A palpable absurdity permeates my being whenever I prepare to teach a theatre history survey course. This absurd feeling, something I would describe as an out-of-tuneness with the actuality of the task facing me, reverberates wildly through my bones. What, frankly, are we to do, we who teach these courses? As Steve Tillis has argued in his essay, “Remapping Theatre History,” we teachers of theatre history in the United States find ourselves heirs to a centuries-old Eurocentrism that forecasts a dreary classroom experience. More than Eurocentric, Tillis argues, we frequently succumb to a bland parochialism, “‘parochial,’ that is, in the sense defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘relating or confined to a narrow area or region, as if within the borders of one’s own parish; limited or provincial in outlook or scope’” (Tillis 1). That is, despite the multitude of perspectives that have opened onto South American, Middle Eastern, African, and Asian, and Australasian theatre histories in the recent years, theatre history survey classes in higher education continue to abscond back within the well-protected walls of European theatre history.
Of course, the solution to this parochialism cannot simply rest in an adoption of non-European material at the expense of the Ancient Greeks, Ancient Romans, Medieval monasteries, Cid controversies, and Elizabethan playhouses, can it? I mean, we’re supposed to figure out a savvy self-reflexive method of pairing the parochial with the global to present a thorough historiographic deconstruction of all that we know, aren’t we? This is the point at which that out-of-tune feeling begins to resonate in my toes. I have three weeks to put together my syllabus. I don’t want to quarantine my students within the tiny parish of traditional theatre history studies. What do I do?
My decision: to fail tactically. To face this absurd challenge in front of me, I have chosen not to construct a radically global theatre history syllabus that can address Tillis’s concerns and blaze new trails through the halls of the university, but, rather, one that allows me to perform the limitations of the traditional theatre history survey timeline along with, and for the benefit of, my students. This tactical failure takes a cue from Beckett’s motto in Worstward Ho, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” This failure does not take success as its opposite; rather, tactical failure describes the practice of mapping the limit of thought, setting sail towards that limit, and embracing the perplexity that comes from reaching it. In the spirit of this mission, I present this Theatre History Irrationale to accompany my syllabus posted on this theater historiography site.
To fail tactically with my students, and, through doing so, to embrace the problem of theatre historiography: this is the goal that undergirds my syllabus. To achieve this goal, I embrace not only the Western theatre history tradition but also the futility of attempting to cover that canon of works in any depth in the span of fifteen weeks. Each of my lectures and class discussion frequently fall in on themselves and expose what Matthew Goulish calls the “irreducible complexity” of, in this case, historical inquiry. I want to encourage my students to engage in that complexity instead of bypassing it for easy answers. To do this, we need to learn how to ask questions. We, my students and I, need to learn how to see what has been rendered invisible by historical narrative. We need to sift through the historical ground from which specific plays emerge in order to grapple with the modes of thinking that allow such plays to exist.
One such example of this philosophy in action is my unit on Classical Roman Theatre. I have assigned two class periods, a total of four hours, for our exploration of this material. This year, I paired a chapter from Donald G. Kyle’s Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome with Seneca’s Oedipus. The students read these two texts and I supplied some additional contextualization through excerpts from History of the Theatre on the phenomenon of the “closet drama,” passages from Horace’s Ars Poetica, and some tidbits on Seneca’s relationship with Nero. Once we had orientated ourselves within the matrix of these materials, a problem emerged: to which historical line of sight does Seneca’s play belong? Should we read it as a closet drama that abides by the rules of decorum set out by Horace, or should we treat it as a spectacle of death akin to the munera of Seneca’s day? For the majority of class, the students developed arguments to support one of these perspectives. I asked them to pay special attention to the stakes of their argument. So What? What does it matter if Iocasta’s death was merely described in words on a page or if an actress actually disemboweled herself in front of an audience? Why should we care about this question at all?
Despite the multiple and well-argued answers to these questions, our conversation was cut short by time. We reached no solutions. I announced that we were leaving Rome and jumping ahead nearly ten centuries next week. The students groaned, a sound I interpreted as a desire to keep digging through Seneca. Death, its particular significance in the spectacles of Ancient Rome, its relation to Seneca’s play, and its ambiguous treatment in Horace became floating themes that will continue to haunt our future classroom discussions. My lesson plans did not bring any answers to the students, just as I had willfully acknowledged prior to starting the exercises. Instead, what we did experience was how to wrestle with a diverse set of historical materials and events, and we gained an understanding that the need to wrestle outweighs the need for certainty.
Of course, this failure is neither good nor bad. It is, at best, a delay. Tactical failure-as-delay helps to provoke inquisitiveness and teaches the art of producing arguments instead of the acquisition of knowledge. This type of failure applies to my own process of learning as well. This fact became vividly clear while trying to unpack the ambiguity of Aeschylus’s play The Persians. Is the play a victory lap for the Athenians after a harrowing war with Xerxes’ forces, or is it a complicated display of empathy through which the other becomes more knowable? For two of my students, both of whom claim Persian descent, neither question mattered. Both students were so furious with the depiction of the Persians that they didn’t even listen to the in-class conversation. For my TA, the mere presentation of this play created trouble because, she felt, it was likely that the students would have no other representation of Ancient Persia to supplement this Greek-centric portrayal. After receiving this feedback, I decided to bring the conversation around the upset into the classroom and to explain that I had failed as a teacher. In fact, I suggested, teaching is a never-ending string of failures through which the wealth of the unsaid becomes visible. I admitted that, having taught The Persians for the first time, I would like to pair Aeschylus’s play with a Persian theatrical piece in the future. At the present, however, I am unfamiliar with that aspect of theatre history and I need to mark that fact for everybody. In the future, I’ll try again, fail again, and fail better.
I call this supplemental document an “irrationale” partially because it does not adequately defend the choices I made while creating my Theatre History syllabus. I make no effort to defend those choices because I feel they need no defense. Instead, I intend this irrationale to highlight the tactical use of limitations and failures in my pedagogical strategy. While my syllabus may appear no different than the material Tillis (rightfully) scrutinizes and queries in his essay, I want to express the thought that what we teach is only half the story. How we teach the material we choose to share with students seems to be the more fruitful avenue of inquiry. Within that how exists a practice of teaching. By allowing that practice to embrace failure and the limitations of the canon as teaching materials I try to help students learn the art of questioning and I work on developing a reciprocal method of learning through which I teach the students and students teach me. In fact, there is a third party: the historical material itself. This third party acts as a spectral beacon that helps us to triangulate our ontological and epistemological position in the present, though the perpetual appearance and disappearance of the historical signal means that, ultimately, the students and I are left wading through the deep ocean of the past together.
Will Daddario is teaching the theatre history sequence at University of Minnesota—Twin Cities Campus in 2011-2012. You can find his syllabus in the Faculty Club area.