Teach This Not That: a New Diet of Texts for Theatre History

Three thoughts are always in the back of my mind as I craft my theatre history syllabi.

Constant Nagging Thought Number 1: In the theatre history survey course I teach, I do not have enough time to cover all of the things I wish to cover. The truth is, I have more time than most people have. My course is a combined theatre history and literature course at the University of Central Florida that covers three semesters; this figures out to roughly forty-two weeks, or one hundred twenty-nine fifty-minute class periods, or just over a hundred hours of class time. At my previous school I had slightly less than this and I feel like this is an almost luxurious amount of time for a theatre history professor. Even so, I am forced to leave things out or refer to them only briefly and I hate doing it. For those of us who teach theatre history over two semesters or (may the theatre gods help us) a single semester, the feeling of not having enough time to cover everything one feels one should be covering can be acute indeed.

Constant Nagging Thought Number 2: In the theatre history survey course I teach, I am way more focused on Europe and the United States than I want to be. Like most theatre history professors, I’m having my students read plays from the Nō tradition; they also read a Kabuki play, and one by Chikamatsu, written for the Japanese puppet theatre. They read Greek plays – and those aren’t exactly European (although we seem to pretend that they are) – but the Javanese epics seem too long to assign to my undergraduates, and the same goes for the Sanskrit drama. And If I’m honest, my courses’ Eurocentric focus has a great deal to do with my own limitations as a teacher. I simply haven’t felt comfortable lecturing on and analyzing Chinese zaju, or K’iche’ dance drama, or the variations of talchum in Korea. But “Be[ing] Less Provincial”, as Marvin Carlson suggested more than a decade ago, is something I am striving to do.

EulalieConstant Nagging Thought Number 3: In my theatre history survey course, I have not assigned enough writing by women. In 2011, the last time ATHE was in Chicago, after the keynote we had these sort of odd plenary response sessions about interdisciplinarity in local contexts and I ended up in a room where we were talking about gender equality. One scholar offered that at her school all courses were soon to be required to practice gender parity on their syllabi. Very cool, we all agreed. And then a historian I know said, “Well, I teach theatre history, so how am I supposed to do that?” I was not appalled by his statement so much as I was appalled by the fact that it was, in fact, a statement, and not a question, as it had seemed to be. He wasn’t asking How might I best go about adding more women to my history syllabus? He was saying Gender parity simply isn’t possible on the theatre history syllabus. I made a deal with myself right then and there that I was going to implement gender parity in my syllabi – all of my syllabi – even theatre history. The reason this is still a constantly nagging thought for me is that I am almost but not quite there.

The trouble with these thoughts always comes back, of course, to Constant Nagging Thought Number 1. If only I had the time! But I must necessarily begin from the position of not having the time I want. I’m already not teaching everything I want to teach. So I need to figure out how to make some of the changes I wish to make to my syllabus without jettisoning too much of the important stuff I already believe that I have in it. Giving up is just not something I am willing to do.

I propose that one solution is to consider the precise goals of the theatre history course. At my university I am primarily teaching students who do not wish to be scholars but who wish to be artists. My three theatre history courses are responsible for nearly the entirety of the theatre literature our majors will read. The students I teach spend a majority of their time in the studio instead of the classroom, and in the studio they mostly do scenes from playwrights like John Patrick Shanley and David Rabe and Clifford Odets. (Acting teachers love Clifford Odets.) I want to give my students plays that teach them about formal differences. Learning about forms will hopefully allow them to think differently about the possibilities for theatre-making and theatre-watching as they become actors, directors, and writers.

No doubt, other history professors will have different goals. Some may find it most beneficial to teach students about the range of theatrical disciplines in the world, or to give students ideas about the global reach of theatre performance or to link theatre with specific themes (such as protest or state power or cross-cultural connections or ritual). I can also imagine (just to offer a single example) building the entire sequence around moments in which the theatre intersects with other art forms – painting, sculpture, food preparation, metallurgy, weaving, music, you get the idea.

But focusing specifically on a diversity of forms has provided, for me, a way to increase the number of female writers I am able to assign to my students, and I want to offer this small but practical solution to you today. By focusing on form, I mean that what I want to make sure my students are learning is how any given performance or piece of theatre works. HildegardSo this means that it is not essential that they read, say, A Doll’s House when I teach Ibsen and Northern European Realism. If the form is the important aspect, they can read Hedda or The Wild Duck or some other play with very similar formal properties and still get the same thing out of the lesson. (I’ve been teaching Ghosts, lately.) And what this also means is that I can very easily substitute out male writers for female writers working in the same vein.

Practically this means that my students no longer read Shaw when we study the problem play; they now read Elizabeth Robins’ 1907 suffragette drama Votes for Women!. We still talk about all the things I would talk about with Shaw – the Shavian paradox, the way that the problem play is designed to function for audiences, the development of the Independent Theatre, the ways the play is indebted to Naturalism as an artistic movement. We lose nothing by the exchange.

Now when we talk about the medieval morality play, my students no longer read Everyman but read Hildegard von Bingen’s 12th century Play of the Virtues instead. This allows us to discuss the ways that Latin drama worked when it was performed inside of churches as well as talking about the form of the morality play itself, with its pedagogical aims, its familiarity with death, and its distance from the Bible as source material. (The students have responded really well to Hildegard, and her life is so interesting that she makes for a fascinating lecture subject.)  Again, we lose nothing in the exchange except Everyman as a text.

JuanaThis means, as you can see, not teaching playwrights whom many of us love to teach. I have, for example, begun to assign Sophie Treadwell instead of Eugene O’Neill these days; and I have the students reading Marita Bonner’s The Purple Flower and May Miller’s Stragglers in the Dust instead of Langston Hughes’s Scottsboro Limited. But although it hurt a little bit to have to cut The Country Wife in favor of The Rover, this honestly gets easier and easier the more I do it. A focus on the formal properties of each of these types of theatre means that for many of the forms I am teaching, if I look hard enough there is usually a good alternative available. Substituting texts by women for texts by men can often be easier than it seems. Why not assign Adrienne Kennedy, for example, to teach postmodernism? Or Sonia Sanchez to teach the Black Arts Movement? Why not assign Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz to teach the Spanish comedia instead of Lope de Vega? Why not have the students read a Louisa Medina play when teaching melodrama?

Still, this is only a partial solution. No matter what I do, I am not going to find ancient tragedies or Italian renaissance comedies or Japanese Nō plays written by women. (Footnote: I am assuming La Venexiana was written by a man, although female authorship is a possibility.) I have needed a slightly different solution here. If there are no contemporary women playwrights for a period, I’ve begun assigning feminist scholarship that approaches these historical periods with a critical eye. “Classic Drag”, Sue-Ellen Case’s critique of Greek tragedy’s treatment of women is now a classic essay, but finding something delightful to assign – an essay that points up the contributions of women and girls as audiences, producers, or performers in a particular period of theatre history – is now possible for nearly every period one can imagine. To give a few examples, I’ve lately been assigning Kathleen McGill’s “Women and Performance”, which outlines actresses’ contributions to the commedia dell’arte, as well as Eleanor Traylor’s “Two Afro-American Contributions to Dramatic Form”, which succinctly describes some nineteenth-century black theatre innovations, plus Valerie Rohy’s “Fortune’s Turn”, which offers possibilities for lesbian readings of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and Judith Pascoe’s search for the voice of the Romantic actress in The Sarah Siddons Audio Files.

I don’t want to minimize the difficulty of a project like this; it is hard to do, and it has involved rethinking and reorganizing my theatre history syllabi repeatedly. I expect, in fact, that I will once again rethink it this coming spring. But the positive effects far outweigh the trouble. Again and again my students surprise me by asking “Were there women performers then? … Were women permitted at theatre at this time? … Did women work backstage then? … Were women patronizing specific artists at this time?” Their interest is palpable, exciting, and I find it infectious. But aside from the obvious benefits for my students, teaching more plays by women, teaching more essays by women, teaching more performance by women, has forced me to rethink the received narratives about each period of theatre history I discuss, including the narratives I tell myself.

I want to give just two quick examples of the way that teaching more women has forced me to rethink a received historical narrative: It is easy to understand the theatre work of the Harlem Renaissance as a primarily urban phenomenon – with a focus on Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, the KRIGWA players, and W.E.B. DuBois. But as I switched to teaching female playwrights instead of male playwrights, the work of Georgia Douglas Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, and Eulalie Spence demanded that I talk in more complex ways to my students about how black Americans up and down the East Coast (not just in Harlem) were thinking about how the theatre might serve the audiences for whom they were writing. The switch to teaching female writers, in other words, demands a rethinking of the very narrative of this period of theatre history and a complication of the way I talk about of goals of these theatre practitioners.

RachildeThis happens for me as I teach the Symbolist movement, as well. I have previously used Maurice Maeterlinck and Oscar Wilde as a way of talking about these artists’ interests in medieval spiritualism, the idea of art for art’s sake, their obsessions with Edgar Allen Poe and Richard Wagner, and especially their fascination with ghosts and death. But a switch to the playwright Rachilde and any one of her many plays – The Crystal Spider, The Transparent Doll, Pleasure – insists that my students and I think more about the questions in which she was interested: Freud and fantasy, sexual desire, madness, hysteria, and class. What this does for the study of Symbolism as a whole is draw out Maeterlinck and other Symbolists’ own interest in those topics. Once we begin to think about Symbolism as a movement concerned with the topics of interest to Rachilde, the class conflicts in Maeterlinck’s Princess Maleine and The Blind become much clearer, and we start to see that Wilde’s Salomé and Maeterlinck’s Pélléas and Mélisande are as much explorations of madness and desire as they are of death and mysterious intruders. Moving female playwrights to the center of any period has the ability to change the way we look at those periods themselves, productively adjusting our own thinking about those time periods, forms, and genres.

Each of us is going to want to focus on the periods and people that interest us. And it makes sense that teachers of theatre history will want to teach to their strengths, discussing time periods and theatre practitioners we know well. But while we all work on making our syllabi less provincial and diversifying the topics we discuss, I want to encourage us all to make a point of teaching women where we’ve been teaching men and moving our syllabi ever closer to gender parity.

I know there is not enough time to teach all of the history that we want to teach, but there is time to do this. And it’s about time we do it.