new copy (the deadline for this is Monday Feb 21 at 10am—please email me your paper).
o Do write a short blog to process your ideas about Stage Blood. No need to write anything terribly extensive, but respond to this question: what is it that makes this tragedy work as a comedy?
Thanks for a good class today! Here's what I hope you find: that the 'nuts and bolts' of dramatic structure that we outlined and detailed will help to contribute to your understanding of these plays, and will help you to think in more interesting ways about the implications that different plots tell different stories and house different meanings. Next week, along with working a little more explicitly with the kinds of thesis statements that will work with your text analyses, we're going to try to make some other kinds of statements (by way of embodiment) about the successes and problems of a few of these plays by way of the coursewide theme of theatre's connection to the city.
Here are the nuts and bolts that take immensely different forms in each piece, but are almost always present:
direction - introducing characters - raising questions - characters interact - storytelling - character growth - people embody characters - time changes - climax - anticipation and relief - curtain rises/the play begins - manipulation of energy - conflict - character realization - movement - trust relationship between actor and audience - innovation - connection between actor and character - behind the scenes motion - wrapping up loose ends - attention gets paid - empathy or sympathy for characters - fantasies - themes expressed - dress-up - emotional manipulation - main points or views - objectives and obstacles - scenery changes - all of life is reflected - animation and inanimation - play has a purpose - suspense - applause - sound, lights, and makeup
A few trends I notice here: consider how many of these elements have to do with character! What does this say about the way plots are structured? Note that some elements are general and can morph easily from production to production, play to play (for instance, the way emotions get manipulated), and others have a range of meanings that can be applied to a single play (like direction, innovation, life being reflected). Some have very practical implications, as they are (scene changes, curtain rising, addition of lighting and sound) but even these take on elements of meaning (whether or not you can see the workings backstage, for instance--stay tuned for a discussion of a theatre practioner who wanted to expose all of the 'innards' of a theatre rather than hiding them.
I hope you keep thinking through these nuts and bolts as we move into more complicated discussion terrain, dealing with thematic elements and societal implications.
I know the syllabus says Hamlet and/or The Fifteen-Minute Hamlet, but not for you, dear honors students. Please read them both, as a favor to me. You might think about getting together in small groups to read through the Stoppard play, as it will be much funnier and more illuminating when read out loud than when hunched over the pages in your dorm room.
We talked about dramatic structure today, and tried to set up a running comparison between the three plays we’ve read to date. What I’d like you to try in your blog this week is to compare these two plays with one of your choosing (Trifles, The Laramie Project, or Oedipus Rex) in order to show the way the plays use their structure in order to create distinctive meanings.
Compare the three plays in terms of any and all of the following: characterization (in other words, how do we discover things about each of the characters?), setting and shifts of setting, suggested use of theatrical space, understanding of time and its passage, central conflict, use of humor and other modes of manipulating emotion, or categories that you can create.
Finally, what is the value for you in comparing these two plays, disconnected in time? Do they, in dialogue with each other, take on a new significance?