21 July 2011

The Relation of Theater to Other Disciplines

Anyone who’s taught arts classes in primary or secondary schools will have encountered the question of what value teaching theater, visual art, music, or dance has in a modern education. If it doesn’t come from a parent, it might come from another teacher—probably one who teaches math or history. Sometimes it even comes from a student. Why bother to teach a subject that seems so impractical in the crowded and cash-starved curriculum of an American elementary or high school? A very small number of people will actually make their lives in the arts; for the rest of us, they are little more than a pastime or relaxation (and, many questioners will add, if only to themselves, mostly for the so-called elite). Why spend the time and money, devote the faculty and the class hours to something like that.

About a year ago, I argued that the arts are a vital part of a liberal arts education and that a liberal arts education is a value all its own (see my argument on ROT, “Liberal Arts in the Real World,” 24 July 2010). I also made an argument for the importance of the arts in society (“Degrading the Arts,” 13 August 2009). However related, those are different issues. And as for the sense that the arts are somehow a province of the leisure classes and the highly educated . . . well, if that’s what you think, then I probably can’t address you here. It’s not really relevant here anyway, since I’m going to talk about arts in the schools where they touch students of all economic strata and backgrounds. I’m going to look at the educational worth of arts classes, not so much their social value—though, I’m sure you can see, those do overlap. What I’m going to propose is how teaching the arts, specifically theater in this instance, benefits the learning of other subjects with arguably more practical usefulness. Here’s my premise: Theater has a relation to other academic disciplines such that theater can be used to inform and enhance the learning of those other subjects. They are cognate fields, the way language and history can be: the study of, say French language and literature can inform the study of history in many ways beyond simply understanding some words and terms like entente or coup d’état.

I think it’s pretty clear that theater, like sports, teaches several beneficial skills with which young people would be well armed as they move into the general society. I’m considering now not so much the classroom teaching of theater as the producing of plays in schools with student casts and crews. In whatever part of the production students are involved, they learn how to work in concert with others to accomplish a great task, one that no single student could achieve alone. The company learns to interpret and follow instructions, some very precise and others more general, that require them to bring to bear their own understanding and knowledge and seek the necessary resources, both intellectual and concrete, to resolve. Producing a play requires the practical application—and often the adaptation—of knowledge and skills gained in other fields and even at the greatest level of experience, student theater participants must learn to meet new challenges and expand their skills and talents to solve new problems. In my companies, at least, the student artists and technicians were often called upon to research previously unexplored fields of knowledge or to apply logic and imagination to an alien situation in order to understand what they were doing or what it meant in the context of the production. Though I never made it a criterion that the plays I directed in schools be great literature, I did demand that the scripts be good theater—so the students were exposed to pieces of dramatic literature that they probably hadn’t encountered before but were worth knowing, introducing them often not just to unknown plays but unfamiliar writers. (I also tried to introduce my students to different forms of theater so that they weren’t stuck in the impression that all plays take place in that peculiar room with fixed seats at one end and an empty space raised up on a platform at the other, with a huge hole in between the two. That lesson, however, is meta-theatrical, I suppose.) Finally came the wonderful lesson of learning what it’s like to work very hard over a long time, sometimes suffering hardships, small failures, or disappointments, to experience the sense of success, both communal and individual, at the end. These lessons don’t so much dovetail with other disciplines as underpin or enable better learning across the curriculum.

The most obvious confluence of disciplines with theater occurs in the other arts, so let’s address those first. Of course, if there’s a question about the point of teaching theater and the arts in schools, then the question logically extends to dance, visual art (including, among others, painting, sculpture, graphics, and photography), and music, too. Still, let’s have a look at how the arts all support one another, at least pedagogically. First, as we’ll encounter in other disciplines, too, the various fields of artistic endeavor serve as subject matter for lots of plays, like Art and the recent Red, two plays about painting. In Tennessee Williams’s In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel, a character much like Jackson Pollock, a friend of the playwright’s, has a scene in which he discusses the color theory of painter and art teacher Hans Hofmann (another friend of Williams’s, and of Pollock’s). In another Williams play, Will Mr. Merriweather Return from Memphis?, two women talk at length about “plastic space,” also a concept borrowed from Hofmann. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George explores the artistic impulse in two painters across a century: the (fictionalized) French Impressionist Georges Seurat in the 1880s and his great-grandson, George, an American artist, in the 1980s. In his paired one-acts The Stendhal Syndrome, playwright Terrence McNally wrote about Michelangelo’s David in Full Frontal Nudity and a Bernstein-like conductor in Prelude & Liebestod. In Edward Albee’s Occupant, a reporter interviews sculptor Louise Nevelson; Robert Lepage and Ex Machina’s Geometry of Miracles focuses on architect Frank Lloyd Wright; and another McNally play, Master Class, presents opera star Maria Callas (conducting the titular master voice class) as its subject. The most famous play about dance and dancers is, of course, A Chorus Line. (Just as there are many movies about movie-making, there are scores of plays about life in the theater.)

More significantly, I think, the same basic principles of aesthetics apply to all the arts in one way or another. This isn’t the place to go into a discussion of aesthetic theory, which is far too complex to address here anyway, but I think it’s self-evident that concepts of beauty in, say, painting, are true in theater as well, if in no other application than scene painting and costume decoration. Sculpture (and architecture, too, often) is evident in the set design and even scenery construction and just as sculptors have to consider the play of light on their creations, the lighting designer has to make the same adjustments in the concept from the reverse perspective. By the same token the techniques of artistic creativity transfer from the other arts to theater pretty directly in most cases. The music for a theater performance may have different requirements than compositions for a concert or a pop tune, but the way the artist creates the piece is a parallel process. Art movements and schools, such as Surrealism or Expressionism, have their parallels in theatrical production, both in playwriting and in production. (It may be hard to contemplate, but along with Dada painting and sculpture, there are Dada plays, too. Consider, for instance, The Gas Heart by Tristan Tzara, one of the founders of the movement: it was conceived, in perfectly Dadaistic fashion, to be impossible to stage!)

The various arts had parallel historical development, too, of course. Painted scenery evolved the same way and at the same time as perspective in painting did, for instance. At various times in theater history, the same artists who were making innovations in painting and sculpture were also applying their new ideas to the stage (and to theater posters and handbills as well). If fashion design can be called an art—it’s certainly a craft, in any case—theater history records that the progress of costume design parallels the development of clothing design. Moreover, the various arts frequently interact in a theatrical production which incorporates many individual artistic genres and forms even under the simplest and most traditional practice. If we start to examine the later and more innovative presentations, the expansion of the arts and the variation in their uses can seem endless. Computer graphics and CGI; projections, holograms, and video; electronic and digital sound and music are all appearing on stages around the world and the palette from which writers and theater-makers are drawing is virtually boundless. Tennessee Williams envisioned a plastic theater where dramatists construct plays using all the arts of the stage together, relying not just on words as the foundation of the performance text with sound, lighting, and design as enhancements to the text, but a collaboration among the arts which the playwright, as a kind of multimedia conductor, uses to make his or her images. Today, that kind of plasticity has extended beyond the traditional stage arts to which Williams referred to incorporate all the arts and even the technology contemporary artists are also using to push the boundaries of their fields.

Perhaps the next-easiest fields with which the study of theater can coincide are history/social studies and the social sciences. History, of course, is the subject of a huge portion of dramatic literature starting with The Persians of Aeschylus, the first known history play (472 B.C.E). We should acknowledge that some history and documentary plays are more faithful to reality than others—Schiller’s Mary Stuart shows Queens Mary of Scotland and Elizabeth of England meeting at Fotheringhay Castle though in truth the two cousins never met—but they all can be ways of launching a discussion of the events, personalities, and ideas depicted. Searching out the differences between the historical record and the presentation in the play can be an excuse for research (an invaluable skill every student should learn and practice as often as possible), and even plays with mixed fictional and factual elements, such as Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, can throw light on or elucidate what otherwise might seem dry, dead details. (One wonderful play that’s a mash-up of historical, literary, and imaginary characters and situations is Tom Stoppard’s Travesties which places James Joyce; Lenin; Tristan Tzara, the founder of Dadaism; and an actual minor British diplomat, Henry Carr, in Zurich at the same time in 1917—where, in fact, they all were—along with Gwendolyn—as in Fairfax—and Cecily—as in Cardew—during the preparation of an amateur production of The Importance of Being Earnest: literature, politics, art, history, and theater all twisted together!) We may disagree mightily with Rolf Hochhuth’s contention in The Deputy that Pope Pius XII was complicit in the extermination of Europe’s Jews, but examining the play permits the class to look at a still-heated (because Pius is on track for sainthood) aspect of World War II. (That Hochhuth’s text is drawn from historical documents, which he may or may not have unfairly manipulated, only makes The Deputy an even better platform for historical research.)

There is also another way that theater can throw light on the study of history—by examining a play in its historical context. For instance, Anouilh’s Antigone, which on its face is a retelling, with some 20th-century anachronisms, of the Greek myth of the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta defying her uncle, Creon, the successor to the throne of Thebes, as previously told by Sophocles. But if we consider that Anouilh wrote the play in 1943, while France was under Nazi occupation during World War II, and we know that the playwright was making a statement to his countrymen, the play is a metaphor for the political situation at the time, with Antigone representing the French who resisted the German domination and Creon as the representative of the Third Reich and Polynices, the dead brother Antigone wants to bury, representing the resistance fighters and partisans actively opposing the occupation. Teachers of history can take a similar approach to Miller’s The Crucible, written in 1953: it’s either just an account of the 17th-century Salem witch trials and a study in community hysteria, or it’s a comment on McCarthyism and the House Committee on Un-American Activities of the 1950s by a playwright who was a bitter opponent to any infringement on free expression and free speech. Both plays are comments on history without actually being accounts of it.

The very impetus for the modern history play and, indeed, stage Realism as a theatrical style beginning in the late 19th century was the attempt to portray the way other peoples and cultures live and behave, the essence of sociology. We can learn something of the way certain Irishmen live from reading John Millington Synge’s plays, the thinking of some Germans by reading Schiller’s The Robbers or Intrigue and Love, or Frenchmen of the 17th century by reading almost any of Molière’s comedies. Aside from the fact that those writers were depicting milieux they were themselves observing in real time, plays, more than almost any other form of representation, distill human behavior and thought so that it communicates—that’s what theater does best, after all—directly, straightforwardly, and in a human voice. Last March in Brooklyn, the Iranian Theater Festival presented plays by writers both living in Iran and in exile, plus plays from Iranian-Americans. Iranian culture, the writers lament, has been overshadowed by the political and ideological conflict between their country and ours, so the festival was an attempt to overcome the stereotypes and preconceptions by bringing Iranian and Iranian-American voices directly to American audiences. The world learned more about conditions in communist Eastern Europe or apartheid South Africa from the plays of Vaclav Havel, Janusz Glowacki, Athol Fugard, and Mbongeni Ngema than all the essays, news reports, and lectures combined, I believe—at least we learned it more pointedly and more earnestly. I’ll never forget the experience I had watching The Square by Eimuntas Nekrosius, a Lithuanian writer and director, in 1991, just after the disintegration of the Soviet empire. The play’s the story of a former political prisoner who literally dies because he doesn’t know how to be free. Freedom, Nekrosius said, cannot merely be legislated or declared, it must also be learned and prepared for—but he said it through the medium of a play and made it more palpable than any political essayist could have. Drama from outside the U.S., especially from outside the West, presents differing views of the world from those to which we’re accustomed; the works of Wole Soyinka, Nobel laureate in literature from Nigeria; Derek Walcott, poet and playwright from St. Lucia; or Naguib Mahfouz of Egypt, another Nobel winner, for instance, show us not only some of their worlds, but ours as well—albeit from an uncommon perspective. On this continent, there’s a growing body of work by Native American playwrights and performing troupes like Hanay Geiogamah and the Native American Theatre Ensemble that have adapted our European theater forms—most American Indian cultures had no innate theater tradition; the artists have incorporated Indian music, singing, dance, and imagery to fashion a Native American theater—to depict the world as they see it.

The dramatists I’ve mentioned above were mostly dissenters and social critics, but plays can reflect a specific society’s prevailing values, too. The Eisenhower years in the Mid-West are evoked with tenderness and care in almost all of William Inge’s plays, some sad and sweet, like Picnic, and others not as pleasant, as in Dark at the Top of the Stairs. Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty is an opening to talk about the labor movement of the 1930s in the United States and Awake and Sing speaks to the fears and concerns of the urban poor during the Depression. Plays like these sketch a whole universe that’s gone from us now, captured, perhaps more like an impressionistic photo, at the moment of its most deeply felt presence. Good artists have a greater sensitivity than we ordinary folks; great ones can make the rest of us feel some of what they felt. History books and social studies texts can’t do that most of the time. Want your students to feel some of what it was like living in the Jim Crow North? Have them read Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun. The Jim Crow South? How about Alice Childress’s Wedding Band or Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy? Want to tackle the Evolution-Creationism split (if you dare)? What’s a better start than reading Inherit the Wind? On other shores, students can see some of what the Thatcherite ‘80s was like in rust-belt Britain from Jim Cartwright’s Road or an aspect of imperial China in Lao She’s Teahouse. This list is endless—but it is important to note that the plays of an era and a place are often among the best windows into that society. I can tell you from personal application that as an actor preparing a role, I often found my best input in the plays of the time and place about which I’m trying to learn.

The social sciences such as psychology, anthropology, sociology, political science, and economics offer a similar opportunity for theatrical application. Plays based on psychology—almost any thriller or murder mystery, for instance (consider Gaslight/Angel Street)—are among the most common stage entertainments. (One humorous take on the field of psychoanalysis, dating from 1915 when the practice was new and faddishly popular, is Susan Glaspell’s one-act satire Suppressed Desires.) Almost all drama after the late 19th century, with the advent of Realism, is constructed on the basis of what are or were believed to be psychological truths. Even plays founded on what we now believe is an erroneous understanding of the emotions and the mind can be a useful window in the history of the field. Take, for instance, A Doll House by Henrik Ibsen, who subscribed to some mistaken ideas of human science. Written in 1879, the play requires Nora to abandon her children when she leaves her home because she’s afraid they will inherit her moral sin, a belief considered scientific at the time. (Krogstad has a similar tale of moral turpitude having consequences in a loved one.) In a similar vein, Dr. Rank is suffering from “tuberculosis of the spine,” the consequence of a dissolute life. Medical scientists of the day believed that there was a connection between moral failing and physical illness, the latter being a manifestation of the former. (In Ghosts, 1881, we learn that Oswald Alving has inherited syphilis from his father, though we now know that that is medically unlikely, but it can be seen as a physical inheritance of his father’s moral corruption.) So not only do we see that Ibsen was basing his plots on what was understood at the time to be scientific fact, however mistaken, we also see how the field has developed over the ensuing decades.

The whole of Konstantin Stanislavsky’s acting theory, the basis for much of 20th-century western acting including the famous Method, is founded on his understanding of psychology (Stanislavsky studied the work of Pavlov and French psychologist Théophile Ribot). Neither modern drama nor modern performance could exist without some application of psychology. Anthropology, a field that really began in the mid-19th century and became almost a public obsession in the early years of the 20th century, as photography and motion pictures made it possible to see what distant cultures actually looked like, fed the impulse toward Realism and Naturalism as well as antiquarian and culturally accurate sets and costumes. So did sociology, its companion study. Even plays dating back before Realism were staged with what was considered historical accuracy, such as the 1801 production of Schiller’s Maid of Orleans staged by Augustus Wilhelm Iffland at the Berlin National Theater, one of the first known to attempt historically accurate sets and costumes. Moreover, just as the political history of humankind is a dominant subject for drama, the history of humans themselves is also at the base of much modern drama. (In a tongue-in-cheek application of this, Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth purports to trace the development of humans from the invention of the wheel to the eve of World War II, with some references to Genesis and the phylogeny of mammals. The central family in Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play is named Antrobus, from the Greek word for ‘human’: anthropos, the same word from which ‘anthropology’ is derived.) Studying the theatre of a particular culture or historical period is a vivid way to determine the socioeconomic status of the population, political attitudes, and lifestyles of distant peoples.

Political science and economics are less common among subjects for drama, especially the second. There are, of course, quite a few plays about politics and politicians (Fiorello!, 1776, The Best Man, plus any number of mono-dramas from Lyndon to the recent Thurgood), and it’s hard to argue against the contention that politics informs almost all modern plays (and not a few classics) in some way or another. Even a play as old as Born Yesterday can be a primer for civics and the process of government (as well as a sometimes backhanded vocabulary lesson); in fact, the play’s plot, even 65 years later, is a surprisingly (and dishearteningly) accurate treatise on political corruption. Most history plays are also political plays, and so are plays like Waiting for Lefty, The Cradle Will Rock, Execution of Justice, The Crucible, and even Macbeth or Henry VIII. Economics as a academic discipline may be hard to find on stage, but everyday economics are at the foundation of most modern drama. If power and control (a form of politics) are not at the center of the play, then money probably is. And if the question of money or power aren’t the main concern of the playwright, then they will be of one or more of the characters—something with which the actors will have to contend. Beyond the use of politics or economics as subject matter or the source of characters, almost all Western drama is about human interaction in search of a goal, the fundamental definition of politics: Oedipus’s goal in Oedipus Rex is to find the murderer of King Laius, his predecessor, and that hunt drives the action of the play as Oedipus “interacts” with the other characters; Hamlet must prove that Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father and in his search he enlists Horatio, Gertrude, Leontes, Ophelia, Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and the Players. And just as the play revolves around the pursuit of a goal, each character, as any actor or acting student will tell you, must also pursue an objective which will make her or him interact with others. (I shouldn’t overlook the fact that economics has a great deal to do with the production of a play, but practical play production is not the main topic of my current discussion. We also should acknowledge that politics, both subtle and overt, is and has been a factor in the presentation of theater throughout history, from the closing of the theaters in 17th-century England under Puritanism to the current focus on plays concerning wars in the Mid-East and Asia, the restriction of civil and human rights, the treatment of prisoners and suspects, and other topics or events happening around us now. Consider how political questions effect what plays can be presented and what plays people will attend even when official censorship isn’t an issue.)

With respect to English classes, the most obvious correlation is that theater offers a canon of great literature to complement the non-dramatic works, both fiction and non-fiction, the students read. Almost every middle and high school English curriculum includes a Shakespeare play, and many incorporate other plays as well. (In the ninth-grade English classes I taught, for example, we read Raisin and Inherit the Wind as well as Romeo and Juliet.) Another aspect of English classes in primary and secondary schools is writing or composition, and play scripts are an alternative form of writing students can benefit from exploring. Engaging in creative, descriptive, and analytical writing about theater experiences and the processes used to create them engages students’ imaginations as well as their various compositional skills. Writing a play itself, as distinguished from writing a short story or an essay, has different requirements and obligations for the writer; the discipline isn’t the same. (As evidence, I offer the fact that some of the best writers and poets have turned out to be terrible playwrights. Consider Mark Twain, for instance, who was enamored of theater but never wrote a successful play. In late-19th-century France, a selection of the country’s most famous and respected writers formed what they called the Group of Hissed Authors because they had all failed as dramatists: Gustave Flaubert, Alphonse Daudet, Ivan Turgeniev, Émile Zola, and Edmond de Goncourt.) Though the creative principles are similar, even analogous, the practices are different. The differences include the necessity to tell the whole story and lay out the entire theme in speech and action. A story writer can rely on narration and exposition; the whole piece can take place inside someone’s head, but a playwright has to reject that device (though it has been used on stage, it’s inherently undramatic) in favor of more direct development. Further, a novel can be experienced through the eyes of one character, but a play is experienced through the eyes of each spectator. Poetry and some novels and stories can be written in formal or imprecise language, but modern scripts are conversational; even the prose of Tennessee Williams or August Wilson, though it’s often lofty and lyrical, sounds like ordinary speech.

A portion of dramatic literature comprises adaptation of prose literature and comparing the differences can be revealing. Sometimes the changes from literary form to stage text make it easier to see the main points, since drama often distills them into a more direct form, and sometimes those changes alter the way the material is received; both results can be revealing to students of literature. What did John Steinbeck or Carson McCullers do to transform their novels Of Mice and Men and Member of the Wedding into successful stage plays? Another pedagogical approach is to assign the students to make a stage adaptation of some non-dramatic material—a poem (The Wild Party—either version or both), a short story (The Good Doctor), a newspaper report (Equus), a cartoon (Feiffer’s People), a comic strip (You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown)—to discover how both forms work.

Just as the language of a play script must be speakable, the actions the writer devises must be performable. Certainly there are technical devices that can help create magic on stage, but unlike movies, the stage has certain limitations of human capability and gravity. Whatever a playwright creates, an actor will have to embody it. We don’t have to obey the Three Unities anymore, but the confines of the theater building and the performance space limit what can be accomplished before a live audience—some of the difficulties Julie Taymor had with Spider-Man came from trying to turn the playhouse into a movie screen and a concert arena—and the practicalities put a burden on the writer. So does the conventional length of a play at two hours or so. (One-acts can be anywhere up to 90 minutes generally.) A novel can go on as long as the writer wants, theoretically, but it’s a rare play that keeps an audience engaged for much longer than Shakespeare’s “two hours’ traffic of our stage.”

Stageable plays also have to be active. Prose can be ruminative, descriptive, stream-of-consciousness, but a play has to move (though the movement can be internal). This and the other limitations on a playwright’s free expression are why every writer isn’t a playwright, and the investigation of the genre can be both enlightening and practical for writing students. When I taught theater to middle-schoolers, a fourth-grade teacher asked my boss to lend me out so I could oversee a writing project in her English lessons. Her students had been exploring various writing forms, including poetry (haiku) and narrative, and she wanted to introduce them to playwriting. I devised a program by which the 10-year-olds formed teams to compose one-act plays which were then staged first for each other, then the other fourth-grade classes, and finally in the school theater for the whole primary school and it turned out to be one of the most exciting and enjoyable experiences of my teaching career. After introducing the program and modeling it in a one-class session, I offered only technical assistance and advice and didn’t interfere with the students’ imaginative and creative flights. Imagine: when you’ve written a poem or a short story, all you get to do in the end is read it (or hear it read) aloud, but when you write a play, it can be performed! Schoolwork plus playacting—how can you beat that combination?

Drama in or translated from foreign languages, whether classics from Greek or Latin literature or more recent plays from modern languages, clearly have the same attributes as those I mentioned in connection with sociology and anthropology: the study of the world from someone else’s perspective. In the original languages, obviously, plays provide practice in reading a form of the language meant to be spoken aloud. Even the classic plays provide opportunities to encounter French, German, or Spanish even in a literary form—but one intended to be spoken rather than read. (What better way to develop an accent than reading scenes in class?) Comparing the original with an English translation can highlight how speakers of the two languages sometimes think differently in subtle ways and how the languages themselves differ. As an actor or director, I always tried to get the original text of a play on which I was working to see if there was information or clues in the original that was lost, as it were, in translation. A subtle but, I think, illuminating example is the title of Samuel Beckett’s famous play, Waiting for Godot. In French, the language in which Beckett originally wrote the play (which he subsequently rewrote—he didn’t translate it from French—in English), the title is En attendant Godot, which means “while waiting for Godot.” The play isn’t about waiting; it’s about what Vladimir and Estragon do while they’re waiting. In acting terms, the first is a state of being—that is, inactive—and the second is about action. In another French play, I discovered that a whole scene is intended to be funny because of a pun that doesn’t translate into English. (It had to do with the fact that in French, the same word, fond, means ‘fund’ of money and ‘heart’ of an artichoke.) There was no way to get the joke back into the English dialogue, but at least we knew the scene was light and silly in mood—something that wasn’t obvious in the translation. When I was doing a production of Chekhov’s The Wood Demon I learned that in the Russian text, the various ways one character addresses or refers to others were very revealing about the relationships, and none of that was in the English version because we don’t have the levels of address Russians do. It turned out to be very useful for the actors to know when they were developing their inter-character interactions on stage. For the language student or the student of a foreign culture, these are telling subtleties.

For language classes themselves, it can be a useful and enjoyable exercise to assign the students to write dialogues or even short playlets—and then perform them. When I was a high school theater teacher, the German teacher, when she learned that I speak German, asked me to come to one of her classes to help with just such a project. Not only did it get the students thinking (and writing) in conversational German, rather than the more formal style of the text books and literature they were otherwise using, but it was clearly a fun experience for them. A spoonful of sugar, as Mary Poppins might have sung, helps the learning go down. (I also remember when I was a Russian language student myself and we had to do a project that culminated in a public presentation. A classmate and I decided to write a scene of the “as if” type: as if Lenin and Marx had met. After researching some of the men’s writings for topics they had in common, we assembled the dialogue. We rehearsed it like one of Steve Allen’s Meeting of Minds TV shows—which hadn’t actually come along yet—and read it to the rest of the class. Now, I loved studying languages in those days—but this was among the most fun I ever had in a language class: the research, the writing, the rehearsing, and finally the performance.)

Two other popular fields for dramatic source material are philosophy and its allied discipline, religion. Just as theater is affected by art movements, literary and philosophical developments also turn up in dramatic literature. Many of Stoppard’s plays, for instance, focus on the questions ‘What do we know?’ and ‘How do we know it?’ (they are the main focus of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead), but for a comic romp with specific philosophical underpinnings, there’s Jumpers, one of whose central characters is a professor of moral philosophy preparing a lecture on “Man—good, bad or indifferent.” Plays based on philosophical tenets can demonstrate different ways of expressing ideas, examining subjects, or seeing the world. Sartre’s No Exit, for example, is the epitome of Existentialist writing (which can also be seen in the works of Albert Camus and Jean Genet). All of Beckett’s Absurdist plays are salted with philosophical notions and tenets, but Waiting for Godot is especially rife; it would be a wonderful exercise in the history of philosophy to try to pick out the statements in the play that correspond with the philosophical movements from Heraclitus of Ephasus (530-470 B.C.E.) to Existentialism and Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). A play that deals with both philosophy and religion is David Ives’s New Jerusalem, which depicts the contention among the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, the Jewish community in Amsterdam, and the Dutch Christian leadership of the town. Many scenes are debates following some of Spinoza’s then-controversial ideas for which he was excommunicated by his synagogue’s elders.

The principals of philosophy, however, are also an analytical tool for examining dramas. This is especially true of logic, the application of which discipline can promote precise thinking and rigorous critical analysis. Godot not only contains specific statements of some of the philosophies to which Beckett subscribed, but the play can be discussed in terms of many of those beliefs—and it has also been analyzed for its implications about Christianity, especially Catholicism, the faith in which Beckett was raised. (There is even a specifically religion-oriented essay, Charles S. McCoy’s “Waiting for Godot: A Biblical Appraisal.”) Tennessee Williams, who was raised Presbyterian—his grandfather Walter Dakin, on whom the playwright doted and in whose home he spent his childhood, was a prominent minister—but converted briefly to Catholicism, was often the target of disapproval of the Catholic Church for the violence and sexuality in his plays and films. In 1960, Williams’s brother, Dakin Williams, a devout Catholic, wrote an exegesis of his brother’s work in “Is Tennessee Williams a ‘Catholic’ Playwright?” in response to his church’s rejection of his famous brother’s writing. Other forms of philosophy, including logic, are indispensable tools for examining the plots and structures of many plays—including, unsurprisingly, most murder mystery plays. (The clues in Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, for instance, can be assembled using logic and reason. Tom Stoppard, however, likes to feed us clues that add up to the wrong conclusions, a plot factor in Arcadia.)

Plays that touch on religion or use it as a theme, though they are often controversial, can provide topics for discussion and examination. Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi and Behzti (‘dishonor’ in Punjabi), a British play by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, a Sikh woman, are politically-infused examples; both have been suppressed and precipitated violence among protestors. The new Tony Award-winning musical, The Book of Mormon, considers the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a light-hearted and irreverent, but not disparaging, way (unlike, say, A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant from 2003, which was unapologetically critical). There are, of course, many religious plays, in the sense that the plays were written expressly for teaching or demonstrating aspects of a particular faith, much the way Brecht wrote his Lehrstücke as instructional tracts for young communists; Purim plays and Christmas pageants are examples of this kind of theater, as are medieval passion, mystery, and miracle plays. There are also dramas on religious themes and with religious subjects that are meant for the general public expressing an argument (or, sometimes, a counterargument). In the wake of The Deputy came two Catholic plays which purported to be responses to Hochhuth’s allegations against Pope Pius: God’s Deputy (El Vicario de Dios) by Spanish playwright Juan Antonio de Laiglesia and Rev. Edward A. Molloy’s The Comforter, an American reaction. In fact, examining all three plays together, along with their critical and popular reception (digging up reviews is a research project), would be a fascinating basis for discussion of religion, faith, and religious institutions.

The most difficult discipline with which to find parallels with drama are the natural (or “hard”) sciences and math, but there are connections. (Not a small amount of both math and technology, an attribute of science, plays an important part in theatrical production, of course. Designing and constructing sets, laying out a floor plan, making scale models, designing and hanging lights, installing sound equipment, and many other backstage tasks all require mathematical knowledge and precision and a practical familiarity with principals of physics. Using rulers and compasses to measure and divide space, reinforcing concepts of measurement, fractions, and proportion as a preliminary to building sets or models is not only a practical method of getting students to use and practice math skills, but it’s a good deal more fun to do than plain old exercises from a textbook.) There are, first, quite a few plays that use science and math as a subject, such as Complicite’s recent Disappearing Number, about the pure mathematical theories of Srinivasa Ramanujan and G. H. Hardy in the years around World War I, and Proof by David Auburn is about the legacy of a mathematician to his daughter. The new play by Richard Bean, The Heretic, centers on a university lecturer in earth sciences who’s skeptical about climate change, a scientific topic that’s also political. Another politico-scientific play is Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, which relates the fictionalized inside story of the mysterious meeting in 1941 at which the two great physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg discussed the possibility of a German atomic bomb. (Copenhagen is also an argument play, so it bears on logic as well as nuclear physics.) A recent hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (that’s also played Off-Broadway in New York) is Baba Brinkman’s hip-hop performance, Rap Guide to Evolution, conceived originally for the 2009 bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth.

Science creeps into many plays that aren’t ostensibly about science or technology. I return to The Skin of Our Teeth, for example, which makes frequent references to the phylogenic relationships among mammals and the ontogeny of humans. Some numbers theory appears, to comic effect, in Jumpers as well—corresponding, coincidentally, to the serious applications of the same concepts in Disappearing Number. (The late Michael Kirby, a professor of mine at NYU, was a Structuralist who wrote plays that conformed to predetermined patterns, some of which were numerical. I don’t believe his plays are published, however.) Examining these plays and analyzing the texts is an exercise in precision thinking and a method of reasoning conceptually and abstractly.

A field that combines the social and natural sciences is the somewhat controversial discipline of sociobiology and its ally, evolutionary psychology. I won’t get into the debate concerning the validity of these concepts, which posit that social behavior, both human and animal, is genetic and hereditary rather than totally learned and cultural in origin. (Evolutionary psychology makes the parallel claim about psychological traits like language, memory, and perception.) As genetic traits, social behavior is affected by natural selection. Dramatically, we can find examples of this belief in plays that juxtapose animal behavior with human, or primitive human socialization with modern society. (We can also find a simpler application of these concepts in the acting technique of finding animal traits in human characters. An actor might, for instance, play Stanley Kowalski as a bear-like man or Hedda Gabler as a lioness.)

In literature, the notion of a parallel between animal and human behavior is as old as Western civilization, of course. Fabulists from Aesop to La Fontaine to James Thurber have used animal characters to make sometimes unsubtle comments on human foibles. Rajiv Joseph’s current Broadway offering, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, uses the figure of a tiger to comment on the actions of the humans caught up in the aftermath of war. A play that draws on the idea that human social interaction has evolutionary origins to which we might return if the social compact were abrogated, on the model, say, of Lord of the Flies, is John Bowen’s After the Rain, a play that depicts the remnants of modern society after a Bible-like flood. Bowen shows us a micro-society reforming around a charismatic leader as the fundaments of human behavior reassert themselves after centuries of accumulated socialization are suddenly stripped away. A little of this kind of examination is also seen in Skin of Our Teeth, especially in Act Two when the Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals convenes in Atlantic City. Wilder is implicitly linking the behaviors of other animals with those of humans by assembling the Subdivision Humans with the other mammals and noting some of the biological, that is, genetic, commonalities.

Now, I’m not saying that drama is the only art form that has connections to other academic disciplines; of course it isn’t. Prose literature has many of the same relationships to math, science, philosophy, or visual art. And I’m not saying that teachers shouldn’t supplement instruction from textbooks and labs with other sources than theater. I’ve found useful support in my English classes from music and, in a reverse of the principle I’m promoting here, I’ve used television sitcoms to demonstrate some structural points in theater classes. Of course, we’re talking here only about the texts and artifacts; with theater, there’s also the work of producing, acting, designing, and building the production which expands its usefulness as an adjunct to so many additional fields. In the spirit that whatever works best for the students is worth pursuing, I urge teachers and administrators to find the wherewithal in whatever corner of human experience they can. But theater and drama is arguably the most versatile, the most applicable, and the most malleable of the pertinent human endeavors for this effort. (And, on a practical level, the most convenient: a play is conceived to run about two hours or less; a novel, for example, can go on for hundreds of pages. In the classroom, that’s a significant consideration.) We should take note that one of humanity’s earliest impulses was to communicate, to teach or explain events of import to the community. That impulse predates written language so it was channeled into two other outlets: art and performance. The first theatrical performances must have occurred the first time a Neanderthal hunting party danced around the campfire to replay for the rest of the clan the day’s success. This surely led ultimately to modern theater, and, eventually, film, television, and even YouTube, but acting out stories, both actual and made-up, is one of our oldest tools for building a society. That suggests to me, at least, that there’s value in using that performative impulse to teach and learn about human endeavors of all kinds. It must have worked pretty well for all those eons—after all, we’re still doing it one way or another today.

1 comment:

  1. On 16 October, the New York Times ran Allan Kozinn's report, "Hey, That's My Professor Cursing on the Stage," about a production of David Mamet's 'Glengarry Glen Ross' at Fairfield University in Connecticut. The aspect of the production that was interesting enough to generate coverage in a New York newspaper is that it was a collaboration between the university's school of arts and sciences and its business school and the cast included members of the business faculty in an effort to present the 1984 play as a lesson in business, ethics, and other real-life disciplines. The play, presented at the Quick Center for the Arts from 3 to 6 October, was part of the syllabi for clourses in business, economics, philosophy, communications, and political science. "Mostly," Kozinn asserted, "'Glengarry' was used to give the Fairfield students, many of whom are already worried about finding jobs in a slow economy, a glimpse of a harsh reality." In my view, the production is a magnificent example of using theater as a way to get into other subjects, done, in this instance, on a school-wide basis.