Theater History: The Use of Theater?

The first evening of Theater History, we went over the syllabus as usual, spending a bit of time going over each of the texts we’re reading and the major assignments–students seemed interested in the performance project option, though I think many will choose to do the essay, instead. We’re starting with the typical, ancient Greek drama, but instead of focusing on tragedy we’ll be reading Lysistrata. We had some troubles with the bookstore, and so many will be reading different editions of Aristophanes–which will make discussion difficult, to say the least. However, the group seems lively, interested, and eager to talk about drama! I’ve got several students who are or have been associated with theater, whether as actors, directors, set/costume designers, and so on–none, though, who consider themselves readers of plays. Hopefully, I’ll be able to change their minds!

After the first half of class, where we went over the logistics of the course schedule, especially screenings and live performance events, we spent some time thinking about what makes theater different from other forms of art. What is theater? What does it mean–what can it mean–to “perform”? What is the relationship between theatrical performance and its material contexts? Can theater be used as a form of social control, a tool used to shape the opinions, behaviors, and beliefs of a public? How? Can it be a tool of resistance? Can theater, by its nature, be radical, and in what circumstances? Finally, we thought about the porousness, the malleability of meaning in theater–because it depends on performance, and because performance, like interpretation, is always collaborative, the same performance can signify in different (even oppositional) ways.

We then watched an excerpt from Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, the scene where Antigone, arrested for reburying her brother against the strict order of her uncle and king, Creon, confronts him and both argue for their concept of law. Knowing that this play, first performed in 1944 during the Vichy collaboration with Nazi forces, is also an allegory of resistance, we thought about the multiple ways it could be both interpreted and used. The collaborationist government, finding Creon’s arguments about the greater good, the need for law and order, the ends justifying the means compelling, allowed it to be performed all across Paris; however, Antigone also becomes a powerful voice of resistance, in the very act of saying “No.” Even though she won’t “win” according to Creon’s point of view, she has meaning; she is in fact obligated to resist him.

Next class, we’ll be going over the basics of Greek theater, paying special attention to the role of theater in ancient Athens. We’ll probably discuss the features of tragedy and comedy, and then move on to a discussion of Lysistrata. Hopefully, the momentum we built after the first class continues throughout the term!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: