Working on ''Drama as Literature'' Syllabus

Working on ”Drama as Literature” Syllabus (Jerz’s Literacy Weblog)

I’m working on my goals statement for a 200-level “Major Writers and Genres” course. I’m still working it out — the final version will be less chatty and more infused with academicspeak.

The primary research method I teach in a survey course is close reading – the extended examination of the particular words, style, and form of a particular literary work, gained by the sustained reading of a script. A secondary methodology is historical context – the identification and explication of contemporary cultural influences (including theatrical conventions of the period).

Students are asked to move quickly beyond plot summary and personal responses (which served them well in high school), and are asked to demonstrate critical thinking skills by participating in lively classroom discussions, by writing short expository and analytical exercises, and by writing two longer papers that support a non-obvious claim about the texts under scrutiny.

Literary research in English involves both primary sources (that is, literary works) and secondary sources (theoretical, biographical, and comparative explication, analysis, and evaluation). This method is introduced in a spring-semester EL150, “Intro to Literary Study,” and reiterated in a junior-level “Critical Theory” course. In a first-semester EL 250 course, which is typically packed with incoming freshmen, there will not be enough time for me to introduce the concept of academic scholarship, and the specific way it is practiced in English, to students who are at the same time taking the first semester of freshman composition.

Part of the historical research is a formal examination of theatrical conventions (sets and costumes, acting styles, audience expectations, critical response, etc.) that contributed to the reception of the work’s initial performance, and which continue to affect the reception of later performances. For instance, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice was historically played as a comic villain, but modern productions use the same dialogue, but present him as a tragic figure. The historical method includes occasional reference to live or videotaped performances of the works, as well as published reviews, and such sources as memoirs of actors, directors, or other theatre professionals. But this course does not aim to examine a definitive, optimized, particular performance (something they are used to in the form of “Director’s Cut DVDs).

Students are often drawn to parallels between the author’s biography and events in the story, a kind of mythic parallelism that drives the movie Shakespeare in Love, which shows the Bard incapable of any creativity that does not involve writing down (without any apparent revision) a thinly veiled version of what just happened to him last night. (I get lots of that when I ask students to write narrative essays.)

Where a dramatic work makes an ambiguous statement (such as in the matter of Hamlet’s madness), I aim to get students to identify ambiguity inherent in the text, and to rely upon textual evidence from elsewhere in the literary work to argue for a particular point. For example, when reading Ibsen’s A Doll House, students typically respond so negatively to Torvald’s patronizing and infantilizing of his wife Nora, that they prefer to see Torvald as a moustache-twirling oppressor, completely ignoring the textual evidence that argues he is a good provider and a good man, that she manipulates him into treating her like a child, and that both are equally victims of their prescribed gender roles.

Thus, a little-known 1913 play about anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism, Arthur Schnitzler’s Professor Bernardhi, must be understood in the original context in pre-war Europe, but may also be re-read in 2005 in the context of American anti-Islamic tensions and anti-Christian and anti-American tensions in the Islamic world. The fourteenth-century “Everyman,” which uses the central merchant-class metaphor of an accounting book to teach a lesson about the inevitability of sin and death, must be understood in a certain historical context as a piece of didactic entertainment for a largely illiterate, wholly Catholic society. Yet the presence in the play of a brief aside, containing a stern warning directed at corrupt priests, resonates even more strongly today in light of the recent sexual scandals faced by the Church.

Hmm… thunder is booming outside my window, so I’m gonna cut this short and head home.