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I developed this exercise in response to an informal conversation I once had with Catherine Cole about the best way to teach students about the ethics of ethnography. I also had the good fortune of looking at class notes from one of my peers at Northwestern who took an ethnography seminar with the great Dwight Conquergood, who did something similar on the first day. Finally, I have borrowed the name of the assignment, “Representing the Other,” from Tamara Roberts’ syllabus for her grad seminar on ethnomusicology at Berkeley.

I introduce this exercise on the first day of class for an upper-division undergraduate seminar on research methods in theatre and performance. After we watch excerpts of Dennis O’Rourke’s classic film, Cannibal Tours, we discuss if the filmmaker has represented his “subjects” fairly (both the Papua New Guineans and the tourists). I then explain that they’re going to get the chance to “study” a classmate and “be studied” that week (I let the students choose their own pairings based on whose schedule meshes better with whose, etc.).

When I pass around the prompt, there are always gasps. Students are excited yet apprehensive: how conspicuous will they be following someone around and taking notes? How will it feel to be the one whose every move is observed?

In our next meeting, we present our “findings” to one another conference-style. I explain to them that as ethnographers, we should present papers as sensitively as if the people we are discussing are in the room with us. The only difference is that this week, they actually are! Our follow-up discussion is eye-opening: some students are delighted at their classmates’ insights about them; others state boldly that the other person “got me all wrong.” In most cases, students are won over to ethnography. At the very least, we all remain attentive to the ethics of research and representation throughout the quarter.

Click here for the assignment

Click here for the course syllabus


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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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.


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 (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.


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?’” [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.


Human beings are not built to withstand the pressure produced when steam is trapped within a sealed vessel, and we stretch only so far when our limbs are pulled in opposite directions.  Despite the metaphors we too often live by pre-tenure, I have not met a single junior colleague whose contract requires him or her to undergo the extreme physical duress of a pressure cooker or the Rack. Nevertheless, the precision with which a tenure-stream contract seemingly divides one person’s efforts (e.g. 40% teaching, 40 % research, 20% service) within an inflexible time frame (e.g. first probationary period: three years; second probationary period: three years) has given many of us cause to mix metaphors.  I get it. I also know that these metaphors, even for those of us with macabre tastes, only amplify the anxiety that accompanies uncertainty.

I am not writing this from the Promised Land where elephants captain cumulous pirate ships cross a cobalt sky, whilst the breeze carries the scent of just-peeled oranges past my sun-kissed cheek, standing in a field of black-eyed Susans, sipping the sweet Nothing-I-have-to-do.  Please. Puh-leeze.  First of all, I live in Michigan and it is January. Almost as significantly, I am in my fourth year of a tenure-stream appointment, fifteen months away from compiling my tenure file.  I have not been awarded tenure. I do not know if I will be awarded tenure.  So I cannot advise how to get tenure and win friends. And I will not advise that you find work-life balance, or take time out for yourself, or do the things you love. Advice like that suggests that your work is somehow not a part of your life and not for you.  Instead, I offer three principles that I find helpful.  Please take what is useful and leave the rest.

Do not do the math. My GRE test scores should have taught me this lesson; I gently remind myself of it often. The story is the problem: Over  72 months, pre-tenure faculty member “A” will teach 24 threeish-credit courses; serve on at least 1 graduate committee, 1 departmental committee, 1 university committee, and 1 professional committee for each 12-month period within these 72 months; “A” must attend at least Y conferences, and write at least X articles and 1 book.  If teaching is worth Q%, research is worth R%, and service is worth S%, how many hours per day should she devote to each in order to earn an “Excellent” rating in all categories? And why does “A’s” calculator display “S#*T” after she hits “=”?  As faculty, we have an enviable amount of control over how we structure time. Instead of thinking about how much time things take, I think about good times. The morning is a good time for me to write; the evening is good for me to read; the hour before class is good to create a lesson plan.  You can follow the seasons or imagine endless Happy Hours; just do things when it is good to do them.

Become people deep.  To do this, you must be generous with your time, regardless of how you choose to conceptualize it. The Michigan State University faculty, who welcomed me to campus with invitations to do stuff, taught me this lesson. It comes in two parts. When I arrived at MSU, I was invited to become affiliate faculty in multiple programs, invited to give a talk, and invited to collaborate on a civic engagement project.  I did exactly the opposite of what, I heard, junior faculty should do. I said “yes” to (almost) everything.  And rather than saying “no,” when invited to give that talk, I said “I cannot at this time, but would like to [fill in future date].”  First, these projects did not take time away from what I “should” have been doing. This is because integration does not require serendipity. I thought about how to fit each request into something that I was already doing; I thought about why I was invited.  Second, the exchange rate on generosity is greater than 1:1. Those people to whom I have been generous not only contribute to my projects when I ask.  They think of me.  In doing so, they give me unsolicited support of all sorts. They volunteer introductions to other people, vouch for me, email citations and CFPs, and just check-in to see what I am up to. You do not need to say “yes” to everything to become a part of the community, but if you keep your office door open, helpful people will stop by.

Keep your sense of humor, but do not keep it to yourself.  I finally learned that being serious is not necessary to being taken seriously. Oscar Wilde and Ron Swanson taught me this lesson. Lazzi, linguistic inversions, impersonations, and one-liners do not abound in Ivory Tower interactions. For me, not making dumb jokes is self-censorship.  It does not feel right, and it is exhausting.  Initially, I worried that colleagues and students would not get that I was an expert in my field unless I strode stern-faced into rooms to profess. I am not suggesting that all junior faculty should go for the laugh. Some people are just not funny.  What I am suggesting is that you should let colleagues and students know you.

By way of conclusion, I’ll say that it is folly to conclude before finished.  Instead, for the next year or so, I am going to institute the Magic “If” and play Gwendolyn Fairfax: “This suspense is terrible.  I hope it will last.”


A palpable absurdity permeates my being whenever I prepare to teach a theatre history survey course. This absurd feeling, something I would describe as an out-of-tuneness with the actuality of the task facing me, reverberates wildly through my bones. What, frankly, are we to do, we who teach these courses? As Steve Tillis has argued in his essay, “Remapping Theatre History,” we teachers of theatre history in the United States find ourselves heirs to a centuries-old Eurocentrism that forecasts a dreary classroom experience. More than Eurocentric, Tillis argues, we frequently succumb to a bland parochialism, “‘parochial,’ that is, in the sense defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘relating or confined to a narrow area or region, as if within the borders of one’s own parish; limited or provincial in outlook or scope’” (Tillis 1). That is, despite the multitude of perspectives that have opened onto South American, Middle Eastern, African, and Asian, and Australasian theatre histories in the recent years, theatre history survey classes in higher education continue to abscond back within the well-protected walls of European theatre history.

Of course, the solution to this parochialism cannot simply rest in an adoption of non-European material at the expense of the Ancient Greeks, Ancient Romans, Medieval monasteries, Cid controversies, and Elizabethan playhouses, can it? I mean, we’re supposed to figure out a savvy self-reflexive method of pairing the parochial with the global to present a thorough historiographic deconstruction of all that we know, aren’t we? This is the point at which that out-of-tune feeling begins to resonate in my toes. I have three weeks to put together my syllabus. I don’t want to quarantine my students within the tiny parish of traditional theatre history studies. What do I do?

My decision: to fail tactically. To face this absurd challenge in front of me, I have chosen not to construct a radically global theatre history syllabus that can address Tillis’s concerns and blaze new trails through the halls of the university, but, rather, one that allows me to perform the limitations of the traditional theatre history survey timeline along with, and for the benefit of, my students. This tactical failure takes a cue from Beckett’s motto in Worstward Ho, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”  This failure does not take success as its opposite; rather, tactical failure describes the practice of mapping the limit of thought, setting sail towards that limit, and embracing the perplexity that comes from reaching it. In the spirit of this mission, I present this Theatre History Irrationale to accompany my syllabus posted on this theater historiography site.

To fail tactically with my students, and, through doing so, to embrace the problem of theatre historiography: this is the goal that undergirds my syllabus. To achieve this goal, I embrace not only the Western theatre history tradition but also the futility of attempting to cover that canon of works in any depth in the span of fifteen weeks. Each of my lectures and class discussion frequently fall in on themselves and expose what Matthew Goulish calls the “irreducible complexity” of, in this case, historical inquiry. I want to encourage my students to engage in that complexity instead of bypassing it for easy answers. To do this, we need to learn how to ask questions. We, my students and I, need to learn how to see what has been rendered invisible by historical narrative. We need to sift through the historical ground from which specific plays emerge in order to grapple with the modes of thinking that allow such plays to exist.

One such example of this philosophy in action is my unit on Classical Roman Theatre. I have assigned two class periods, a total of four hours, for our exploration of this material. This year, I paired a chapter from Donald G. Kyle’s Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome with Seneca’s Oedipus. The students read these two texts and I supplied some additional contextualization through excerpts from History of the Theatre on the phenomenon of the “closet drama,” passages from Horace’s Ars Poetica, and some tidbits on Seneca’s relationship with Nero. Once we had orientated ourselves within the matrix of these materials, a problem emerged: to which historical line of sight does Seneca’s play belong? Should we read it as a closet drama that abides by the rules of decorum set out by Horace, or should we treat it as a spectacle of death akin to the munera of Seneca’s day? For the majority of class, the students developed arguments to support one of these perspectives. I asked them to pay special attention to the stakes of their argument. So What? What does it matter if Iocasta’s death was merely described in words on a page or if an actress actually disemboweled herself in front of an audience? Why should we care about this question at all?

Despite the multiple and well-argued answers to these questions, our conversation was cut short by time. We reached no solutions. I announced that we were leaving Rome and jumping ahead nearly ten centuries next week. The students groaned, a sound I interpreted as a desire to keep digging through Seneca. Death, its particular significance in the spectacles of Ancient Rome, its relation to Seneca’s play, and its ambiguous treatment in Horace became floating themes that will continue to haunt our future classroom discussions. My lesson plans did not bring any answers to the students, just as I had willfully acknowledged prior to starting the exercises. Instead, what we did experience was how to wrestle with a diverse set of historical materials and events, and we gained an understanding that the need to wrestle outweighs the need for certainty.

Of course, this failure is neither good nor bad. It is, at best, a delay. Tactical failure-as-delay helps to provoke inquisitiveness and teaches the art of producing arguments instead of the acquisition of knowledge. This type of failure applies to my own process of learning as well. This fact became vividly clear while trying to unpack the ambiguity of Aeschylus’s play The Persians. Is the play a victory lap for the Athenians after a harrowing war with Xerxes’ forces, or is it a complicated display of empathy through which the other becomes more knowable? For two of my students, both of whom claim Persian descent, neither question mattered. Both students were so furious with the depiction of the Persians that they didn’t even listen to the in-class conversation. For my TA, the mere presentation of this play created trouble because, she felt, it was likely that the students would have no other representation of Ancient Persia to supplement this Greek-centric portrayal. After receiving this feedback, I decided to bring the conversation around the upset into the classroom and to explain that I had failed as a teacher. In fact, I suggested, teaching is a never-ending string of failures through which the wealth of the unsaid becomes visible. I admitted that, having taught The Persians for the first time, I would like to pair Aeschylus’s play with a Persian theatrical piece in the future. At the present, however, I am unfamiliar with that aspect of theatre history and I need to mark that fact for everybody. In the future, I’ll try again, fail again, and fail better.

I call this supplemental document an “irrationale” partially because it does not adequately defend the choices I made while creating my Theatre History syllabus. I make no effort to defend those choices because I feel they need no defense. Instead, I intend this irrationale to highlight the tactical use of limitations and failures in my pedagogical strategy. While my syllabus may appear no different than the material Tillis (rightfully) scrutinizes and queries in his essay, I want to express the thought that what we teach is only half the story. How we teach the material we choose to share with students seems to be the more fruitful avenue of inquiry. Within that how exists a practice of teaching. By allowing that practice to embrace failure and the limitations of the canon as teaching materials I try to help students learn the art of questioning and I work on developing a reciprocal method of learning through which I teach the students and students teach me. In fact, there is a third party: the historical material itself. This third party acts as a spectral beacon that helps us to triangulate our ontological and epistemological position in the present, though the perpetual appearance and disappearance of the historical signal means that, ultimately, the students and I are left wading through the deep ocean of the past together.

Will Daddario is teaching the theatre history sequence at University of Minnesota—Twin Cities Campus in 2011-2012. You can find his syllabus in the Faculty Club area.