Pride and Preface

In “Drama as Literature,” I assigned the first third or so of Oedipus the King, which always throws students for a loop.

What’s with the “strophe,” which is the part of the choral performance chanted as the performers dance from right to left, and the “antistrophe,” which is chanted as the performers dance from left to right? Who chants while they sing dance, anyway? A few students have studied the play before, and they’re laudably more interested in hearing what their peers have to say as they encounter the story for the first time. When I checked the blogs last night, I could see that those students who bravely ventured to blog their opinions on the play sounded a bit tentative.

So in class today, I tackled their estrangement head-on, with an introduction that went something like this:

I recognize that the very idea of an artistic performance that includes action, dance, music and the spoken word is unfamiliar to you. After all, it’s completely unrealistic to depict a crowd of people suddenly speaking, singing and dancing in unison, as a backdrop to dramatic action.

There’s nothing on television, especially on a familiar channel such as MTV, that involves the lyrical expression of human passions in a form that involves groups of performers speaking words that are more powerful, more beautiful, and more musical than any words that you or I speak in daily life. I understand that it is foreign to your experience, to imagine listening to an entertainment that involves people singing and speaking the way they would if language were perfect and they themselves were gods.

Once I made my point, I acknowledged that our knowledge of Greek theatre is sketchy (we don’t really know what a choral performance would have looked like) but I did draw a diagram of a Greek theater, noting that the characters on stage often announce the arrival of a new character, in part because the entrance was so far away from the center of the stage that the actor would have been visible to most of the audience long before he was in position to begin speaking. I also talked about the function of the Greek masks, which contained a small megaphone in the mouthpiece. But I also told that when my wife went to Greece as part of a drama class, her instructor had the class spread out in the theatron (seating area), then he pulled out a pin. The stage was so well-constructed that everyone heard it drop.

In the midst of all this, one of my students made an offhand reference to the fact that I’m cited in our textbook, Drama: A Pocket Anthology (3rd edition). I told him I didn’t know what he was talking about.

Another student confirmed, and there in the preface I found my name, in a list of instructors who commented on the second edition. I seem to remember now that I gave some feedback on a sample table of contents, and maybe commented on the introductory material, but I had completely forgotten about it.

Okay, so it’s not the same thing as someone citing me as an authority or responding to a claim I made in published scholarship, but it was a nice little Monday-morning picker-upper. After the mock-serious lecture about the strangeness of the conventions of the Greek theatre, I got to look all humble and surprised in front of my students.

Of course as soon as class was over I walked up and down the Humanities wing, book in hand, bragging to my colleagues. Fitting, perhaps, after a discussion of a tragic hero with the fatal flaw of excessive pride.

At any rate I’m pleased to know that some of my students actually read the preface.

3 thoughts on “Pride and Preface

  1. “Who chants while they sing, anyway?” I think this should read “…while they dance…”. When I read Sophocles, back in high school (when dinosaurs roamed), the teacher had us speak aloud the choral parts in unison. It reminded me of a responsive reading or prayer in church; everyone changes their meter to reflect the words as they come and sometimes meaning is strained for the sake of meter and flow.

    There is a description of witchcraft in a book I read (“Jhereg” by Steven Brust) that puts this well; I paraphrase:
    As I spoke each work of the spell, I let it roll around in my mind and my mouth; imprinting it with my understanding and energy. It left me as a living thing and I _cast_ it into the jungle. By the time I finished the spell I was exhausted.

    To me this is the way people would speak, “if language were perfect and they themselves were gods.”

  2. Oedipus Rex–wow, it’s been awhile… But I still love learning about Greek theater. In my History of Western Art course, we’re just finishing up ancient art, and I’m always amazed in learning about the acoustics (not mentioning the fact that the filled theater could be emptied in under 15 minutes… compare that to today’s stadiums!). They really knew what they were doing. Dionysus would’ve been proud.

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