Welcome to theater-historiography.org!

This is your space to exchange resources for research and pedagogy. Borrow generously from the tools in Faculty Club, then share some of your own. Tell us about what you’re reading in Ex Libris. And watch the Discussion areas for special commentaries and field reports from the trenches.

Forget your story. Think about your plot.

by on February 19th, 2020

My recent research and writing on the poet Jay Wright has challenged me to go back to the Ancient Greeks a lot lately. Phrases like this one show up and send me on wild journeys through the classical texts: μὲν βάσις ὰγλαἴας ὰρχά.

I was starting to do so much work with Ancient Greek that I decided to purchase a subscription to the Loeb Classics Online Library, and to encourage my use of this amazing resource I started a blog series called “Classical Bellyflop.” The name comes from the feeling of leaping or diving into the classical texts curated in that library. Since my knowledge of Ancient Greek and Latin is pretty basic, however, any dive would scarcely resemble something pretty; not even a cannonball or a jack-knife would serve as an adequate comparison. No, when I dive into Ancient Greece I most certainly bellyflop. The text-water slaps me with as much force as my dive carries with it. The discoveries I make in the text are usually eye-opening and sometimes startling, similar to the surprisingly painful sensation of breaking the water’s surface.

I ended the last post (on repetition) with a consideration of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the repetition that undergirds that telling, a repetition that is desired, actively tended, and yet also potentially upsetting. This entry you are reading here continues with this line of thought by questioning the ubiquitous use of the word “story” in the realm of social media. So many sites have a section for “your story.” The word shows up in so many places that its history has been evacuated. What does ”story” mean here?

The least generous reading of “story” in this context leads to an equation with marketing. When we update our story, we are marketing ourselves as products in the social marketplace. We market ourselves because we want someone to notice us, to listen to us, to engage with us. That desire is understandable and often sincere, but, at least on social media, it is necessarily bound up within “the society of the spectacle.” Fungibility overwrites intimacy. Our story is a transaction.

A more generous reading acknowledges that many of us—though certainly not all—are aware of the superficial dimension to this story telling, but we do it anyway. We tell “our story” because we want to feature highlights in the grand narrative that is our life. Still, though, a type of blindness persists here, one that becomes sensible through a question: are we in the story or are we making it? It often seems as though we would like to play out our lives as characters in a story that is written by some unseen author. Why? Simply put, it would be easier this way. It would be easier to play a predefined part, to enact a subject position or identity that is already created and in search of an operator or conductor. If we act in this way, however, if we accede to the fiction that we’re all stars in our own movies, then we forget the craft of making, the art of not simply telling a story but selecting one of infinite plots through which that story might unfold. If we think we’re only in the movie, then the ποίησις (poiesis) of life is by default ceded to another entity.

I’d like to suggest that, instead of blindly following the seductive marketing of the “story,” we focus more on the art of making. Furthermore, I would like to argue that we can do this by shifting our attention from our “story” to our “plot.” As I have said in almost every theatre class I have ever taught, plot and story are not the same thing. The story is like the wide-angle view of the events and characters that comprise any tale. The plot, by contrast, is the on-the-ground route that moves audience members and spectators through the story as it’s told. The ability to tell the same story by means of a different plot is what allows artists and entertainers to revisit the same stories from the past continually without losing the interest of contemporary audiences. For example, Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood is a re-plotting of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The story is (generally, we are encouraged to think,) the same, but the telling is Kurosawa’s own. The route he plots through Macbeth is linked to his particular philosophy of cinema and his cultural milieux. We can’t discuss Throne of Blood without talking about Macbeth, but the story is not the most important part of Kurosawa’s cinematic event. The way he plots the story is a key reason why his film is so gripping and unforgettable.

To get to plot, though, it helps to go through “story,” which, for the Ancient Greeks, appeared primarily in two words: λόγος and μῦθος. The first, logos, was a foundational word within Ancient Greek culture. It meant “speech” and “reason.” To speak Greek was to move toward Reason. In the sense I’m referencing it here, however, the speech of logos is particularly a story or a telling of some event. The second word, mythos, which we also rely upon frequently in contemporary English (as “myth”), was a particular kind of story. It did not, as we tend to think today, denote a fictional story, but, rather, a founding story. The myth was an originating event, a happening that was so significant that it required constant revisiting (repetition) through the act of telling (i.e., rhapsodizing). The one who tells such a story is both a rhapsode and a mythologer.

There is no denying that story, as both logos and mythos, was important to the Greeks. Homeric Epics, for example, were myths that compelled constant retelling. When theatre rose to prominence and began to exert such a powerful role in (Athenian) cultural production, however, plot unseated story. At least, that’s what Aristotle leads us to think in his Poetics where, as Gerald Else tells it, he outlines the most important aspects of the art of making (and, in particular, the art of making tragedies). Of all the important aspects, plot is the most important. Reflecting on this today, it seems like this is the case because the telling of the story (myth) is what affected the course of ethical action in contemporary society, and, as such, a poor telling could literally pollute the city. A good telling was, by contrast, akin to the perfect path paved across a treacherous mountain pass. It guided the walker through the dangerous terrain to the other side of the mountain.

This word, however, “plot,” was not strictly equal with contemporary understandings of that word. Aristotle’s word was σύστασις (sustasis or systasis). When we look that word up in Ancient Greek dictionaries, we find that its definition as “plot of a drama” was far from primary. Its other definitions and usages included:

  • bringing together, introduction, recommendation
  • communication between a man and a god
  • protection
  • standing together, close combat, conflict
  • meeting, accumulation, e.g. of humours
  • knot of men assembled
  • political union
  • friendship or alliance
  • composition, structure, constitution of a person or a thing
  • coming into existence, formation

Looking at the list, it is possible to see how it comes to relate to the elements of a story’s structure, but this takes some work. To plot a story, we can deduce, is to bring together its most important elements so as to make visible the story’s lesson for the spectator. This, in fact, was theatre’s reason for existence. Theatre, the seeing place, the site where foundational lessons were plotted for use in the contemporary polis.

When we search for σύστασις in the Loeb Classical Library, we find again that the topic of literature is by no means the primary home for the word. In Aristotle’s other works, for instance, we find the following:

  • Parva Naturalia. On Respiration: refers to “the constitution of the animal” and the “constitution of the organ,” meaning the way the working parts of an animal or vital organ are put together
  • Meterologica: he speaks of the “formation” of a halo around the sun or moon; the “composition” of fiery, meteoric phenomena; the “collection” of vapor that forms morning dew; the “consistency” of a cloud.
  • Generation of Animals: a reference to the substance “constituting” menstrual fluid; the “generation” of plants; the “composition” of the human body; etc.
  • On the Heavens: the “coming together” of the parts of a human or of the world

As these examples suggest, the word that becomes “plot” in the Poetics surfaces in other works given over more to what we would call today the physical sciences. Likewise, it shows up in a similar usage in Galen’s On the Constitution of the Art of Medicine, Theophrastus’ On Odours, Plutarch’s consideration of the face that appears on the surface of the moon, and many other works. Is it at all strange, then, that Aristotle uses the word in ΠΕΡΙ ΠΟΙΗΤΙΚΗΣ, On Poetics, his discussion of the art of making tragedies? That he not only uses the word systasis but that he identifies it as the most important element of this art?

No, not when we consider how Aristotle’s disposition allowed him to look upon the art of making tragedy with the same eyes as he looked at the composition of animals. Aristotle was, after all, a man for whom the interplay of parts and whole, genus and species, was of the utmost importance. His concern with the “coming together of parts” so as to tell a story, therefore, makes sense. Likewise, his other keyword “catharsis” frequently carried the medical sense of “purging,” which was transferred to the work of tragedy: tragedy purged society of its pity and fear. Systasis and catharsis show how theatre, medicine, physics, and philosophy were all intertwined in Ancient Greece.

In my consideration here, the emphasis placed on “plot” by Aristotle deserves our attention because it shifts our thinking from the emphasis on “what” is being told to “how” it is being told. It also drags us out of the story and places us in a perspective from which we can view the making of the story. Both of these shifts are crucially important because they help us remember that we are makers. If we fall into the story and forget about the outside (i.e., the other people and animals and plants and objects and things that make the world), then we become players in someone else’s plot.

The “what” of a theatrical piece is the material, the “how” is the totality of decisions made by the artistic team to help an audience grapple with the material of a given show. In terms of our “stories,” the biography we write with our daily living, we tend to place a lot of importance on the “what,” on the material aspects of our life. On social media, many stories seek to show this material in a good light to anyone who wants to look. But the “how” of our story, the way we compose ourselves over time, is something much harder to showcase. This “how” isn’t visible in a snapshot or even a string of images over a short span of time. Speaking philosophically, the grand “How” comes together in its full form only once the story is over, that is, only once our life has been lived.

So what do we do about this? How do we shift from story to plot? The answer lies in ποίησις, the making, the construction of the story. We cause a disturbance in the society of the spectacle when we reveal how stories are made. This is the shift from History (the story of the past) to historiographies (the writings of these stories). Emphasize the way you make yourself. Show how you put your pieces together. Doing this forces us outside of the stories we tend to tell ourselves (repeatedly) about ourselves and challenges us to put things together differently.

Bio:

Will Daddario is the author of Baroque, Venice, Theatre, Philosophy. His current scholarly project is a book-length study of Jay Wright’s poetry, philosophy, and dramatic literature, co-authored with Matthew Goulish. In the realm of academia, he is currently most active as a member of the Performance Philosophy network (performancephilosophy.org) where he co-edits the Performance Philosophy journal and the Book Series.

No comments yet

Undocumentedness: Theater, Experimental Performance, and New Media – An ATHE Resource Guide

by on April 15th, 2018

Photo: Los Illegals by Michael John Garcés (2007)

The Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) recently invited me to build an online resource guide that centers on how Theater, Performance and Experimental Media intersect with undocumentedness in the US. I’m glad to say that the ATHE site is now up an running. Link here:

http://www.athe.org/page/undocumented_theater

I hope the guide proves useful to educators and students in various performance mediums who wish to craft any part of their curriculum around this extremely important issue. As I’m sure many of you already know, the US’s current relationship with its undocumented population is one that is extremely charged.


Photo: Maria TV by Rodrigo Valenzuela (2014)

On the guide you will find information regarding books, articles, videos, interviews, websites, and plays that intersect with this issue. The guide also includes a number of exercises that might be useful as in-class activities related to the material.

If interested, feel free to give it a look when you can. I also highly encourage you to send the link out to other interested individuals and/or institutions. The idea being that the wider dissemination the site can get, the better.


Photo: Undocu-Graduation 2016 by the WA DREAM Coalition (Seattle)

The project is also conceived as on-going. So if you know of any any pertinent resources that you feel could be added to the guide, feel free to email me.

Many Thanks,

Christopher Goodson

cgoodson@cornish.edu

No comments yet

A Raisin in the Classroom

by on December 10th, 2017

Why is Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark play, A Raisin in the Sun, not found in the major drama anthologies many universities use for survey classes? Its absence is problematic, given its important place in drama history and literature, which is why we must make an extra effort to get the play into our students’ hands and into classroom learning.

There are so many ways to teach Raisin on the college level. Clearly, the approach you take depends on the learning goals for the department, the class, and the students you are teaching. Are they theatre majors or non-majors? Did they read Raisin in high school and is this, therefore, an opportunity to go deeper into content and context? Is this a US drama survey class and/or a class focusing on race? Is this a script analysis or a theatre history class?

I’ve taught A Raisin in the Sun in two different contexts. In my intro class focusing on staging race and racism, the students had not read Theodore Ward’s Big White Fog (1938) or Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949). Therefore, our class discussion focused on the repeated tropes we had identified throughout the semester: across genres and historical periods, playwrights emphasize language and the body to mark racial specificity. In addition, Ta-Nehisi Cotes’s “The Case for Reparations” had recently been published, and therefore the topic of systemic racism and economic justice was particularly topical.

In my Modern US Drama class, students brought much more background about US history and performance context to Hansberry’s text. They had read about the Negro Little Theatre movement, the Federal Theatre Project, and were assigned Big White Fogand Death of a Salesman. Therefore, our discussion of Raisin focused on real estate, the nuclear family, masculinity, the agency of female characters, and commercial versus non-commercial theatre.

I’ve listed several assignment ideas/prompts for teaching Raisin.

  1. Analyze the ways in which Hansberry’s drama does or does not fit W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1926 call for “a real Negro theatre” to be “about us,” “by us,” “for us,” and “near us.” Would you categorize Raisin as a “propaganda play” in Du Bois’s definition or a “folk play” in Alain Locke’s definition?
  2. Compare and contrast with Theodore Ward’s Big White Fog (1938).
    1. What do these continuities and differences tell us about pre-WWII and post-WWII racial politics in the United States?
    2. How do Ward and Hansberry use time as a dramatic tool for staging changes in Black American domestic life?
    3. What is the significance of Chicago as a geographical location in both plays?
    4. How is the Great Migration staged through geography and character?
    5. Why include the third generation? What is at stake having children on stage?
    6. How is Africa taken up in each play and how does that impact the dramatic action? How does it connect to international postcolonial movements? Assign p.903 of “To Be(come) Young, Gay, and Black: Lorraine Hansberry’s Existentialist Routes to Anticolonialism” by Cheryl Higashida and discuss why the FBI would file a report focusing on Asagai’s character.
    7. How did the different performance contexts of the Chicago Federal Theatre Project’s Negro Unit and, two decades later, a commercial production on Broadway, impact reception?
  3. If you have taught Harlem Renaissance drama and the works of Langston Hughes, start with his poem “Harlem.”
  4. Compare and contrast with Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949), emphasizing staging the domestic space and heterosexual marriage. This can be done, for instance, by comparing Miller and Hansberry’s very precise stage directions. I also like comparing the famous “eggs” exchange between Ruth and Walter in Act I, scene 1 of Raisin with Linda and Willy’s breakfast discussion at the top of Act II.
  5. Assign the original New York Times review of A Raisin in the Sun  (raisin-original-review-full-page) for an analysis of content and the impact of visual culture (the review is literally marginalized in a thin column on the edge of the page). The theatre section’s lead story is “Four Examples of The Orient’s Inscrutable Influence on Broadway,” which offers the opportunity to discuss how racism manifests in a variety of ways in theatre.
  6. Trace Raisin‘s production history by using the Internet Broadway Database. This teaches students the production history and how to use an important research tool. It also provides the opportunity to discuss the lineage of performers who have played Lena, Ruth, and Walter Lee Younger. What has Raisin meant to the career opportunities of major African American performers?
  7. Explain restrictive covenant and provide the details of the historic court case Hansberry v. Lee. Have students research an article on a historic or contemporary example of housing discrimination and bring the printed article into class. Accumulate the data presented (location, type of discrimination, who the victims were) on the board or in a Google Doc. How far has the United States come or not come from what Hansberry depicted in 1959?
  8. Discuss Hansberry’s queer politics regarding her membership in the Daughters of Bilitis and writing in Ladder. Assign “Lorraine Hansberry’s Gay Politics” by Kai Wright and adapt this high school lesson plan “Lorraine Hansberry: LGBT Politics and Civil Rights” to your class learning goals. The lesson plan identifies this essential question for students: “What is the relationship between the civil rights movement, women’s rights, and gay rights activism?”
  9. Listen to Hansberry’s June 15, 1964 speech “The Black Revolution and the White Backlash,” given at a town hall meeting in New York City. What does Hansberry say about the limits of the existing legal structures for combatting injustice? How can we relate this observation to #BlackLivesMatter and current social justice activism?
  10. Screen excerpts from the PBS Learning Media page, “A Raisin in the Sun Revisited.” The brief Mike Wallace interview provides a clear example of the racism and sexism Hansberry faced and seems to impact students and spur productive discussion.

This post was originally published on https://catherineyoung.net/

2 Comments

Announcing The Open Theatre: An Introduction to Theatre

by and on December 7th, 2017

The Open Theatre: An Introduction to Theatre was first conceived as Drs. Knowles and Devlin were both prepping summer Introduction to Theatre courses. We were struggling to find a textbook that accomplished everything we needed, was accessible and affordable, and offered dynamic educational resources. As we talked we realized we had wildly different opinions about what an Introduction to Theatre class should accomplish, highlighting the need for something more mutable than a traditional textbook.

Simultaneously, both of our institutions were encouraging the exploration of adopting Open Educational Resources in the classroom. In our estimation, we believe Open Educational Resources are the next great disruptive practice in higher education, and we see an ethical obligation to our students to keep the cost of textbooks low.

Out of these discussions came the idea of creating an open-source (free and accessible), completely customizable Introduction to Theatre book, The Open Theatre. Open became an operative and thematic word for us and keyed into all the needs that we were dealing with: Open Educational Resource (OER), open to change based on instructor design, and open to different kinds and types of content that could/should be included. We envisioned a book that, of course, includes standardized academic materials on basic topics of theatre but might also include scripts, interviews (video or text), organizational charts, manifestos, dramaturgy notes, reviews, historical essays, production case studies, and more. We conceived of a text that actively and creatively resisted dominant narratives offered in an introductory level text: what does an open concept of theatre mean?

As conversations continued, our philosophical investment in the ideas of Open Educational Resources became more clear. Neither of us wanted to write a book to make money, nor did we really think that was possible. Creating a living book and offering it free of charge to anyone interested was highly desirable. It offered the chance to take at least some of the cost out of a theatre course and provide an opportunity to the next generation. The opportunities afforded by cutting costs in higher education are attractive, but we both believe the idea of a living book is more exciting, and the product will ultimately be more responsive and timely. Open, in this case, also means taking the content we are putting together and reworking it in anyway you choose (so long as you remain under a Creative Commons-Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.) It’s about sharing and disseminating knowledge with very few strings attached.

We are committed to creating an open, inclusive, democratic, dynamic, and diverse set of resources for students and educators alike.

Call for Proposals

1 Comment

A Multimodal Approach to Teaching A Streetcar Named Desire

by on August 3rd, 2017


I teach a unit on Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire that makes use of a variety of adaptations and modalities of the play, and that challenges students’ assumptions about the text with each successive lesson. Key learning objectives include identifying key themes within the play, analyzing characters across different portrayals, and comparing the textual with the visual. The brief descriptions below could be adapted into a variety of classroom activities, including pair-and-share, small group discussions, mind-mapping, student presentations, and so forth. I have incorporated several approaches with these topics.

I assign the play as part of a unit on Modernism, and the students first approach the written text within the context of course themes. For the purpose of this post, I will discuss how I teach the play within a course organized around “borders and margins.” For example, we discuss the way Blanche is marginalized by those around her as a result of her worsening mental illness and, ultimately, her trauma from being raped. We discuss the “borders” of gender and sexuality that are, by turns, both rigidly enforced and blurred.

After our analysis of the play text, we turn to the 1951 film, starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. These discussions afford students the opportunity to see how the film incorporates elements of both Expressionism and Realism while illuminating the themes of marginalization. Additionally, I direct students to observe any differences between the play and the film, which typically sparks a robust conversation about the film’s radically different conclusion between Stanley and Stella.

The third text brought to bear on this unit is the episode “A Streetcar Named Marge” from The Simpsons. This episode centers on a musical version of A Streetcar Named Desire (“Oh! Streetcar!”) which the town of Springfield’s community theater puts on, and in which Marge Simpsons stars. The episode finds emotional resonance in the parallels between Homer Simpson and Stanley Kowalski, and from Marge’s increasing marginalization in her own home. The episode also finds great humor in the adaptation of the play, with memorable songs and jokes about bowling. After a screening of this episode, I ask the students why they were laughing—what’s funny about this episode? I realize this seems to be an obvious question, and one that might engender flip responses ranging from “I don’t know” to “I actually didn’t think it was funny.” However, this question usually results in deep analysis on the part of the students to understand both the play itself and the nature of humor and parody.

Finally, after the students have unpacked these various versions of the play, I present them with one final text: a painting by Thomas Hart Benton called Poker Night. Benton saw the original Broadway production of Streetcar and painted Poker Night as a tribute to the cast and production. It centers Blanche, as portrayed by Jessica Tandy, as she admires herself in a hand held mirror. Stella is seen in shadow behind Blanche, and the poker playing men are at the kitchen table. Mitch is staring, captivated by Blanche, while Stanley looks incredulously at Mitch.

I like to have the students first perform a basic visual analysis of the painting: what do you see? how is it lit? where is your eye drawn? etc. They discuss whether this painting seems to match the emotion of the poker night sequence, and if the characters are portrayed in way that matches up with previous analyses.

After discussing the painting on its own merits, I provide them with further context for the painting, which comes from letters exchanged between Williams and Tandy. Williams loved it so much that he wanted to recreate it as a photograph, to which the cast members agreed, except for Tandy. She refused because she disliked what she saw as Benton’s one-sided portrayal of Blanche. Williams assured Tandy she wouldn’t have to be photographed in such a sheer gown, but Tandy said that missed the point. She felt the painting portrayed Blanche as a victim—as solely the object of Stanley’s focus, and in her view, Blanche was too complex to be reduced to an object. (She also worried such a photo would lead playgoers to think the play was only about sex.) To his credit, Williams accepted Tandy’s reasoning, and canceled plans for the photo.

Students find this story interesting, because it offers them new ways to consider Blanche and how she relates to the rest of the characters. Students often point out that the one “error” the painting makes is that it puts Blanche squarely in the light, something the character takes great pains to avoid. Students also debate the portrayal of Stella in the painting; while she is at times overwhelmed by Blanche’s presence, should she really be seen as a cowering figure, behind her sister?

Bringing all these versions of A Streetcar Named Desire together affords students multiple opportunities to see how a dramatic text can be adapted, revised, reinvisioned, and even parodied. The benefit of a multimodal approach is that students who may be potentially disinterested in the play text itself will have several other chances to engage with the text in a way that might seem more interesting to them.

In closing, allow me to leave you with the advice of Blanche du Bois in “Oh! Streetcar!”: “A stranger’s just a friend you haven’t met!”

Resources

“A Streetcar Named Marge.” The Simpsons: The Complete Fourth Season, written by Jeff Martin, directed by Rich Moore, Fox, 1992.

A Streetcar Named Desire. Directed by Elia Kazan, performances by Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh, Warner Brothers, 1951.

Benton, Thomas Hart. Poker Night, 1948, tempera and oil on linen, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City. http://collection.whitney.org/object/4174

Devlin, Albert and Nancy Tischler, Editors. Selected Letters: Volume II, 1945-1957. New Directions, 2007.

1 Comment