Renaissance/Restoration Theater History

Last Wednesday, we had one of the best classes this term, I think–it was sad to see that some students were missing! We spent the first bit of class going over the midterm exam, especially the matching section, which many students found more difficult than I’d expected–this gave us the opportunity to talk about test-taking skills, context clues (thanks, Crystal!), and how to use information from one part of the test in another. After all, one way to think about college is as a testing ground for critical thought, or the ability to confront an unfamiliar situation with a body of skills that make the unfamiliar familiar, possible, sensible. I gave the class some sample essays that received high marks, to press home the need for content and precision. Ultimately, I was very impressed with the maturity of the class, many individuals having been confronted with lower marks than they may have expected. That led into two student presentations about critical essays on Ford’s ‘Tis Pity, both of which were excellent and led to a rich and stimulating discussion about the play’s ethical center, what it seemed to be saying/staging about the impact of a corrupt society on the individual moral sense, and what the play was suggesting about the unacknowledged and often ugly realities that make us who we are. Both of the presenters did an excellent job with the assignment, and this makes me more and more certain that this kind of presentation is the way to go. I’ve never gotten this level of nuance and careful assessment from freer oral assignments, and I’ll definitely use this format in the future.

We moved on from there to a (gasp!) powerpoint on the Renaissance/Restoration context–we covered quite a bit of material in a short space of time, and I think that for such a vast swathe of history a slide collection makes sense. Though it pained me to do it. I don’t feel it compromised the nuance and messiness of the information, though, so I’ll consider doing it again in the future. One student, coming to me in office hours, pointed out something that I’d not quite put into words about both my approach to “lectures” and the text we’re using–the textbook isn’t a “regular” textbook, she said, meaning that it doesn’t have highlighted terms or summaries at the end. She made a valid point; any study of literature, culture, history is necessarily gray, and it does students a real disservice, I think, to eviscerate that “this/and,” “yes/but” truth. In order to help students get a firmer grasp on the textbook material, the next post asks them to come up with their own reading guide question and a sample response to it–questions getting at especially useful or relevant information I’ll incorporate into the final exam. At any rate–digression!–we went over the main tensions and arcs of the periods in question, focusing especially on the changing material structure of the theater as a window into these larger trends. We had less time to spend on the Restoration context, but since we’re also discussing The Rover next week, that’s alright.

For the last portion of class, we enjoyed another excellent student presentation on Behn’s play that particularly addressed its rape culture. That led into an equally stimulating, if somewhat brief, discussion about what the setting of carnival meant for the women’s agency–and the class confusions the play stages under cover of masquerade. How does one distinguish between a “woman of quality” and a “harlot”–which a rover might “ruffle” without fear of repercussion?

Finally, I have to admit I’m extraordinarily excited about the final projects in this class–one group is creating a Lysistrata MySpace network (with notes, writing on walls, group-joining, and so on) performing the chronology and character development of the play; one student wants to create a graphic novel of either The Rover or Tartuffe; one group wants to create a mini-documentary a la Operation Lysistrata; another student is creating a scale model of a particular ancient Greek theater. A good handful are also interested in writing essays, which I’m also looking forward to, as we haven’t had so much time to devote to the plays themselves. The last month and a half will be interesting!

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