Will Daddario

The immortality of Foucault’s thought makes yet another mark on English-language scholarship with the arrival of the most recent edition of his lectures. Under the Nietzsche-inspired title, “Lectures on the Will to Know,” this publication offers Foucault’s first annual lecture to the Collège de France, 1970-71. For those of you familiar with the impressive dynamism of Michel Foucault’s life work—much of which exists in English translation thanks to dedicated translators such as Graham Burchell, A. M. Sheridan Smith, Lysa Hochroth, and Catherine Porter, and to editors such as Paul Rabinow, James D. Faubion, Arnold I. Davidson, and, of course, Daniel Defert—you already know that any simple application of this French thinker’s work, or any single use to which you may put his thought, misses the mark. That is, despite the tendency for theatre and performance scholars to poach theories and concepts from other fields, Foucault’s ideas offer so much more than a one-off frame for a study of, say, disciplined bodies, or an easy citation for further reading into the paradoxes of Victorian culture. Foucault, the name and the body of work associated with it, constitutes a mode of thinking, a tactical map for grappling with the discontinuities of history. If you dive head deep into this particular body of work, as I did about nine years ago, then you might experience the wonderful sensation of discovering the art of thinking that Foucault honed over the course of a lifetime which was, in a certain sense, cut short with his early death in 1984; in another sense, however, the art of thinking he developed lives on in his work and can never die.

Now, here’s a bit of information that will offer you a glimpse of how important Foucault’s work is to me and, more importantly, how excited it makes me. I visit the Palgrave-Macmillan website regularly (like, once a month) to check on the process of the upcoming publications from this lecture series. Once I see that a book is ready for publication, I order it in advance from Amazon, and I do this so that I might forget about it, and then, one day, a box arrives at my house or my office (I switch it up) and I get a wonderful surprise. This particular publication actually motivated a re-appraisal of my home library because, I mean, where do you put Foucault’s work? Philosophy? Cultural Studies? Having decided to rearrange the books in my library by subject, I had to think about Foucault’s home and who his neighbors might be. Ultimately, I settled on placing the books, the count of which is now up to twenty-five, in the “historiography” section because, again, what we’re dealing with is a method of study, a plan of attacking numerous historical conundrums, and an art that, given the discipline required to learn it, we might call martial. To me, historiography names a specific thinking practice motivated by a drive to think through, not about, the past, and I have developed this understanding thanks in large part to the work of Foucault.

But why should you care about this art, this body of work, and this particular publication? The answer has to do with Aristotle and the problem(s) that the Poetics poses to scholars in our profession. Foucault has demonstrated his appreciation and respect for classical Greek tragedy in previous works, most notably in the lectures from 19 and 26 January 1983 dedicated to Euripides’ Ion, but this appreciation appears to have existed from an early stage in his career since the 1970-71 lectures revolve around the appearance and articulation of Truth in Classical Greek tragedy. I would like to invite all of you who plan to teach classes related to or touching upon Ancient Greek tragedy to check out “Lectures on the Will to Know,” because the argument leveled there provides a model for engaging with Aristotle’s Poetics and the possibility that plays such as Oedipus Tyrannus express a worldview that the Poetics, and its subsequent uptake by theatre historians, has obscured.

Here’s a brief breakdown of the argument, mixed with my own commentary linking Foucault’s claims to our situation as theatre historiographers:

  • Aristotle’s Poetics cannot be understood without reference to all of his other treatises (Rhetoric, Politics, Physics, Metaphysics, etc., etc.) — AND YET, theatre scholars neglect this rule and like to ignore the material conditions of the Poetics
    • Namely, that it was written approx. 100 years after the golden age of Athenian drama and it was part of Aristotle’s scientific assessment of the world around him
    • This scientific turn marked Aristotle as distinctly different from his teacher, Plato, and that’s important because Plato’s philosophy was certainly linked to and motivated by the theatre of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, on the one hand, and steeped in a distinctly different sensibility from that of his student (Aristotle).
  • On a deeper level: Aristotle’s understanding of the world and of TRUTH (like, the big concept of TRUTH) differs tremendously from the understanding of TRUTH that exists in the plays he talks about in the Poetics
    • In other words, according to Foucault: Aristotle seemed to think that Truth was something that all people necessarily wanted, and they wanted it because it was good for them and even pleasurable
    • BUT, again pace Foucault, take a look at a play like Oedipus Tyrannus and you will notice that the TRUTH of that play is not at all something old Swollen Foot wants. Philosophically speaking, we can say that Oedipus drives toward the truth, but he does so despite the fact that the TRUTH of his identity scares the hell out of him and all but kills him
  • Foucault’s implicit conclusion (which he builds up to from 9 December, 1970, to 27 January, 1971) is that the philosophical stance toward TRUTH enacted by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides is altogether different from the philosophical stance adopted by Aristotle

-       Will’s historiographical conclusion: If we study Aristotle’s Poetics as a helpful tool for understanding Ancient Greek drama, then we first have to realize that Aristotle was trying to write history in his own way through his Poetics. It appears that he was trying to invent specific rules and goals for Ancient Greek tragedy, goals that help individuals of his time achieve Truth as he (i.e., Aristotle) understood it.

-       Add to all of this the fact that the Poetics is an incomplete set of notes transcribed by several students of Aristotle’s and then assembled years later, and we see that teaching Aristotle’s Poetics over and over again is quite problematic

Now, the thrust of this argument, which Foucault does not entirely flesh out but rather leads us toward, is that Classical Greek Tragedy was a kind of performance philosophy. Through theatre, the Ancient Greeks embodied and enacted Truth, one that, should we believe Foucault, we have a hard time viewing in the present because of the Poetics. Not only is our path to this Truth blocked, but so too is our view of the performance philosophy of the Ancient Greeks blocked because the practice of their theatre has been forgotten in favor of discovering the causes and/or (political) e/affects of said practice. But don’t take my word for it. Read Foucault.

Or for that matter, read any number of the exciting books out on this topic, such as Martin Puchner’s The Drama of Ideas, the collection edited by S. E. Wilmer and Audrone Zukauskaite titled Interrogating Antigone, or Freddie Rokem’s Philosophers and Thespians. But, and here’s my point, read these alongside Foucault’s work. We should fight the temptation to limit our understanding of Foucault’s work through the constant invocation of such terms as Discipline or The History of Sexuality, and reappraise the vast body of his life’s work as, perhaps, a form of performance philosophy in its own right, one that can offer tremendous insight into the teaching of theatre historiography and the doing of historical research.

Will Daddario is the Chair of the Performance and Philosophy Working Group within Performance Studies international and a core convener of Performance Philosophy.

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Last year I submitted a course syllabus and accompanying (ir)rationale for “TH3171 – Theatre History from the Ancient Greeks to the Neo-Classical Age” to this forum. The (ir)rationale allowed me to elaborate on my choice to teach the canon against itself, as it were, by teaching skills for deconstructing the materials we encountered as we encountered them. I named my plan of action tactical failure: “I have chosen not to construct a radically global theatre history syllabus that can address [Steve] 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.’”

I’m writing now to report on that experience. In the words of Lisa Le Feuvre, “Even if one sets out to fail, the possibility of success is never eradicated, and failure once again is ushered in.”* These words describe a paradox at the heart of failure pedagogy; namely, that the results of tactical failure will likely lead to great confusion. Did I succeed in failing? Is that even possible? What precisely have I succeeded in doing by performing the limitations of traditional theatre history survey courses? Did my performed failures elucidate anything for the students or were they just plain old infelicitous attempts at action—non-exciting failures (fizzles?), as opposed to productive failures? After reflecting on the highs and lows of that particular course, I came to two realizations:

  1. Tactical failure [as described in my (ir)rationale] helps to teach students the value of self-reflexivity and the benefit of asking good questions: What is this source that I’m reading? Who translated this text? How much of my contemporary, U.S.-based, privileged viewpoint is shaping my reception of this medieval play (for example)? These questions are fantastic, and students recognizably appreciated grappling with them.
  2. Tactical failure did not offer clear strategies for reading old texts, nor does it offer insight into the art of theatre scholarship, by which I mean the craft of doing research.

In short, tactical failure encouraged students to research topics on their own, but it did not teach them the skills to undertake that research. After reflecting on that experience, I decided to approach the 2012 version of TH3171 from a completely different angle. My main goal was to teach strategies for undertaking historical research, thereby introducing theatre history through the doing of historiographical inquiry. I divided the semester into three sections. Section one presented Ancient Greek tragedy, Sanskrit Drama, and Noh Theater as the foci of a case study on Ancient Theater. Through lectures and class discussion, I modeled strategies for learning about these historically specific theatrical practices and introduced students to how historians and theatre scholars have gone about studying these events that happened so long ago. Section two introduced the concept of comedy and asked students to track how comedy had changed from the time of Terence to Molière’s day, and from seventeenth-century France to the world of Aphra Behn and Restoration England. Section three presented a rigorous research project to students that challenged them to practice the ideas we have explored in the first two parts of the course. Guided by detailed prompts (available on the Faculty Club page), students generated research journals and blogs to share their research process; they locate diverse materials—texts, visual art, secondary sources—that lead to an in-depth understanding of an assigned topic such as Yoruban ritual, Russian Theatre pre-1750, and Tudor Drama (to name but a few). Distilling all of their information, students presented a lecture or a performance to the rest of the class that elucidated their specific topic and helped the class to understand how they went about their historical research. By asking them to construct an annotated bibliography while undertaking their research, I was able to collate all of their sources and distribute a lengthy bibliography to the class at the end of the semester.

The experience of teaching this syllabus called to mind the words of Margaret Werry and Róisín O’Gorman: “Failure is an argument for acceptance. To embrace failure is to surrender the will to control.”** Instead of revealing the inability of canonical works to illuminate the mysteries of the world through tactical failure, I found myself letting go of the reins to the class so that the students could collaborate with one another and inch towards their own discoveries. The relaxing of my grip on the class did not mean that I could not teach lessons. Reading Odai Johnson’s essay on Terence and genocidal memory (in Theater Historiography: Critical Interventions) during the first section of the course, for example, allowed me to turn the class’s attention toward the power of absence in the archive. It was only through the doing of the research project, however, that students could put the knowledge gleaned from that article into practice. The effort of completely remaking my theater history syllabus yielded great surprises and a sense of satisfaction among the students that they were learning skills they could transfer to other courses. I will happily re-deploy this syllabus in the future, and I invite you all to borrow from and adapt my assignment prompts to fit your needs.

Citation:

* Failure, ed. Lisa Le Feuvre, (Whitechapel Gallery, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010) 12.

** Margaret Werry and Róisín O’Gorman, “The Anatomy of Failure: An inventory,” Performance Research: A Journal of the Performing Arts vol. 17, no. 1 (2012): 110.

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While driving to the office on 25 January 2010, Megan was listening to a broadcast on National Public Radio (NPR) that was presenting an uncanny story from the recent earthquake off the coast of Haiti : “When the quake struck at 4:53 p.m. on January 12th,” said reporter John Burnett, “Signal FM [a radio station in Port-au-Prince] was playing ‘Hotel California.’ The Earth groaned and the building shuddered, but just before the DJ ran out, he had the presence of mind to hit the ‘repeat’ button…So for the first thirty minutes of Port-au-Prince’s descent into hell, the only thing you could hear on the radio was the Eagles’ standard—over and over and over.” Megan’s and Will’s recent article in Theatre Topics, “Hyperlinking and Hyperthinking through Theatre History: Haiti, Hotel California, Woyzeck, Hegel, and Back Again,” builds up around that bizarre story and culminates in an argument for Theatre History professors to embrace the power of serendipity.

When this story aired on All Things Considered, Megan and Will were in the opening weeks of the University of Minnesota’s TH3172, which traditionally covers a historical trajectory from the French Revolution to the present day. Slated for discussion that week in class was Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, but Megan couldn’t shake the complexity of thought and feeling that the news report instigated. The challenge became clear: how could we link from present-day Haiti to Georg Büchner? The stakes of this challenge were even clearer: to teach students to develop a critical, historically-savvy self-reflexivity requires teachers to fight against the urge to muscle through the syllabus and, instead, to embrace contemporary events of the size and scope of Haiti’s earthquake.

By hyperlinking across time, space, and ideas, we asked our students to engage in hyperthinking—a way of thinking about history (or theatre or any topic) that involves making connections among seemingly disparate entities, and justifying these links and leaps. Couched within a larger discussion of Theatre History curricula and the potentially productive role of failure within the classroom, this article will hopefully fuel conversations already sparked on theater-historiography.org. You can access it through your library’s subscription to Project Muse. The citation information is as follows: Lewis, Megan and Daddario, Will. “Hyperthinking through Theatre History: Haiti, ‘Hotel California,’ Woyzeck, Hegel and Back Again.” Theatre Topics vol. 22 no. 2 (September 2012): 183-194.

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Andy White's "Yes It Is" Exercise at MATC 2012. Photo by Ann Haugo.

In Chicago during the first weekend of March, the Mid-America Theatre Conference held its annual meeting. Scott Magelssen reminded me that the conversation that eventually led to the creation of Theater Historiography: Critical Interventions started at this conference many years ago. To build on the link between the conference, the Bial-Magelssen edited collection, and this website, I decided to address my final blog to the response given by Heather Nathans to the theatre history symposium. In what follows, I’d like to replay a bit of that response, analyze some of the reaction it provoked, and offer my own thoughts on the role of theatre history and theatre historiography within the University.

Nathans played the part of respondent, which meant that she had to act the challenging role of what I call “the synthesizer.” From four days of panels on topics ranging from the accidental immolation of ballerinas to the archive of Penumbra Theatre Company to the economics of local Burning Man events, Nathans located a thru-line and shared her reflections with all of us. Her comments focused on issues of methodology. Specifically, she drew our attention to how we as theatre historians and historiographers talk about our individual objects of study. The underlying purpose of her remarks was not isolated to issues of scholarship but looked outward to our role as scholars of theatre within the University. Her response began with a hypothetical question: if we had a meeting with our University president, and asked him/her to tell us how we as theatre scholars think, for example, about race or identity formation, what would the president say? Nathans posited that the president would be at a loss, and that his/her inability to articulate an answer to that question reflects a shortcoming on our own parts. The president would likely not have a response because we as theatre scholars do not always do a good job explaining how we think about certain issues, how we go about our historical investigations, or how we differentiate ourselves from other practitioners such as art historians or ethnomusicologists.

This focus on methodology and its relationship to self-reflexivity certainly demands our attention.  As audience members pointed out, within Nathans’s call for a more articulate framing of how we do what we do exists a pedagogical challenge. After all, as teachers we should be able to help our students learn the how in addition to the what. Theatre history, as a practice, requires an understanding of the research process as well as an understanding of the basic tenets of, say, the Cid controversy or the main elements of Ancient Greek tragedy. On top of that, and perhaps more obviously, theatre historians and historiographers must place ourselves within our work and formulate a clear notion of how we navigate the archives. Without wishing to challenge either of those beliefs, I would like to trouble another aspect of the group’s reaction to Nathans, as well as an underlying assumption as to the purpose of articulating how we do what we do.

Once the conversation opened up to include comments from the audience, the topic of conversation turned to use. If we develop the ability to explain how we do what we do, then we will be able to prove our use to the University. The vibe of the room transposed to a more lightweight and joyous resonance once people got behind this notion that theatre historians might be able to adequately express our value to the University, thereby securing our position within the liberal arts and, perhaps, gaining access to increased research funds. To be honest, my internal resonance clashed with the predominant tenor of the room at this point. I wondered if our segue from the how-ness of what we do to our use within the University pointed to an obfuscation of the discourse on use pervading the current “crisis.” While listening and reflecting on the discussion that unfolded there in that room, I began to imagine a different way of discussing our position within the University. Finally, some weeks later, I’ve put my thoughts into words and I offer this alternate perspective for your consideration.

To begin this alternate line of thought I’d like to summon Theodor W. Adorno’s essay “On Tradition” (Telos vol. 94 [Winter 93/94]: 75-82). In that work, Adorno explores the dialectic of tradition: on the one hand, a questionable value whose link to the past appears fruitless and useless because of the cult of the new which drives culture forward; on the other hand, an imported article to be valued, but valued only as a curiosity (75). University discourse presents us with both sides of this dialectic. We can see this by thinking about the place of theatre history within this discourse. Theatre history, as a discipline, seems to be out of date; as a practice, it appears as something that once had its place but now serves no clear purpose. At the same time, and because of its out-of-placeness, theatre history is a curiosity, an endeavor that unearths bizarre and titillating rituals from days gone by. The curiosity may lose its charm, however, and deflate into an unarticulated otherness. “The less the bourgeois principle tolerates otherness, the more urgently it appeals to tradition and cites what then appears from the outside as ‘value’” (76). Theatre historians face this shift today, as Nathans pointed out. As theatre history becomes more a curiosity and less of a stable link to the recognizable tradition of liberal arts education, the more it loses its value in the eyes of the University.

As we decide what to do about all of this, I would caution us against arguing within the terms laid down by the University discourse, a discourse thoroughly imbued with the logic of the market. Articulating how we do what we do as theatre historians or historiographers will lead to self-reflexive scholarship, there is little doubt of that. But we should not leverage our ability to articulate the specifics of our scholarly practice as a method for proving our usefulness or value within the University. By working to reveal our use, are we not capitulating to the logic of equal exchange, that principle derived from capitalist economic principles applied to all other social relations? If we prove that our discipline provides a service that has immediate applicability to the working on the University administration, then I think we have already conceded the very terms that we should be disputing.

Adorno’s negative dialectic practice reveals another was of thinking about this problem. “What fails to establish its immediate social usefulness in the market place,” he suggests, speaking specifically of the United States in the 1960s, “does not count and is forgotten. Even when someone dies, it is as if he had never lived; he is as replaceable as anything functional. Only what has no function is irreplaceable!” (75). This last sentence deserves out attention, partially because of the exclamation point but also, and more importantly, because it raises a counter-intuitive path for us to follow. We should not develop tools to prove our value and our usefulness to the University; rather, we should contest the terms of any discussion based on “value” and, simultaneously, work to imagine how consciousness of our functionlessness might enrich our practice as scholars of theatre. What would it mean to embrace our uselessness?

Before discussing this functionlessness or uselessness in more detail, I’d like to offer one final fragment of Adorno’s work that serves as a warning for us all as we decide how to position ourselves in the University:

Those who cherish the past and refuse to surrender their love of it so as not to become impoverished, immediately expose themselves to an insidiously inspired misunderstanding, namely that they might not be so dedicated after all and might even be willing to embrace the present. (77)

There is a tendency in the reception of Adorno’s criticism to dismiss the thinker outright because of what appears to be an ultra-obtuse cantankerousness. Rather than disagree with this statement I’d like to embrace the bristly German philosopher because of the difficulty inherent in that very act of embrace. After all, what would it mean to take this warning seriously? It would surely mean at least two things. First, Adorno’s words force us to reflect on what we’re doing when we approach our object of study. He suggests that we should not cherish those objects of study. We must not think of them as our bread and butter, that off which we make our living.

Second, grappling with Adorno’s ideas means understanding that the present is not something we should embrace. We must not embrace it because the terms of discussion about how to proceed from this moment in time into the future are permeated through and through with a logical positivist rationality that would like to move in a straight line from this moment of crisis to a future moment of normality and stability. As historians and historiographers, surely we recognize that this rectilinear march is fraught with complications and that, at the very least, we should stage a conceptual and practical sit-in to slow the march into the future. To do this, however, would require that we take time to articulate the problem and that, of course, we slow down the works, thus making us visible as part of the problem, which we are, whether we like it or not.

I’d like to continue with this line of thought, but I also want to summon several new figures in order to present a rambunctious collection of ideas through which to think this problem of Use and Uselessness. First: Andrew White, founding member of Lookingglass Theare Company and keynote speaker at MATC this year. In his keynote address, White proposed that we all infuse our work with more play. I conjure this sentiment here because, in addition to the utter seriousness Adorno brings to this discussion, I believe we can think our uselessness as theatre historians and historiographers through the practice of play. Playing around with such weighty matters as the future of our discipline seems utterly irresponsible and, for that very reason, completely necessary. How might we reframe our task away from the act of defending our position and conserving space for ourselves toward, instead, the act of play? Play requires the endless production of ideas—something White displayed through his demonstration of the game “Yes it is.” What is theatre historiography? It is a practice of uncovering the conditions that make possible certain understanding of Nationality in a specific time and place. Yes it is. It is a conscious deconstruction of the concept of the archive as the repository of all knowledge. Yes it is. It is a discipline that acknowledges the fictional dimension of all historical narrative and that proliferates the narrative of history with its own brand of (hopefully self-reflexive) fiction. Yes it is. It is a mode of living. Yes it is. It is a challenge to the discourse on usefulness insofar as it reveals the structures that have obfuscated specific people and events whose usefulness was once in question. Yes it is.

Next: Georges Bataille and Stuart McLean. In his 1933 essay “The Notion of Expenditure,” Bataille asserts the following:

Every time the meaning of a discussion depends upon the fundamental value of the word useful – in other words, every time the essential question touching on the life of human societies is raised, no matter who intervenes and what opinions are expressed – it is possible to affirm that the debate is necessarily warped and that the fundamental question is eluded.

How does usefulness warp the debate? For starters, the notion of usefulness usually presupposes a finite number of ways in which something can become useful, thereby ruling out an array of other, possibly silly, possibly frightening, proposals. McLean, an anthropologist at the University of Minnesota, offered this quotation in his manifesto titled, “WHAT IS THE UNIVERSITY FOR? A STORY FROM THE DREAMTIME OF A POSSIBLE FUTURE” performed at the Beneath the University — The Commons conference a few years ago. In that Manifesto, McLean argues that the question “What is the University for?” makes no more sense than the questions “What is a comet for?” and “What is a dragonfly for?” He makes this point in order to challenge the very terms with which we find ourselves discussing the future of the university.

Instead of those questions, McLean departs from the path most taken and imagines a completely “other” university, one that “occupy a status somewhere between a ritual theater and a blue-sky research laboratory for the self-production of social life as an open-ended project of collective poesis.” “The university as I envision it,” he writes, “would still have its Institutes for Advanced Study but they would be more numerous and various, more open and much weirder – animals, plants and supernatural (or other) beings as visiting professors, perhaps?” Recognizing his fanciful imaginings as off-the-chart, McLean advocates for his irrational vision precisely because it does not intersect with the conversation on how to make ourselves useful but, rather, allows the possibility of a new future.

As we process the information gathered at the recent MATC conference and reflect on Nathans’s response to the theatre history symposium, I’d like us to include the concept of uselessness in the picture. We can imagine our function within the university without capitulating to the current order of things, and we can do this by playing with the existing order. Last week in my theatre history class we studied Dada, a group from whom we can take our cue. The Cabaret Voltaire was, in one way, a salon of the irrational and the nonsensical. It was, at the same time, the site from which we can learn that nonsense is often the index of the sensible. That is, a playful invocation of our useless position within the University can reveal the methods used to construct the discourse that requires us to prove our value to the system. If we work to make ourselves valuable and useful, then I think we will have labored in vain.

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Path 2: De Witt’s Catalogue

To develop a critique of melodrama and to encourage a self-reflexive practice of historical inquiry amongst my students, I want to return to melodrama when study the Black Arts Movement. To do this, I will share the story of my discovery of De Witt’s catalogue of “Ethiopian and Comic Drama,” along with the research that I am currently compiling, in order to unpack the abuses of melodramatic acting. Despite his curmudgeonly attitude and his dated study of the genre, Lacey provides a starting point for this critique. “Strictly speaking, “ he writes, “there are no characters in melodrama, there are only types, easily recognized and constantly recurring, such as the villain, the hero, the ‘persecuted innocent’ and the clown or ‘niais’. There are also, besides these four principles, two other prevailing types, the ‘accomplice’ and the faithful friend’” (20-1). From here, one need only look to the cast list of Pixérécourt’s Christopher Columbus in order to see the problem of these “types.” How did French actors play the “Savages” encountered by Columbus? What gestures and facial expressions did the acting manuals suggest for playing non-French roles? Along with the knowledge that melodrama was used to foster a nationalistic pride in the European countries where it emerged comes the knowledge that national identity relies on the formulation of the Other against which to cement its traits.

The popularity of the “Ethiopian” type in America during the eighteenth century attested to the racist ideology undergirding the American project of nation building. De Witt’s catalogue offers ample evidence that black people, though not exclusively, filled the subject position of Other to counter-balance the white male subject position engineered as dominant. There’s no need to rehearse the scholarship on this topic here, especially because I am by no means an expert on the topic, but I would like to share my findings on the “Ethiopian” type. I would also like to ask for assistance in compiling source material on the “Ethiopian” farce or sketch from those who are more active in this field of study. Or, if you have knowledge of melodrama acting manuals, I would love to learn more about that as well.

In “‘The Trouble Begins at Eight’: Mark Twain, the San Francisco Minstrels, and the Unsettling Legacy of Blackface Minstrelsy” (American Literary Realism vol. 41 No 3 (Spring 2009): 232-248), Sharon D. McCoy tells us that, “In the stage parlance of the day, ‘nigger,’ ‘Ethiopian,’ or even ‘negro’ (uncapitalized) referred not to actual African American performers but to white blackface performers. ‘Colored’ referred to African Americans” (240). John William Mahar offers similar information in Behind the burnt cork mask: early blackface minstrelsy and Antebellum and American Popular Culture (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1999). Thus, the long list of play titles in De Witt’s catalogue refer to plays of the minstrel tradition, though not all of them featured blacked-up white performers exclusively. As Mahar states, “it is not clear how many of the characters actually appeared in blackface in any particular skit because the ‘Cast of Characters’ sections of the published Ethiopian sketches rarely indicate whether all the characters blacked up or only those with identifiable African American roles” (157). He points out that, “The sketches were also adaptable to various ethnic groups through slight changes in costuming or dialect,” meaning that these plays also mocked the French, Irish, and Dutch members of New York City’s populace.

Completely by accident, then, I have come across a list of plays that feature disparaging representations of black people and other members of the immigrant population in America paired with Jerrold’s text of Black-Eyed Susan. It seems reasonable to assume that the type characters created in the melodramatic form pioneered by Pixérécourt and then exported to Britain influenced the types portrayed in minstrel plays, and, therefore, that the melodrama form infiltrated the American imagination via racist depictions of the Other. By rehearsing this history with my students, I hope they will find a foothold in the work produced by the Black Arts Movement, which sought to destroy the image of black people created through this European theatrical tradition.

In recent years, when teaching works by black artists, I have discovered that students have little to no understanding of the history behind depictions such as Sambo or Aunt Jemima. Due to the structure of the theatre curriculum, students rarely take classes in Cultural Studies or American Studies where they might encounter materials like Marlon Riggs’s Ethnic Notions and a culturally-specific critique of aesthetic form. As such, teaching material from the Black Arts Movement and more contemporary artists such as Suzan-Lori Parks or Aishah Rahman has proven difficult. The fortuitous, though disturbing, discovery of De Witt’s catalogue has provided me with new material that might help to connect two seemingly distinct plays such as Baraka’s Dutchman and Pixérécourt’s Dog of Montargis, thereby strengthening the critical historiographical methodology I want to teach in my class.

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Path 1: The Dog of Montargis

I entered Pixérécourt’s play with the help of three sources: Alexander Lacey’s Pixerécourt and the French Romantic Drama (Toronto: The University of Toronto Press, 1928), Louis James’s “Taking Melodrama Seriously: Theatre, and Nineteenth-Century Studies” (History Workshop no. 3 (Spring 1977): 151-158), and Marvin Carlson’s “The Golden Age of the Boulevard” (The Drama Review: TDR vol. 18 no. 1, Popular Entertainments (March 1974): 25-33). The Dog of Montargis seems to epitomize the genre with its transparent struggle between Aubri (the hero) and Macaire (the villain), its depiction of virtuous love in the amorous coupling of the mute Florio and the young Lucille, and its crew of type characters such as Blaise (the niais who provides local color) and, of course, Dragon, Aubri’s faithful canine friend without whom Macaire would surely get away with his vile deeds.

With that ensemble, the play may appear completely ridiculous for students. But wait! Before we pass judgment, we should watch the trailer for Stephen Spielberg’s War Horse (http://www.youtube.com/v/B7lf9HgFAwQ) and ponder how precisely melodrama has infused popular culture with its simple yet effective depiction of an ordered world in which everyone can tell right from wrong and good from evil.

Carlson tells us that the genre emerged from the feuds between Audinot and Nicolet on the Boulevard du Temple at the end of the eighteenth century when France was reeling from the Reign of Terror and preparing for the reign of Napoleon. While extremely popular, the melodrama had to compete against an eclectic assortment of entertainments, from tightrope walkers and dancing elephants to children drinking boiling oil and Daguerre’s diorama (Carlson 26. 30). To do so, it combined tableaux mouvant, musical leitmotif, horror-provoking scenarios of injustice, and stage spectacle such as erupting volcanoes and floods with high-grade pathos in order to tug at the hearts of its audiences.

Scholars cannot dispute the popularity of the genre, but they can belittle the means with which it attracted its audience. For me, Lacey’s vociferous dismissal of the “plebian” melodrama provides a great introduction to the detractors of melodrama: “[O]ne may say that the Revolution forced ‘le drame bourgeois’ to find refuge on the boulevards, there to surrender itself to a process of transfusion, as it were, but means of which it yielded up its life-blood to its more plebeian descendant, the melodrama” (19). His book charts the success of Pixérécourt as an innovative writer, entrepreneur, designer, and producer, but repeatedly paints the public for which Pixérécourt created his plays as downright stupid. On the topic of melodramatic violence, for example, he writes, “Physical conflict is, moreover, a means always ready to the hand of the dramatist, and especially the second-rate dramatist, by which he can create a sort of emotional response, particularly in the minds of the less cultured of spectators” (9). I found in these types of statements an opportunity to stop and reflect on the historical effects that may have produced this affinity for violence. I gave students a sheet of several comments by Lacey and asked them to first unpack the subtext of Lacey’s commentary and then to theorize why melodrama may have staged violence for its throngs of spectators. The students had little trouble realizing that after the French Revolution violence on stage would help audiences to process the violence in the streets.

To move beyond text to the embodied dimension of melodramatic acting, I turned to James who asks us to think through the contemporary manifestations of kitsch melodrama (think soap operas) back to the time before last-minute reprieves from death and the stock characters were made into conventions. James endeavors to take melodrama seriously, and he picks up that task by discussing the specificity of the melodramatic acting vocabulary:

Despair is not expressed as horror, pride is different from contempt. Moreover, the movements are dynamic. Gestures move through a spectrum of intensifying emotion; performers react to each other as if each produced a magnetic field. The whole has a rhythm—the music is of central importance—closer to ballet and opera than to modern acting: Dickens wrote that watching melodrama was like opera to a deaf observer. It flows towards significant tableau, it shatters a mood abruptly in a style closely related to the violent juxtaposition of feelings deliberately produced by Eisenstein with “montage.” (James 154)

Building on this description of the acting, I invited student to act the scene in The Dog of Montargis that contains this stage direction: “FLORIO answers by the most expressive pantomime that it is not gratitude but love, the most passionate, that he feels for LUCILLE.” It was, to say the least, difficult, but everyone laughed as the students failed to embody the enormous emotional weight of that stage direction.

I wanted to access the embodied dimension along with the historical context of melodrama in order to illustrate how the genre worked hard to fabricate affective belonging in its audiences. Charles Nodier, the nineteenth-century poet and critic, spells out this affective production in some detail in his introduction to Pixérécourt’s Théâtre Choisi:

What is certain is that in the circumstances in which it arose, melodrama was a necessity. The entire people had just enacted in the streets and on the public squares the greatest drama of all history. Everyone had been an actor in this bloody play, everyone either a soldier or a revolutionary or an outlaw….And make no mistake about it! Melodrama was not something to take lightly! It was the morality of the revolution! (cit. Pixérécourt: Four Melodramas, trans. and ed. Marvin Carlson and Daniel Gerould [New York: Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications, 2002] xv.)

He continues to praise Pixérécourt’s plays for diminishing crime on the streets of Paris and for imparting to its audience a spiritual clarity: “I say this because I have seen them, in the absence of religious worship, take the place of the silent pulpit, and bring, in an attractive form that never failed of its effect, serious and valuable lessons to the soul of the spectators” (xi-xii). Interestingly, even across the Channel in England where people suffered to rebuild after the onslaught of Napoleon, the melodrama, a French import, served the same purpose as a tool for nation building and spiritual repair.

Having never encountered Pixérécourt’s work prior to this semester, I was intrigued by James’s challenge to take melodrama seriously. I presented selections from all these documents I’ve mentioned to my students and I asked them to take up that challenge with me. The result was a fascinating discussion of the migration of the melodramatic form from the days of Pixérécourt to our own. Interestingly, the University of Minnesota Show Boat has delved into the repertoire of nineteenth-century melodramas for its recent productions, and students were well aware of this. I’d like to end my tour of this path by sharing one of my student’s comments that was emailed to me after our class:

I was just thinking that the reason melodrama seems to stay relevant even today is because of the fact that it attempts to portray ordinary life in a more fantastical way.  At a time when the real world has so much trouble and all fiction attempts to take people even further from the truth of their lives, melodrama tends to bring people back to reality in a way that other forms of entertainment don’t.  This isn’t to say that melodrama portrays real life; it just shows the normal elements of the everyday in a much more exaggerated way.  Since the first melodramatic play, I feel most popular theatre since has at least a little portion of melodrama in it, so we must acknowledge that melodrama, though not the best type of theatre, has a huge effect on how we view theatre today.

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Melodrama: A Forking Path

Before commencing this academic year, I decided to populate my syllabus with plays I have never read. One of my favorite occupations, reading, has suffered a tremendous blow at the hands of my teaching schedule (as John Fletcher told me would be the case). I figured I would force myself to read new plays and some secondary source material by teaching individual works and historical periods about which I knew either nothing or very little. (I imagine all of this sounds familiar to you as you read this.) Melodrama as a genre was something I knew almost nothing about. Somehow, after four years at New York University and five years at the University of Minnesota, I came into contact with melodrama only twice. The first time was as a TA in Theatre History when we read Black-Eyed Susan by Douglas Jerrold. The second time was during a graduate seminar on historiography when we encountered secondary source material about the infamously successful adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (here, I’m thinking specifically of Sadiyah Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in 19th-c. America). In both cases, the material was presented as a stepping-stone to the larger concern of historiographical methodology. We didn’t dwell on melodrama proper; rather, we framed melodrama within larger issues of, on the one hand, appropriating revolutionary ideas into the nation-building project and, on the other, the connection between archive and repertoire.

I decided to confront my foggy memory and dearth of knowledge on the subject of nineteenth-century melodrama this semester, but time constraints forced me to split the difference. I would dedicate a week to melodrama, asking my students to read Black-Eyed Susan and something else, something I had yet to discover. With the plan in place I began to look for titles. After numerous searches I located Rene Charles Guilbert de Pixérécourt (1773-1844), the so-called “father” of French melodrama, a name I had never come across before. Digging deeper, I found that Daniel Gerould and Marvin Carlson had collaborated as editors on a volume of four works by Pixérécourt. Then I did the math: the “father” of French melodrama + two respected scholars in the field = something I need to look into. I got Gerould’s and Carlson’s book and decided immediately to place The Dog of Montargis on my syllabus.

A play featuring a dog. Perfect. What historiographical challenge awaits me within the pages of this story about Aubri and his faithful companion? Before I had the opportunity to answer that question, I received my copy of Black-Eyed Susan from Inter-library Loan. The book was actually a bound collection of photocopies of the original text published by Clinton T. De Witt in 1854. Looking closely at the first page, I became greatly disturbed. There I found an advertisement for the catalogue of “De Witt’s Ethiopian and Comic Drama,” featuring such titles as Bobolino, the Black Bandit, Dutchman’s Ghost, Noble Savage, Ethi’n Sketch, and roughly ninety more, all grouped under the subheadings of farce or comedy. Suddenly, the historiographical challenge of the Dog of Montargis seemed less important. Should I present this accidental discovery of De Witt’s catalogue to the students? If so, how should I do it? I delved into our library’s databases and indexes to learn more about the “Ethiopian farce” and De Witt, but I found next to nothing. Time was running out because our week of melodrama was rapidly approaching.

To make everything more complicated, I had been receiving pressure from students to lighten the reading load. My current students, as well as numerous comments on my evaluations from last semester, insisted that I made the class too hard and that there was too much reading and writing, especially for a course not classified as writing intensive. Looking over my syllabus, the melodrama week seemed the appropriate time to decrease the amount of reading from two plays to one. Which reading do I eliminate? Black-Eyed Susan? I was already familiar with that play, but this new discovery of De Witt’s catalogue presented a great challenge in terms of linking melodrama to the development of modern racism and discourse on the Other. Do I ditch The Dog of Montargis? It seems like a downright silly play, but I was curious about what lay beneath the silly exterior and I wanted to learn more about the origins (in the Benjaminian sense of the word) of melodrama since I knew nothing about it. Faced with this forking path, I had to choose a direction.

Ultimately, I decided to teach The Dog of Montargis, but I would utilize the discovery of De Witt’s catalogue during our exploration of the Black Arts Movement later in Week Twelve. By covering the historical emergence of melodrama via Pixérécourt, I could lay out some fundamental attributes of the genre. Later in the semester, I could return to melodrama as, on the one hand, a pedagogical strategy for re-visiting ideas and, on the other hand, a way of excavating the historical sediment of the stereotyped movements and images seized upon by the Black Arts Movement. In my next two blogs, I’d like to offer a brief tour of both paths opened by my inquiry into melodrama. The first will visit the ideas I discovered upon meeting Pixérécourt, the second will offer my findings on Ethiopian farces that will eventually culminate in a lesson plan for my class on the Black Arts Movement.

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In his article, “Of Fish and Men,” Helmut Müller-Sievers discusses a nineteenth-century biological treatise titled Mémoire sur le système nerveux du barbeau [Memoire on the nervous system of the Barbel fish], published in 1836. The author of that treatise theorizes that, “the entire body of the fish is in fact explicable as a network of correspondences. The nerves correspond to parts of the brain, which in turn correspond to parts of the skull, which again correspond to the vertebrae, which in turn correspond to the nerves, which are themselves analogically related” (713). This notion of the fish as a network of correspondences stemmed from the natural philosophical theories prevalent in Germany during the early nineteenth century. In fact, much of the theory developed in the Mémoire derived from Goethe’s natural-philosophical concept of the Urbild and the Urtyp. For Goethe and others of his (pre-Darwinian) time, “evolution was not yet disrupted by the irreversible catastrophes of selection.”  As such, they believed that, “every natural form either harbors the germ of its further development or else harks back to more primitive manifestations of itself” (713). To study the nervous system of the Barbel fish, then, was to penetrate the mysteries of becoming, that is the unfolding of life in the natural world.

Goethe’s concept of Urbild developed from the belief in the existence of a “simple basic pattern, repeating itself over and over again in the natural world” (Price xii). Urtyp, which basically meant “blueprint,” was something that inhered in all natural forms. Naturalists of Goethe’s time believed that the trained eye could perceive this Urtyp within natural forms and that, once observed and then studied, the knowledge first discerned by the eye could transform into knowledge of the simple basic pattern that exists in all living things. The author of the Mémoire, as with Goethe before him, believed that this notion—that a simple form evolved within all living things and that one could learn to perceive this evolution with the eye—led to philosophical revelations. As opposed to the spatial diagnosis of most anatomists—diagnoses that relied on the symmetry of the brain’s two hemispheres, for example, or the symmetry of nerves within the Barbel fish—this notion of Urbild proposed a temporal method of analysis keyed to the metamorphoses of living creatures over time. As such, these theorists challenged Kant’s notion that the human intellect could not perceive time. Time was visible in the becoming of natural life. One need only learn to perceive this unfolding as it unfolded.

Müller-Sievers traces the theories of Goethe and the author of the Mémoire and eventually makes this assertion: “The cold eye of the observer froze and isolated natural forms which were in reality fluid and interconnected. Each form referred to another of which it was, in a general manner, either the germ or the fruit. This network of correspondences found its outer limit in a highly dynamized, and often personalized, concept of nature whose horror was not simply that of the void but of arrest and stillness.” (709). In other words, by ascertaining the process through which all life evolves and changes over time, one actually comes into contact with death, the arrest and stillness of nature that horrifies (and in a certain way titillates) the human observer.

The author of the Mémoire sur le système nerveux du barbeau was none other than Georg Büchner, the author of Danton’s Death, Woyzeck, and other plays (Leonce and Lena), novels (Lenz), and even a political treatise (The Hessian Courier). Victor Price tells us that, “Büchner sent his treatise on the barbel to Lorenz Oken, the natural philosopher, who was professor at the newly founded University of Zürich. Oken found it so impressive that he recommended Büchner for a doctorate without oral examination, and he was offered a post as Privatdozent in the University” (xii). He also tells us that Danton’s Death and this treatise on the barbel fish were the only works by Büchner to be published during his lifetime. In fact: “When Georg Büchner died at twenty-three, his contemporaries, who knew only a garbled version of Danton’s Death, mourned him as one who could have become a great scientist” (vii).

In Theatre History, I used this introduction to Büchner and Danton’s Death as a lure. I intended to attract the attention of my students with something seemingly obscure, off-topic, and irrelevant to the play about the French Revolution I had asked them to read in order to pull them into the mindset of Büchner and his time. After the fish story, I suggested that the distance between the barbel fish and Danton was not as far as it may seem at first. Many of the philosophical notions underpinning Büchner’s Memoire stem from romantic-philosophical ideas developed by people like Goethe, whose Faust, part one, we had just read. Chief among them is the notion that all creation has a common origin and that a thorough and careful observation of any part of creation may give insights into the whole. And yet, Büchner’s writing and thinking marks a distinct shift away from Romanticism. To bring that shift into focus, I drew the students’ attention again to the dialectical relationship between ever-transforming nature and its exact opposite, death, the infinite stillness.*

Büchner’s interest in death (as opposed to striving, the supersensuous, and other Romantic motifs) shows up quite clearly in the words he writes for Danton. We can actually compare some of Büchner’s own words, spoken near the time of his death, and lines from his script. Price tells us that “Three days before his death, after a bout of delirium, [Büchner] said in a calm, solemn voice: ‘We do not have too much pain, we have too little. Because through pain we arrive at God. We are death, dust, ashes. How should we complain?’” (xiii). Two days after uttering this aloud, he died. These words, which infuse the darkness of death with a glimmer of reverence, mirror phrases uttered by the protagonist of Danton’s Death, such as “No, listen. They say there is peace in the grave; the grave and peace are one.” In act one, scene one, after he utters that sweet nothing, Danton continues to ply his lover with this assertion, “I’m already underground when I lie in your lap. Sweet grave, your lips are passing bells, your voice is my knell, your breasts my burial mound and your heart my coffin” (Büchner 5). Is there not something similar between these lines from the play, Büchner’s near-final words, and the study of the Barbel fish? Does Büchner’s fascination with the stillness of death mark a historical shift away form the striving of Faust toward the pleasure principle (and beyond the pleasure principle) of Freud? Isn’t it interesting that a man who devoted his early life to the study of a fish’s nervous system turned his attention to the nervous system of the Revolution?**

I thought it was interesting, and the facial expressions on students in the class seemed to suggest at least a mild interest in the parallel between Büchner-the-scientist and Büchner-the-playwright, whose Woyzeck some of them were familiar with after our Department’s recent production. More interesting, however, were the lines of inquiry that emerged after the class. One of my students asked for more information about Büchner’s fiancée, Minna Jaegle. I had mentioned her name only in passing, but the brief mention was enough to set the wheels turning. Another student felt lost after the lecture and decided to do some historical research on the real-life Danton and Robespierre. Our in-class conversation covered the rise of Sturm und Drang, the emergence of the German state theatres, and the appearance of the Young Germans, but I had not discussed the French Revolution in any depth, so this student took matters into her own hands. Eventually, she emailed me to say that her research made the play much clearer. This student even suggested that in the future I provide information about the historical figures that make appearances in Büchner’s play. I thanked her for the suggestions and told her that I would take that into consideration, but that I much prefer for her to complement our in-class discussions with her own research.

From fish to Büchner to Minna Jaegle to the historical Danton and Robsepierre: this was week three in Theatre History. I’m curious to know how other people handle Büchner when they teach this time period, or if people handle him at all. Price suggests that he never saw one word of his uttered upon a stage and that there is no evidence to suggest that he ever went to the theatre. Lines from Danton’s Death, particularly Camille’s rant against puppet shows in act two, scene three, seem to suggest he had. Still, it wouldn’t surprise me if teachers skip over him altogether because of the overly-literary quality of his plays. Please share your thoughts on Büchner. I’d love to hear them.

Notes:

* I have read that Büchner was openly hostile to Hegel’s system of the dialectic. To me, however, it seems that perhaps Büchner had internalized the dialectical logic and rebelled against Hegel’s insistence on the eventual resolution between opposites. It might be worthwhile to study Büchner as a forerunner to the theory of negative dialectics.

** Though the French Revolution of 1789 was the focus on Danton’s Death, it is probable that the failed July Revolution of 1830 in France and the semi-uprising in Poland against Russian authorities were present in his mind.

Sources:

Müller-Sievers, Helmut. “Of Fish and Men: The Importance of Georg Büchner’s Anatomical Writings.” MLN vol 118 no. 3 (April 2003): 704-718.

Price, Victor. “Introduction.” Georg Büchner, Danton’s Death, Leonce and Lena, and Woyzeck. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2008.

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“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?’” [http://moreintelligentlife.com/story/david-foster-wallace-in-his-own-words]. 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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