“Origin is an eddy in the stream of becoming, and in its current it swallows the material involved in the process of genesis.”

—Walter Benjamin.

“The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties.”

—David Foster Wallace


Walter Benjamin has helped me think about teaching theatre history. “The term origin,” he writes in The Origin of German Tragic Drama, “is not intended to describe the process by which the existent came into being, but rather to describe that which emerges from the process of becoming and disappearance” (45). His poetic formulation of this idea supports my assertions in the classroom that nothing is created in a vacuum, but it also presents a methodological challenge to me as I design my syllabus for this Part II of a year-long theatre history survey course. How can I tinker with the chronological timeline of the class in order not to banish it, not to castigate it to the realm of “those other” theatre history classes, but to make time and space visible as operative modes of theatrical endeavors unfolding in history and as history? Even more challenging: can I create a syllabus that harnesses this (rather mind-blowing) image of origin as “an eddy in the stream of becoming”? Can my syllabus swirl in on itself and produce an eddy in our thinking about theatre history from the Enlightenment to Postmodernism? Then, after swirling inward, can our conversations in theatre history class reach beyond the stated scope of the syllabus and send us spiraling outward and help us re-think our performances of everyday life?

The course starts with Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais’s The Marriage of Figaro (pre-Revolutionary France). From there we trek to the Black Forest and paddle down the Rhine to Germany where we encounter Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, Part 1. Since Goethe wrote this work over sixty years (!), the (Kantian) smooth flow of time convulses and stammers, forcing us in the classroom to assess Goethe’s dramatic work not as a snapshot of a specific time and place but, rather, as a palimpsest of multiple time periods and artistic-philosophical movements (Sturm und Drang, Romanticism, Weimar Classicism). After Goethe, we linger in Germany but reflect back on France through the lens of Georg Büchner’s Danton’s Death. The barbel fish expert turned playwright [More on this in future blog posts ] conjures France’s Revolutionary past as a way to cope with the restoration of the French monarchy, the failed Polish revolution of 1830, and, by extension, the windfall for conservative governmental forces in his native land. This syllabus stutter step between Germany and France acquiesces to the French and we return to France via René Charles Guilbert de Pixérécourt’s The Dog of Montargis and the birth of melodrama, that odd combination of popular spectacle and Romantic striving for the Good.

This journey does not present a chronological assessment. Instead, we are, all sixty-nine of us, making a swirling, spiraling eddy in the ocean of theatre history. The spiral derives its momentum from the French Revolution, takes a tour out to the far reaches of Romantic and post-Romantic drama with Goethe and then Büchner, and then deposits us back in France at the end of Napoleon’s rule. Why make this journey? Instead of a linear march through time, I ask the students to think about these four weeks as a case study in Revolutionary Theatre. During our four-week tour, we can look at the French Revolution from many angles. We can see its bacchanalian splendor and then feel the morning-after awkwardness when everyone looked each other in the eyes and asked, “Did we really do that?” We can see its radical side, its conservative side, its sublime embodiment of the triumph over despotism, and its goriness.  I’ve decided to focus our attention on the relationship between France and Germany because it is this relationship that leads eventually to the First World War, an event that utterly changes the way humans interact with each other in Europe. The centripetal force gathered from this initial swirling movement ultimately propels us through the post-WWI assault on dramatic form (by Expressionists, Dada, and the like) into a string of critiques of European ideologies that populate the second half of our semester’s study.

I’d like to create a rip tide that pulls the students into the collective challenge of the class. That challenge is not to memorize names, dates, events, or genres, but, rather, to re-think the now in which we have gathered. How can thinking historiographically about theatre at the turn of the nineteenth-century help students to reflect on the stories they tell themselves about their mission as students, their wishes as theatre artists, and their desires as young adults living at the turn of the twenty-first century? Can Benjamin’s “eddy” lead to meta-awareness and self-reflexivity so that we become attentive to how we do theatre history and not just what we study?

Of course, only time will tell. As for the other goal I’ve set for the semester, to encourage students to think through theatre history to their individual lives in the present moment, I’m drawn back not to Walter Benjamin but to the author David Foster Wallace. The connection between these two thinkers is not as tenuous as it may appear at first, at least not in this case. In his address to a graduating class of students at Kenyon College, the author of Infinite Jest, and a number of other novels and collections of fiction and nonfiction, presented a talk called “This is Water.” Benjamin’s metaphor (is it a metaphor?) relies on the idea that our becoming unfolds as a stream, which, by extension, requires that we must be wet.

Wallace starts out his commencement talk with this familiar joke: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’” []. Though Wallace was not most likely imagining Benjamin when he planned his speech, his set-up joke and subsequent talk offers a pedagogical insight that forms a resonant analogue to the ideas I’ve been discussing so far.

DFW assures his listeners that he is not the “wise old fish” attempting to install some truth about life in the minds of all present. “The point of the fish story,” he suggests, “is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.” The platitude he chooses to focus on is that liberal arts education is about “teaching you how to think.” He goes on to advocate for a re-evaluation of the “capacity to think,” which he identifies as that which leads us all to be a little less arrogant. Why less arrogant? Because we hardly ever remember that this is water, and that it will take our entire critical capacity to develop an awareness of the most obvious truths about our situation. To transpose this sentiment to the Benjaminian-historiographical key, we might say that we hardly ever remember how specific historical conditions shape every contour of our present, our now (jetzeit), or that our specific way of doing theatre comes from a certain trajectory that has been actively selected and presented as the curriculum. Wallace’s hyper-self-reflexive, postmodern narrative and Benjamin’s post-Enlightenment inspired historical materialism converge in their attunement to the conditions that make our present possible.

The trick for me is to remember that I am also a student. I chose the epigram about arrogance from Wallace because it reminds me that I have to foster a critical awareness about myself and my certainties as I teach this course. This means being willing to change, to call audibles from the line as I see the momentum of the class change in front of me. In the next several blog posts, I’d like to report back on the changes I encounter throughout the semester and I welcome any and all comments.

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