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Tartuffe, Beggar's Opera

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In class on Wednesday, we returned to Tartuffe and spent quite a bit of time meditating on the motif of blindness, the nature of sight, and ultimate conclusions about the play; we also considered the impact of a historical awareness of its staging, especially insofar as spectators would have been seated on the stage, and the privileged perspective offered to the seat of honor. I think I got a bit carried away with this discussion–I noticed yawns and bored expressions–and I could have fruitfully cut it short to allow more time for the student presentations. Ah, hindsight.

Afterwards, I introduced students to the context and impact of The Beggar’s Opera, and because it’s such a strange play that will likely be very unfamiliar to them, I screened the first twenty minutes or so of the Daltrey version. There were a lot of questions, and a bit of discomfort with the singing; hopefully, we’ll have a great conversation about it after Easter Break!

Renaissance/Restoration Theater History

Last Wednesday, we had one of the best classes this term, I think–it was sad to see that some students were missing! We spent the first bit of class going over the midterm exam, especially the matching section, which many students found more difficult than I’d expected–this gave us the opportunity to talk about test-taking skills, context clues (thanks, Crystal!), and how to use information from one part of the test in another. After all, one way to think about college is as a testing ground for critical thought, or the ability to confront an unfamiliar situation with a body of skills that make the unfamiliar familiar, possible, sensible. I gave the class some sample essays that received high marks, to press home the need for content and precision. Ultimately, I was very impressed with the maturity of the class, many individuals having been confronted with lower marks than they may have expected. That led into two student presentations about critical essays on Ford’s ‘Tis Pity, both of which were excellent and led to a rich and stimulating discussion about the play’s ethical center, what it seemed to be saying/staging about the impact of a corrupt society on the individual moral sense, and what the play was suggesting about the unacknowledged and often ugly realities that make us who we are. Both of the presenters did an excellent job with the assignment, and this makes me more and more certain that this kind of presentation is the way to go. I’ve never gotten this level of nuance and careful assessment from freer oral assignments, and I’ll definitely use this format in the future.

We moved on from there to a (gasp!) powerpoint on the Renaissance/Restoration context–we covered quite a bit of material in a short space of time, and I think that for such a vast swathe of history a slide collection makes sense. Though it pained me to do it. I don’t feel it compromised the nuance and messiness of the information, though, so I’ll consider doing it again in the future. One student, coming to me in office hours, pointed out something that I’d not quite put into words about both my approach to “lectures” and the text we’re using–the textbook isn’t a “regular” textbook, she said, meaning that it doesn’t have highlighted terms or summaries at the end. She made a valid point; any study of literature, culture, history is necessarily gray, and it does students a real disservice, I think, to eviscerate that “this/and,” “yes/but” truth. In order to help students get a firmer grasp on the textbook material, the next post asks them to come up with their own reading guide question and a sample response to it–questions getting at especially useful or relevant information I’ll incorporate into the final exam. At any rate–digression!–we went over the main tensions and arcs of the periods in question, focusing especially on the changing material structure of the theater as a window into these larger trends. We had less time to spend on the Restoration context, but since we’re also discussing The Rover next week, that’s alright.

For the last portion of class, we enjoyed another excellent student presentation on Behn’s play that particularly addressed its rape culture. That led into an equally stimulating, if somewhat brief, discussion about what the setting of carnival meant for the women’s agency–and the class confusions the play stages under cover of masquerade. How does one distinguish between a “woman of quality” and a “harlot”–which a rover might “ruffle” without fear of repercussion?

Finally, I have to admit I’m extraordinarily excited about the final projects in this class–one group is creating a Lysistrata MySpace network (with notes, writing on walls, group-joining, and so on) performing the chronology and character development of the play; one student wants to create a graphic novel of either The Rover or Tartuffe; one group wants to create a mini-documentary a la Operation Lysistrata; another student is creating a scale model of a particular ancient Greek theater. A good handful are also interested in writing essays, which I’m also looking forward to, as we haven’t had so much time to devote to the plays themselves. The last month and a half will be interesting!

…and Midterms and Essays, O My!

Finally having gotten miterm grades in, I took a bit of a breather, relaxed, and contemplated the last month and a half of classes. It seems to have gone so much more quickly than I thought at all possible, but there you have it! I’m immensely enjoying my world lit survey course, and the class in general seems engaged and energetic. We’ve been reading from Shakespeare’s Sonnets, spending most of our time in close examination–mostly working through content and syntax, focusing on key images and motifs. But it’s been a real pleasure to share the tricks of the trade with this class, and the expressions of shock and pleasure when they see something more clearly are definitely a plus. Last class period, we read one sonnet for about 40 minutes, and though about half the class was already (!) on spring break, I think we moved ahead substantially. I’ve been routinely impressed with the level of insight and creativity this class brings to the table, and I’m excited about continuing some of the new assignments I’ve planned out for them in later iterations of the course.

Of course, each course is different, each term is different. I’m never quite sure what’s going on in class from my first-year composition students; they could equally be bored out of their minds, completely neutral, or more interested than I know. I was surprised, though, by some of the midterm essays from that class. While in general the responses to the essay topic were pretty expected, a few revealed interesting and emphatically unexpected takes on the material. I’m still trying to find a happy baseline with my students in 102, though; hopefully, the second half of the term will see some clarification on the matter.

Theater history is a conundrum to me, this term; though it was last year, as well. Perhaps it’s the size of the class, or the range of years, or perhaps it’s nothing at all, and I simply have trouble reading them! While difficult, the material isn’t beyond any of my students, but some of the exams suggested that more attention needs to be paid to the study guides. I’m considering ways to help incorporate the essay material into our discussions more concretely, but lecturing I know isn’t the way to go. Many in class are eager and wonderfully willing to participate, and many clearly pore over the reading, taking detailed notes–which seemed to help greatly with the exam essays. Perhaps I need to give quizzes in this class, something that will keep us focused on the material and asking the right questions. Or maybe more visual aids would be effective, as well. I love the Oxford text I’m using this term, because it doesn’t settle for the powerpoint version of early modern drama; each essay is so rich and nuanced, so capacious, without being jargon-laden and inaccessible, especially to the juniors to whom the course is aimed. Perhaps it’s a good thing after all that the course will become a 200-level survey next year. Perhaps I shouldn’t have students read samples of the drama we’re discussing? I don’t think it’s too much to read, but one 2:30 class each week simply doesn’t offer enough structured time to effectively and creatively address everything that we need to do. Hmmm. As I said, a conundrum. Some dark horses in the rom pleasantly surprised me with their exams, though!

Dog in the Manger Discussion, Presentations, and Incest Plays!

Last Wednesday we were finally able to get back together as a class and contemplate our response to the Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Dog in the Manger, and I was very gratified to see how eager everyone was to discuss! Many students had questions that, significantly, we couldn’t really find good answers to–like the significance of the singer and the painting that appeared throughout the play as a backdrop or as a prop, even visible on the singer’s skirts. We discussed how a good production needs to have a coherent, accessible, and articulatable purpose that ties the set design to the acting to the larger themes of the play; sadly, this one didn’t. Though it was entertaining, don’t get me wrong! Students were particularly confused by the singer, but the giant neon skull was also a topic of debate–which led us into a discussion of postmodern pastiche, perhaps the only really viable approach to the production I could see. The play’s title reference was helpful here; the Countess was the titular dog in the manger, neither allowing her Secretary to eat nor deigning to eat, herself, but trapped, immobile, between two impossibilities. That is, of course, until the utterly farcical conclusion (and I mean that in a good way!), which turned the impossiblity into an “impossibility.”

We spent quite a bit of time on the question of authenticity, because that’s an important question that both the play and the production raises–is true love even a possiblity for these people, so consumed with class and status? Is the Secretary really a nobleman, after all? I tried to convey the anti-authentic perspective of postmodern pastiche, and we speculated on this as a viable reading of the performance choices. Ultimately, we felt it didn’t quite work, but it is important to exercise the rational faculty, all the same! Students tend not only to want the emotion to be real,  but also to see anything that questions the viability of such authenticity as “bad,” period. Hopefully, the performance raised an awareness about the nature of realism–it’s essentially a style, not a truth.

We also had the first two group research presentations, which did leave something to be desired. One presenter in each group clearly put more effort into the project. I was happy to see the class as a whole interacting with the presentations, pressing their peers where necessary, asking questions, trying to move the discussion forward. I hope, though, that the rest of the class was paying close attention….

The discussion of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore didn’t seem to go as well as I thought it would–I expected students to have strong opinions, questions, something! I hope a group or two will attend the performance at CenterStage, though–it would not only be a good experience in general, but it would put the play into the necessary concrete context. I am afraid the reason behind the desultory quality of the discussion had to do with the language of the play; it may have presented a difficulty for some readers? Then again, we did seem to get somewhere with a brief discussion of Giovanni’s disputational strategies, the way he emphasizes reason at the expense of custom and form, Bergetto’s tragedy, Ford’s representation of the Cardinal, the question of class (is this a “city tragedy”?  why is Grimaldi not punished?) and authority, and the troubled issue of our sympathies. With whom are we meant to sympathize, and why? Is this really a play about incest, or is it more a play about the dark, sharp, ugly undercurrents of an increasingly mercantile society still governed by aristocratic privileges?

One of the things I find fascinating about the play is that Annabella and Bergetto are the two most sympathetic characters, though both are clearly depicted as flawed but undeserving of their fates. Bergetto is childish, perhaps even idiotic, and killed mistakenly and unjustly when on the brink of love, and Annabella is seduced, impregnated, and horribly killed by her brother at the virtual moment of birth. All the murderers are egged on by their own arrogance and unwillingness to let another get the best of him. I can’t wait until March 15th, when I’ll be seeing the performance here in Baltimore!