Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Thinking the Drama Class

I've been reading a play I ordered for my drama class. Yes, I'm like that. I ordered the play without reading it first. And now I'm sort of sorry.

I chose the play because it's the one play the campus theater folks are putting on this semester. They're also putting on a musical play, but since I'm not really qualified to teach an opera course (and honestly not interested enough to put in the time to get there), we'll read the play. I try to have my drama students go to a play, because I think it's really valuable to see a play and talk about it in the context of a drama class and because few of my students have ever been to a play.

This play is culturally fascinating. It's about three folks who are in some sort of hospice care, and with each is one or two people. One guy has his male lover and female ex-wife; another has his wife and son. The third, an elderly woman, has her daughter, but longs for a prefered dead daughter that she no longer realizes is dead.*

If you're like me, you immediately thought, "hospice care, male gay couple, so the play must have something to do with HIV/AIDS." Except that the play was first produced in 1977, and HIV/AIDS didn't start getting recognized (and then not immediately named HIV/AIDS) in the US until 1981. So it's this fascinating cultural moment when gay male existence was okay to discuss in a play without condemnation, but wasn't automatically connected to HIV/AIDS.

I'm thinking that it would be really interesting to add Angels in America to the reading for the semester, but that means I have to lose another play. Right now, I could lose, well, anything. But I'm not getting rid of Shakespeare, or Behn... maybe I should lose Lysistrata or Oedipus? Volpone or Mother Courage?**

Of course, you KNOW some students are going to complain that three plays about gay male issues is overwhelming and offensive (M. Butterfly is also on the schedule). Or will they?

Maybe not. I've taught Winterson's Oranges are not the Only Fruit, and even the more conservative students were uncomplaining and interested. Maybe I should trust my students more?

But this play, compared to any of the others I've mentioned so far, just isn't nearly as interesting, exciting, fun, challenging, whatever. It's not in the same league.

I'm consistently underwhelmed by the play choices our theater folks make. I go to the plays, and I leave thinking that the actors do a pretty good job, and the direction makes sense, but what a poor play. Time and again, and with very few exceptions, the plays just don't strike me as great choices.

*I have a friend who studies relative pronouns, and who has studied the use of "that" as a pronoun standing for a human. Some people use it comfortably (me), and some don't accept the usage. I wish I'd learned about linguistics long ago, because it's fascinating to learn even little bits about how people use and don't use language! In high school, it seemed like they just tried to teach us rule after rule, as if those rules are written in stone and standing forever, whereas linguists think about usage and change, and that's just so much more interesting!

**In the midst of writing this, I went back and revised the schedule, dumping Volpone (I know, sad!) and Everyman, and using the additional days to add in Angels in America and to make more time for The Rover. This means we'll look at mostly early modern drama for the first half (with a side of Greek and medieval plays), and twentieth century drama for the second half. It actually looks like a pretty interesting selection!


  1. it does sound like an interesting lineup! and i think it makes total sense to include THE play that will be available as a performance for this class. the students might totally rip that play apart, for the reasons it disappoints you; but they will have some solid ground upon which to do that.

    they may also find things meaningful to them in the play, and they will learn something about cultural context. 1977 was before their time, but compared to more ancient plays, it is reasonably modern; they can consult live people and available outside texts. i think it is very interesting that the play now carries an unanticipated cultural gloss. [maybe the students can relate this to 9/11, which they remember and which changed so much?] at the least, it provides a chance for them to explore how subsequent developments might change how a written text is perceived, which is a wonderful lesson.

  2. p.s. -- i do not like to use "that" in reference to a person. "whom" sounds so formal and is easily confused with "who," which is probably why it has fallen out of common usage, but "that" reduces a person to a random object. it's dehumanizing. i'm no linguistics scholar, nor a grammarian, but when i can, i try to avoid dehumanizing language.

  3. Anonymous11:34 AM

    FWIW, I agree that it's probably worth teaching the play they can actually see, even if it's not all that exciting. It might open up some discussions about repertory choices and canon formation or something. And I do that thing where I assign something without having read it *all the time*!

  4. Sorry, I know it sounds like you have enough plays-about-gay-male issues/AIDs -- but have you ever taught "The Normal Heart"?

  5. Losing Volpone wont' be something your students will be sad about. I'm no lover of Jonson, hate to say.

    For future classes: I like Marsha Norman quite a bit. Her _'Night Mother_ won the Pulitzer in the 80s, and there's another set of one-act plays (two barely related one-act plays) called _Third and Oak_, which has some wonderful moments in it. "The Laundry Mat" is the first one-act of the set, and it blows me away! Well worth a look.

  6. Anonymous6:30 PM

    On the opera sideline, I'm hardly a big fan myself (and me with both an MM and a PhD in ethnomusicology...), but I once attended an amazing opera master class taught by Tony Randall. Most people may remember him from the television version of The Odd Couple, but that was only a tiny piece of what he was capable of. Anyway, his goal was to teach graduate-level opera singers to act--he was no singer, and didn't pretend to know anything about that. The tendency among young opera performers is to wander down toward the footlights, face the audience, and warble (or bellow). In just 50 minutes he had them actually thinking and behaving like their characters. And you know--they sang better, too. Opera, live, with singers who can act, is as different from what you hear on recordings as toro is from Chicken of the Sea.

    Not that you have to like opera or anything. But I wonder if part of the problem is the general inability to act (or, shall we say, lack of interest in acting) on the part of a wide swath of opera performers?

  7. Kathy a., It's hard to imagine my students ripping a play apart; they don't have that much confidence, in general, and they're way too polite!

    That's an interesting take on "that." It's just a matter of having grown up with it, regionally, I think, for me. It's not about dehumanizing, because it's no more dehumanizing than "who" for me.

    Fifi, ooo, I like the idea of using it to talk about the canon (and our anthology choices!). Thanks!

    Fiona, I haven't. But thanks, I'll look into it!

    Fie, but Volpone! It's like the Marx brothers with better dialog! Thanks for your suggestions, too.

    Richard, I think I just don't know anything about opera, and am totally unfamiliar with it. I've been to two operas, one when I was an undergrad (because I was dating someone singing in the chorus), and the other here. Maybe if I get more familiar I'll get into them a bit?

  8. I'm with Fifi, I think teaching a play students can see is useful. And useful (sort of) to raise questions of aesthetic judgment, if you can get them to go there.

  9. I'm just so gladdened that you dropped Volpone rather than Lysistrata--would that everyone had a clearer notion of how long it has been that we have used words at play in efforts to influence change on this planet!

  10. Anonymous11:34 AM

    Yes, I think the more familiar you are with opera, the more you like it. It certainly worked that way for me, although I will say that I don't exactly go out of my way to see it.

    That was one of the big lessons of my dissertation research: the more you know about a topic, the more it may appeal to you. I tell this to my students, and then add "Let this be a warning to you."

  11. Bardiac -- your students can't find fault with something they have to read? Well, that is a real problem. How are they supposed to learn critical thinking, or how to banter around ideas and thoughts, sorting the ridiculous from something interesting that they have not thought about before?

    I also grew up with "that" as a reference to people, but ended up doing work in which dehumanizing language often appears, quite intentionally. It's the kind of thing that passes under the radar, mostly; but sometimes a button clicks, and one acquires a new lens, and things look different. "That" is a pretty small word compared to the many inflammatory and degrading words in our language -- and habits are hard to break -- but hatred grows when people are viewed as sub-human, so I'm still working on my words.

  12. 1. ...few of my students have ever been to a play.

    You have to explain that - what students are these? Are you doing some outreach class?

    2. For the love of God, drop Mother Courage. "Brechtian" is the worst adjective in the English language.

  13. Yeah, I really want a cultural explanation now, you have me curious about the school population where they haven't "been to a play." I mean, what the hell? Isn't it a small liberal arts place where the students who choose to go there are sort of artsy cultural elite types?

    And about the book editions - I did one class where over the semester we read all the extant Greek plays and I bought them all in a certain publisher edition (no idea which, but they had a very distinct look), and they are sort of nostalgic for me, too.

  14. MSILF, I teach at a public institution focused on the liberal arts (but with several big professional programs: education, nursing, etc). About half our students are first generation college students. About half come from rural areas (not the same half, necessarily). Most are on financial aid and work.

    We're probably 3rd or 4th among the public institutions in our state in terms of rank (if that has meaning). If you think in California terms, we're like a Cal State school rather than a UC.