English 244: Spring, 2019
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2. Elements of Drama (Realms of Noticing)
Theatre as Action:
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?
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.
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, 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 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?
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.
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. (Photocopies of exercises you've done in notebooks are ok.)
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):
The Portfolio should be submitted in a large mailing envelope. 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.