Dog in the Manger Discussion, Presentations, and Incest Plays!

Last Wednesday we were finally able to get back together as a class and contemplate our response to the Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Dog in the Manger, and I was very gratified to see how eager everyone was to discuss! Many students had questions that, significantly, we couldn’t really find good answers to–like the significance of the singer and the painting that appeared throughout the play as a backdrop or as a prop, even visible on the singer’s skirts. We discussed how a good production needs to have a coherent, accessible, and articulatable purpose that ties the set design to the acting to the larger themes of the play; sadly, this one didn’t. Though it was entertaining, don’t get me wrong! Students were particularly confused by the singer, but the giant neon skull was also a topic of debate–which led us into a discussion of postmodern pastiche, perhaps the only really viable approach to the production I could see. The play’s title reference was helpful here; the Countess was the titular dog in the manger, neither allowing her Secretary to eat nor deigning to eat, herself, but trapped, immobile, between two impossibilities. That is, of course, until the utterly farcical conclusion (and I mean that in a good way!), which turned the impossiblity into an “impossibility.”

We spent quite a bit of time on the question of authenticity, because that’s an important question that both the play and the production raises–is true love even a possiblity for these people, so consumed with class and status? Is the Secretary really a nobleman, after all? I tried to convey the anti-authentic perspective of postmodern pastiche, and we speculated on this as a viable reading of the performance choices. Ultimately, we felt it didn’t quite work, but it is important to exercise the rational faculty, all the same! Students tend not only to want the emotion to be real,  but also to see anything that questions the viability of such authenticity as “bad,” period. Hopefully, the performance raised an awareness about the nature of realism–it’s essentially a style, not a truth.

We also had the first two group research presentations, which did leave something to be desired. One presenter in each group clearly put more effort into the project. I was happy to see the class as a whole interacting with the presentations, pressing their peers where necessary, asking questions, trying to move the discussion forward. I hope, though, that the rest of the class was paying close attention….

The discussion of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore didn’t seem to go as well as I thought it would–I expected students to have strong opinions, questions, something! I hope a group or two will attend the performance at CenterStage, though–it would not only be a good experience in general, but it would put the play into the necessary concrete context. I am afraid the reason behind the desultory quality of the discussion had to do with the language of the play; it may have presented a difficulty for some readers? Then again, we did seem to get somewhere with a brief discussion of Giovanni’s disputational strategies, the way he emphasizes reason at the expense of custom and form, Bergetto’s tragedy, Ford’s representation of the Cardinal, the question of class (is this a “city tragedy”?  why is Grimaldi not punished?) and authority, and the troubled issue of our sympathies. With whom are we meant to sympathize, and why? Is this really a play about incest, or is it more a play about the dark, sharp, ugly undercurrents of an increasingly mercantile society still governed by aristocratic privileges?

One of the things I find fascinating about the play is that Annabella and Bergetto are the two most sympathetic characters, though both are clearly depicted as flawed but undeserving of their fates. Bergetto is childish, perhaps even idiotic, and killed mistakenly and unjustly when on the brink of love, and Annabella is seduced, impregnated, and horribly killed by her brother at the virtual moment of birth. All the murderers are egged on by their own arrogance and unwillingness to let another get the best of him. I can’t wait until March 15th, when I’ll be seeing the performance here in Baltimore!

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