Survey Courses

Rather than a text-based blog entry, we decided to do a video based blog entry. We trace the long strange journey of creating the first, all-digital textbook for theatre, and talk about some of the unexpected delights and disappointing shortcomings

–Michael O’Hara and Judith Sebesta (authors of Explore Theatre)

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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.


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 ( 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.


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.


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.


* 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.


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?’” []. 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.