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English 244: Spring, 2020


(See also: Main Course page and

Assignments and Updates )

(This page will be used for miscellaneous postings over the course of the quarter)


1. Theatre as Action

2. Elements of Drama (Realms of Noticing)

3. Theatre Terms

4. Your Theatre Portfolio

5. An Essay on Fences

Theatre as Action: 
What do we do when we do Drama?

What does a play do?  Lots of things. But not always the same ones in the same production. In reflecting on this question you can start with four very frequently invoked functions, or (one might say) realms of action: 

            The Personal Function.  One thing plays can do is enact a range of psychological functions, creating effects that people locate with words like beauty, amusement, entertainment, or escape.  We take a certain sort of pleasure from each of these effects, or fulfill some kind of very deep inner need.  Sometimes it’s a need to feel a sense of completeness in the world, sometimes it is to intuit powerful patterns that are in some sense bigger and deeper than anything we ourselves can create.  Or maybe our response feels like a need to divert ourselves from the reality we struggle with each day and to spend time in a parallel universe that can with its successes re-inspire us when we return to the real world we left as we entered the theatre.  Each of these effects seem to be in some sense quite simple, though each can also be further investigated.  Why, for example, does the display of order so please us?  What is it about the way we navigate our existence that makes moments of beauty so pleasurable?  Not every play asks us to think about these issues; indeed many (Mamma Mia, for example) may seem to urge us not to think much at all.  But whatever we are thinking consciously, our minds are busy nevertheless, even if at a level well below (or beyond) our conscious thought. 

            The Teaching Function.  This function accounts for the way plays can attempt to inform us about life’s various experiences or issues.  A play may offer insight into a particular sort of  character, for example, suggesting what a person of such and such a type would do under this or that set of circumstances.  Or it may attempt to unveil what it takes to be truths about the way we live, or the way the world is structured, that we may or may not already understand.  Maybe it will make an argument about social or political power and how it is distributed. 

Or maybe it wants to teach us about how the world might be, or how it should be.  In The Apology for Poetry Sir Philip Sidney talks about the “Golden World” that art creates—that which has never before been seen or thought of, something to aim for, to model ourselves upon and work towards.  Other writers, by contrast, may give you an anti-world, a kind of model of what we fear or shun, or seek blindly to our own detriment.  In any of these cases, however, the function of such art is to inform us, warn us, move us, always to be teaching us something, and it is our job in such circumstances to evaluate the work the play does—to ask into its motives.  Do we really learn something of value here?  What?  or are this work’s “truths” mere sentimentality or (worse) propaganda?

            The Forum Function.   In this mode the theatre creates space for conversation and argument about issues that the playwright feels to matter.  It’s related to the teaching function, but with an important difference.  For here the job is not so much to make an argument about the world as to raise a question in a provocative way, to invite or tease or incite in us a will to engage.  David Mamet’s play Oleanna, of a few years back, was such a play, as are most (all?) of Shakespeare’s.  Here the fact that art works by indirection (we are given a story about kings, for example, and not a story about our very own lives) has both an advantage and a disadvantage over more conventional means of public argument. 

For there are many things we don’t want to talk about publicly.  We have taboos, restrictions, fears about offending others when we mention sex, class, gender, race—and basic politics.  When we try to talk about these things directly we may too quickly lose our equanimities.  But when we put the same issue into story we can talk as it were “at a distance.”  We can discuss the way Hamlet abuses Ophelia, or how he seems sexually attracted to his mother, much more easily than we can talk out loud about our own gender or our own mothers.  We can discuss the racism represented in Ellison’s Invisible Man much more easily than we can discuss our own difficulties in keeping our minds free from stereotype and prejudice. 

            Of course, there is also a price to be paid for this liberty:  because it is indirect it is also a relatively weak form of action.  It may very often be the ONLY form of action available to us, but because it is only indirectly related, the real connection to the lives we lead is not necessarily obvious.  We can see, for example,  how Ophelia is talked down to by her father, her brother, her lover, the King, the Queen—everyone.  But can we see in our own lives—or are we even willing to see—how frequently we repeat this cultural stereotype of seeing women—and especially young women—as unable to think and act for themselves? 

            The Community Function.  Here the role of drama is to define, invoke, celebrate, rehearse the common wisdom or vision or history of a culture.  Here the play may not say anything either new or different, but instead works to affirm or celebrate what already is.  In this mode drama helps to build or shape a culture, to produce coherence, even solidarity.  Its capacity for this is not always positive—one reason art can be used as propaganda is precisely its capacity to bring minds together in a particularly powerful way.  But rightly used it can contribute to the sense of well being any community needs if it is to grow and prosper. 

            Obviously, these four functions are not mutually exclusive.  A play can very easily please us as it teaches (probably better had, in fact!), or establish community as it preaches, or offer escape in such a way as to lead us to think new thoughts about how things might or should be.  But you can rest assured that any play must be doing SOMETHING if it’s going to be even trivially successful, and as a sophisticated playgoer it’s your task to sort that “something” out. 


Elements of Drama

Whether walking London, or going to a play, the basic theme of this course centers on “Seeing.”  For we can imagine two very different ways of seeing—the difference being a level of both attention and understanding.

Ordinary "Seeing" is, well, ordinary—what we do when we look out a car window. But "Informed Seeing" is special. It is looking to see when you already have something of an agenda set for that seeing. It should be obvious that you can see more and more interestingly when you have things to look for—you can date a building better when you know how to look for the arches, for example.  Similarly for drama, you’ll see more, and you’ll see what you see better, if you approach the production in terms of its necessary elements.  So, herewith a rough and ready guide to the elements of drama, with just a few words about each. 

Frame:  That dimension of the work that sets it off from the ordinary and invites from its audience special attention; that which declares, “Look at me, and attend!”  In many theatres it is the proscenium arch, drawing our attention even before the play begins.  But it is also the theatre itself, and the experience of getting to it, entering it, locating ourselves in its surrounding.  All of this is a way (not always or in all ways intentional) of marking off the dramatic experience as “something different.”  So reflect on the frame and its experience for you.  What does the theatre look like?  How do they create the frame, and what do they do with it?  ("Another opening, another show, In Philly, Boston, and Buffalo!...")

Text:  The words, the script.  For most plays this is the chief raw material, the thing that is enacted, represented, brought to life, shaped, varied, interpreted. 

Beyond those "meta" understandings, there are some basic ELEMENTS upon which any production depends. Here are 6 such elements that almost every play will include:

1. Acting:

Delivery:  How the text is spoken by its actors.  Clarity, precision, expression, dynamics. 

Facial Expression:  How well does facial expression make meaning manifest?  In what ways?

Gesture:  Body movements and stance.  How well does the actor use her body to make meaning manifest?  In what ways? 

2. Direction/Movement within the acting space:  This is a product of direction (blocking) and acting.  A director can tell an actor where to move, but only the actor can do the moving.  There is thus both a logic of movement, and a performance of movement. 

3. Properties/Make-up/Costume. What props are used?  How do they fit the text?  The actor?  The movement?  How are they used?  Period?  Realistic?  Abstract?  Contemporary? 

4. Sets and Stage Set-up. Period?  Realistic?  Abstract?  Open?   Stage set-up:  proscenium arch?, thrust?, in the round?, mixed forms? 

5. Lighting. Where, how and when are lights used in the show?  What do they seem to be designed to add? (And they are indeed designed!—you'll see a credit for lighting design in the program.)

6. Music/Sound. Where, how and when are sounds or music used in the show?  What do they seem designed to add? What do they DO for the play?

Theatre Terms

I realize that some of the theatre terms we will use here are not commonly known, and few of you have easy access to dictionaries.  So herewith some terms basic to theatre studies, along with short definitions.

Block (v.):  To establish actors’ movements throughout the course of a play. 
Blocking:  The movement plan for a play.
Business:  Use of a prop.  “The business with the drink glasses was brilliant.” 
Circle:  The front rows of the first balcony.  Excellent and expensive seats. 
Cross (v.):  To move on stage from one stage area to another. 
Curtain:  That big thick heavy thing that most theatres have, but many no longer use. 
Deus ex machina:  “A god from the machine”:  (often figurative) a device lowered from
above to solve a problem, usually when the playwright can’t think of a better way. 
Ellipsoidal spots:  Focus spot lights used to light particular spots on the stage. 
Flies:  The storage area in the fly tower.  “The set is in the flies.”
Flood lights:  Lights used to “flood” a space, often used against a sky. 
Fly (v.):  To raise sets or any other staging element up out of audience view into the flies.
Fly tower:  A storage area directly above the stage up into which sets can be “flown.”
Fresnels:  A spotlight with a diffusion lens for general area lighting.
Gel:  A sheet of colored plastic (originally gelatin) placed in a frame in front of a spotlight. 
Go dry:  Forget one’s line.  Also, “drop a line.”
Gods:  The very highest balcony seating, as in “we were sitting in the gods.”
Interval:  British term for our “Intermission.”
Pace:  General term to describe the speed with which a production or a scene within a production unfolds.
Pick up the cue:  To speak one’s line immediately upon the end of the preceding line.
Prismatic spot:  Ellipsoidal spotlight with automatic color shifting.  
Project (v.):  To speak in such a manner as to be audible well beyond ordinary range. 
Promenade performance:  Staging in which actors mingle with the audience.
Prompt box:  The hidden place from which the prompter tracks the play. 
Properties (props):  Any object on stage that can be picked up and handled. 
Proscenium stage:  The traditional picture frame, fourth-wall stage. 
Revolve (or Drum Revolve) :  Part of a stage floor that can turn, used to speed scene changes or for special effects.
Scrim:  A thin, gauze-like curtain that can be made transparent by backlighting.
Sky:  Term for a white background curtain against which lighting effects can be employed.
Soliloquy:  A speech by a character alone on stage, often addressed to the audience. 
Safety Curtain:  A fireproof curtain to isolate stage fires from the audience.  In London, it is required to be lowered at least once in every performance (usually at the interval).   
Stage areas:  USL, USC, USR / SL, CS, SR / DSL, DSC, DSR.   (actor’s [not your] left/right) (cf. Stage right vs. House right)
Stage fright:  A condition in which actors forget their lines completely.  A mini-panic attack. 
Stalls:  In London's theatres the seats on the main floor.  Usually the most expensive. 
Teasers:  The curtains at the top of the stage screening audience view from the flies. 
Theatre in the round:  Staging where the audience is seated all around the acting space. 
Thrust stage:  A stage that “thrusts” forward into the audience area of the stalls.
Timing:  General term for how well the cast picks up cues.
Top a laugh:  To come in with your line precisely at the peak of audience laughter for a preceding line.  A delivery technique for keeping up the proper pace. 
Upstage (v.):  To distract attention from the speaker; sometimes done purposefully by another actor, and sometimes done unintentionally by sets, props, or directorial decisions.
Wings:  The sides of the stage, protected from prying eyes by side curtains. 

The English 244 Portfolio

The portfolio for this class is like many other portfolios: it is a collection and display of the work you have done, together with a reflective essay describing your experience in the course. This project thus offers you a chance to review your quarter's work, as well as to put that work into some kind of narrative perspective. Your portfolio should include:

1) A detailed listing of the contents of the Portfolio.

2) All of the exercises/writing you have done for this class over the course of the quarter. Not necessary, but you yourself should look back through what you've done and notice what you have gotten better at doing-or not(!).

3) A two to three page Self-Reflective Essay.

The Self-Reflective essay should be about your experience in this class. You should prepare for it by reviewing your work for the quarter, but the actual essay may take a number of forms. It may, for example, discuss the nature of the learning you have done this quarter, describing what you take to be your work's strengths, how those strengths may have changed over the course of the term, and anything you think you still might be able to improve. Or it may be a narrative of your experience in this course: why you took it, what problems it presented to you as it progressed, and what you did to address them. Or it may discuss how your attitudes about theater have developed, changed, or not changed during the quarter: what were you thinking when you came in, and how has that changed in the ten weeks since?

However you choose to set it out, the object of the exercise is to have you review your experience in the course, to think about that experience, and to do something towards evaluating and making sense of it. I will read this carefully as one of the best ways I know of learning both what happened in the class from the student point of view AND what changes I will be making when I teach this course again.

The portfolio counts for 60 points of the course grade; I will evaluate the daily assignments included in the Portfolio on the basis of completeness and quality of involvement (30 points total). The essay I'll evaluate on the basis of responsiveness and thoughtfulness as follows (30 points total):

Fully responsive and thoughtfully undertaken = 30
Responsive but less completely thought through = 20
Marginally responsive, or not well thought through = 10
Unresponsive = 0

The Portfolio should be submitted electonically. Its presentation should be neat, ordered, and careful. To have it returned, be sure to address it and to provide postage sufficient for the thirty pages or so you will have submitted.

[With our new status as Zoomers (instead of Boomers?) I'll have to sort out how this will be submitted over the next couple of weeks.]

Reading and Writing

Writing about drama is not much different from writing about novels or poems. Here is a description of how I think of interpreting various kinds of texts and of writing about them as well:

How to Become an Active Reader

Few new readers of literature easily see how to track the complexities of poetic/literary language. Instead many readers move to general thematic reflection before they have first explored the semantic and conversational logic of a work’s language. But how to help them learn to do that?

In class I set out a simple heuristic students can use to locate and then explore literary language. I’ve found that its steps follow a sequence in the conceptual skills it requires that I explain in terms of paraphrasing, noticing, exploring, and integrating. That sequence is at the center of the active reading dimension of the course; while I presuppose students’ ability to paraphrase, the other three steps (unsurprisingly) are central to my grading criteria. I give here the definition of these key terms with which my class worked:

Paraphrase: an inevitable skill underlying the active reading of literary texts is simple comprehension. Literary language is different enough from ordinary English that most new readers work hard to get even the literal sense of a text. Thus many students will have made progress just by learning to paraphrase, and that is in fact no small accomplishment. Nevertheless, paraphrase really is only a preliminary skill. It is something I presuppose in formal writing, not something I give credit for.

Noticing Whats: Paraphrase presupposed, then, the first level of active reading is the noticing of specific details concerning choices authors make among possible alternative uses of language. I also call these specific details "Whats"—short for "What choices do you notice the author made that seem worth critical attention?" An author may choose, for example, to use a metaphor, or to elevate diction, or (in a verse drama) to switch mid-scene from verse to prose. Those choices are easily enough seen once one has pointed them out, but many new readers look right past them. This level corresponds to “Specifics,” the most basic of my grading criteria

Exploring Whys: Active reading’s second level is “exploring,” the word I use for working through the semantic and interpretive implications of the specifics one notices. A little more simply I also talk about: Why's? reminding students that when you notice a specific choice an author has made, the next question is Why did she make that choice?) Having noticed that a particular expression is metaphorical, for example, how can you explain the logic of that metaphor? How do its terms shape the way we understand a character’s utterance?

Exploring obviously depends upon noticing (how could you explore something you haven’t yet noticed?), and is thus a higher order skill; it is also a more challenging task because it doesn’t have fixed, “right-wrong” answers. It is in this sense open-ended, and readers must develop a certain interpretive patience if they are to get beyond the superficial. Good explorations should be full, not sketchy, and thus my criterion for this skill has the double label: “Exploration/Fullness.”

Pulling it all Together, or So What?: My criterion for the third level of active reading is “Pulling it together,” and it stands for the ability to pull together(!), sort, and then evaluate your Whats and Whys--your noticing of specifics and exploring their what their purpose in the play is. For this process I use the term "So What?" as a short way to talk about making sense out of the interpretive noticings you've been developing with your noticing of Whats and Whys. As you look at what you have noticed and thought about, you want to pull it all together into a So What? How does it amount to an interpretation of the play/poem you are working with?

Putting it all together can be a matter of figuring out from speech and mannerisms what's going on in some character's head (think of Troy Maxson in Fences and how often what he actually says doesn't completely match up with what he really seems to want: he says, for example, that he wants Cory to be responsible, but sometimes it seems as though he just wants Cory to be as disempowered as he himself feels deep down inside). Putting it together also often begins by identifying how the observations you’ve made can be described as moves in a particular cultural conversation.

Specific observations we could make about a play like Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, for example, might raise questions about how deeply we "normal" human beings pursue goals whose realizations would, upon conscious inspection, look like madness! That would apply to Malvolio, of course, but also to the Duke and, as we watch her fall in love, the Countess Olivia as well. That none of them actually ever realize what idiots they have been makes the play even funnier and suggests that we human beings really are a comical heap of unacknowledged—even unconscious— wishes and fears and hopes (though maybe less so after watching plays like this?)!

In general, a paper can become conceptually interesting only when student writers can integrate their observations into some sort of coherent interpretive hypothesis.

Graded Assignments

It perhaps goes without saying that I use the criteria described above as focuses for daily classroom activities. I often gear response papers to them, and as such they are central to group work. But they also underlie my grading for each of the course’s graded assignments

Six Criteria for Writing in this Class

Central Purpose: Are the reasons for your writing clear, appropriate, and fully responsive to the prompt?

Details: Are the words and ideas used within the assignment relevant and effective in developing and supporting the paper’s central purpose?

Organization: Can your reader easily follow and understand your paper from beginning to end? Are there writing elements, like transitions and topic sentences, which maintain a coherent flow?

Fullness: Do you do enough to carry your case? Is the document substantial enough to leave your reader believing that you know what you are talking about?

**Fluency: How fluid, sophisticated, and effective is your writing at the sentence and paragraph level? Are sentences and word choices varied and clear?

**Presentation: Is your paper well-edited and spell-checked? Have you reviewed your verb tense/agreement, punctuation, and other grammatical elements? Have you followed all guidelines pertaining to formatting, citation standards, and other rules of appearance as they are described in the course syllabus?

The Criteria with ** next to them are often asked of you by various class assignments, but for me they are not nearly as important as having solved the problem I've given you and found a way of communicating it clearly to me. In this class my criteria for Fluency and Presentation is readability. If you confuse me or lose me, then there's a problem, but it's how you solved the assignment's problem that matters most.

A possible grade for a paper in this class would be: 5543(with no number for Fluency or Presentation)

An Essay on Fences:

August Wilson's Gift: Families and Histories:

Why I teach Fences

John Webster

Something I said early in this class was that whether I like a play or whether I don’t isn’t very helpful to know. That’s not because there is anything wrong about liking or disliking something, it’s just that an affective judgment like that sets a frame that can keep a person from thinking with real curiosity and imagination. When you don’t like something, you also already know what you think, so there really may not be much room for thinking more. That can change—you can get a few pages into a book or a play and maybe something will catch your eye or offer a new entry point to your brain, but it’s harder to do so once you’ve decided there isn’t much in it to begin with.

When I read or watch Fences, however, like it or not I find myself thinking about so many different things. That thinking starts from the play’s giving me a way to imagine a world that is so extraordinarily different from my own. I do have black friends, but I don’t know them the way I have come to know Troy and Rose Maxson, or even his sons or even that one daughter who shows up for just 10 minutes at the end of the show. This play offers a hugely generous view—an invitation from August Wilson to come into a culture and a history that is distinctly not my own, even though I was Cory’s age in the 1950’s and shared with him (and August Wilson, from whose imagination all of this emerged) a time of life, even if we shared neither a geographical place nor a set of possible life choices. I can relate to the scene about the $200 television, and I can relate to being a teenager impatiently trying to make sense of what my father was trying to tell me about his life and his experience.

But mainly, except for a short time as a 4 year old, in growing up I had no black friends, no black families, no black English, and when I first found this play and this movie it was like a Through the Looking Glass experience for me. In some ways what Wilson showed me was the same (my family, too, never had money enough to keep up a house as well as we might have, and the talk Troy gives Cory about having to choose between a TV and a new roof could have been a conversation with my own father). But while those similarities existed, without this play I had almost no way to imagine my way into that house, that family, those pressures, those fences.

Wilson said about his audiences: “ I think the play offers (white Americans) a different way to look at black Americans. For instance, in 'Fences' they see a garbageman, a person they don't really look at, although they see a garbageman every day. By looking at Troy's life, white people find out that the content of this black garbageman's life is affected by the same things— love, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty—[as are theirs]. Recognizing that these things are as much part of Troy’s life as [they are of] their own can affect how they think about and deal with black people in their lives.

That strongly resonates with me, as does another quote from Wilson: “I think all in all, one thing a lot of [black-American] plays seem to be saying is that we need, as black Americans, to make a connection with our past in order to determine the kind of future we're going to have. In other words, we simply need to know who we are in relation to our historical presence in America.” That also resonates for me, even if for a different reason, and that reason is that I have no personal experience at all that can come close to that of growing up in a black family. And watching Fences is an experience filled with ordinary lives, but even more, it is also filled with history. Little of that history sounds like the “history” you’d get in school, but history abides in the wildly inventive stories, in the invocation of the blues, in the quietly subtle place of religion, and in the senses of all the many fences that Troy and his family must negotiate in day after day of a challenging life. Did my family have the same melodramatic depth of love and sex and living outside the lines as did the Maxsons? Actually, yes, it did, even if in different constellations. But did we have a history of slavery, of shunning, of lynchings of black men and boys throughout the south for the crime of being black and in the wrong place at the wrong time? No. Nor have I heard a story in my family like Troy tells of his life as a young thief, told by a man reaching the end of his life. Of course, this is a play, not a history book, but slavery was real, and its hugely debilitating consequences had continued, and for many, still continue in America, yes, and also in so many other places in the world.

So can I find the play interesting? Absolutely. Is there a whole study here in living a deeply limited life? A life of fences limiting you so frequently that you may not always even notice the ways you are constrained? Yes, and in some sense that goes for blacks and for whites alike. But are the constraints by which one is straitened different? Yes, again, in many, many ways, and watching this family shows some of them—one being the plaintive remark from Rose about taking a motherless child into her family, doing so because it was the right thing to do for an innocent baby, but at the same time a return to the history of her own family and her own step-siblings. I don’t think she means to be mean. Again, this is a glimpse offered to you and to me of a history that may never have been our experience, but was for her family a version of normal.

Maybe the part of the play I find the most challenging to my own moral sensibilities is the lecture Rose gives Cory when he says he isn’t going to the funeral. Anger shows up in her voice, and urgency, and she gives him a version of what he got from his father—an effort to help him see what was really at stake here. To refuse to see his father buried was to perpetuate the worst of Troy, not the best of Cory. Like it or not, Troy was his history and not something he could ignore. To talk at a funeral is to remember—re-member—the life one mourns. One tries to take a larger perspective, to see not just the failings, of which Troy had many, but the whole person. In the final scenes of the play, Lyons (who has had his troubles with his father for most of his 40 years) tells Cory, " You got to take the crookeds with the straights. That's what Papa used to say. He used to say that when he struck out. I seen him strike out three times in a row...and the next time up he hit the ball over the grandstand....He wasn't satisfied hitting it in the seats...he want[ed] to hit it over everything!" (2.5.57)

So why the “Why don’t you like me” response? Is Troy mean in that scene? Is he punishing? Maybe. But it’s also in a certain context being no more than fully honest. Cory still isn’t experienced enough to hear it (he’d rather buy the new TV than keep the house from disrepair [and think about those two mysterious glimpses Troy has of the broken window in the house next door]), and when he first arrives home on the day of the funeral he still doesn’t know how to listen.

There, challenge is not just recognizing that failure is part of life. It’s also about forgiveness, about a kind of love that comes from generosity. It’s hard to give up anger, or resentment, or the wish to even a score. But it seems to me that that is what the last ten minutes of the film are about. There are religious images in the house, and we get glimpses of them several times throughout the movie. And of course we have Gabriel, and the blowing of his horn for the Judgment day. I’m not religious, and I don’t see the watching of this play/movie as a religious act. But I do believe that the story Wilson tells here is a gift—a gift of a way to understand not just something about my own crookeds, but other people’s straights. It’s a play about common humanity, but it’s also very purposefully, a play about black people, their families, and the enduring legacies of their common past.



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