Lope de Vega’s Dog in the Manger, tonight, at the Shakespeare Theatre in DC! Reread the program online if you forget to pick one up or lose yours before turning in the review.
Last class, we discussed David Wiles’ essay on theater in early Rome and Medieval Christian Europe, though we paid most attention to the materiality of Medieval performance. Students were generally surprised by the real heterogeneity of performance modes in the Medieval period–from processionals to place-and-scaffold to Church interiors and the halls of private dwellings, the theater of this time was marked by multiplicity. We went over the basic forms of Medieval theater, including liturgical drama and their evolution into mystery plays into cycle dramas, morality/allegorical drama, interludes and popular folk performance, and a bit about the “saint” or miracle play. Wiles provided an excellent example of theater history, too, especially insofar as he higlighted how little we actually know about Medieval performance traditions, how bizarre and alien they can seem. We also focused on the Medieval tendencies toward synchronous performance, anachronism, and community involvement, tying in with earlier discussions on theater as “civic spectacle.” I think students can safely guess that an exam question might be forming here!
Our discussion of Everyman was tied to its material conditions of performance, and we started by returning to the posts I’d asked everyone to make. I was happy to see how, after a bit of redirection, many of the posts went into more specificity about how the evidence in Wiles could be used to inform a staging of Everyman. A bit of time was spent on the thematics of exchange developed in the play, and we came to the conclusion that it would have been interesting–and likely–for this to have been performed in a marketplace, using a mobile Everyman journeying from scaffold to scaffold.
I’m hoping we’ll have a good group for the upcoming fieldtrip to the Shakespeare Theatre in DC, where we’ll see a performance of Lope de Vega’s Dog in the Manger–though we couldn’t read it in class, we will be looking at his Fuente Ovejuna, which is up next!
Last class period, we had our first real session–filled with fun facts and close reading! Instead of a lecture, I wanted to encourage students to participate in their own learning by “specializing” on a question from the reading guide for Oliver Taplin’s essay on ancient Greek theater. I handed out key questions from the guide that touched on broad themes that will be relevant to all our study this term, including the role of theater and festivals as “civic spectacle”; the central characteristics of tragedy and comedy; the material conditions of performance; and important terms for use in our study. Students organized into groups, and their goal was to present their answers to the questions to the class as a whole in discussion. This approach worked well enough, I felt, but it was hampered by the fact that many students did not have books or had not read the assignment; as a result, it took far longer than I’d planned, which meant we had little time to get into our reading of Lysistrata.
We watched a few clips, including an amateur video of the theatre at Epidaurus and a contemporary performance in a similar space, and a clip from the 1957 Oedipus Rex, which employs many of the stylistic features of Greek tragedy. These clips gave us a sense of the scale of early performance spaces, as well as what the material conditions of those spaces meant for performance itself. I’d cued up a modern Greek film dramatizing Lysistrata, but as we had so little time in the second portion of class we didn’t get to watch it; instead, that will be our first screening of the term–next Monday at 12:30 in the library auditorium.
We also discussed the research presentation, and several students signed up for theirs–we’ll need to go over the film/performance review project next class, as well as the parameters for the live performance of Dog in the Manger at the Shakespeare Theatre. Hopefully, we’ll be able to get a good group of students there on February 14th, for the matinee showing, and perhaps we’ll even go out for snacks and discussion afterwards. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that other groups of students will also see ‘Tis Pity in Baltimore and Lysistrata at Georgetown later in the term!
Weekly posts seem to be going well, though several students didn’t complete the assignment, and as we ran out of time, I didn’t get a chance to address my concerns. Several posts were quite good, and addressed the spirit of the prompt–Amanda’s was particularly relevant, about the role of drinking and drunkenness in the play, though others were less than satisfactory. This first week, though, I see as a test run, so that the necessary questions can be asked, hurdles overcome. Ideally, these will form the spark for our discussions in class, so for next week, I’m asking students to write on how their knowledge of Medieval staging practices may have impacted a performance of Everyman. That should help avoid the problem I encountered in the first class, with many students not getting through–or attempting!–the contextual and historical essays. As always, though, we’ll see!
The first evening of Theater History, we went over the syllabus as usual, spending a bit of time going over each of the texts we’re reading and the major assignments–students seemed interested in the performance project option, though I think many will choose to do the essay, instead. We’re starting with the typical, ancient Greek drama, but instead of focusing on tragedy we’ll be reading Lysistrata. We had some troubles with the bookstore, and so many will be reading different editions of Aristophanes–which will make discussion difficult, to say the least. However, the group seems lively, interested, and eager to talk about drama! I’ve got several students who are or have been associated with theater, whether as actors, directors, set/costume designers, and so on–none, though, who consider themselves readers of plays. Hopefully, I’ll be able to change their minds!
After the first half of class, where we went over the logistics of the course schedule, especially screenings and live performance events, we spent some time thinking about what makes theater different from other forms of art. What is theater? What does it mean–what can it mean–to “perform”? What is the relationship between theatrical performance and its material contexts? Can theater be used as a form of social control, a tool used to shape the opinions, behaviors, and beliefs of a public? How? Can it be a tool of resistance? Can theater, by its nature, be radical, and in what circumstances? Finally, we thought about the porousness, the malleability of meaning in theater–because it depends on performance, and because performance, like interpretation, is always collaborative, the same performance can signify in different (even oppositional) ways.
We then watched an excerpt from Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, the scene where Antigone, arrested for reburying her brother against the strict order of her uncle and king, Creon, confronts him and both argue for their concept of law. Knowing that this play, first performed in 1944 during the Vichy collaboration with Nazi forces, is also an allegory of resistance, we thought about the multiple ways it could be both interpreted and used. The collaborationist government, finding Creon’s arguments about the greater good, the need for law and order, the ends justifying the means compelling, allowed it to be performed all across Paris; however, Antigone also becomes a powerful voice of resistance, in the very act of saying “No.” Even though she won’t “win” according to Creon’s point of view, she has meaning; she is in fact obligated to resist him.
Next class, we’ll be going over the basics of Greek theater, paying special attention to the role of theater in ancient Athens. We’ll probably discuss the features of tragedy and comedy, and then move on to a discussion of Lysistrata. Hopefully, the momentum we built after the first class continues throughout the term!