Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Why Study Theatre History?

So tomorrow I begin teaching "History of Theatre I," which runs from the Greeks to the Elizabethans. And the question I have for the theatre blogosphere is: why? Is there a reason to study the dead past in something like the theatre? The usual reason to study history is the old saw that "those who don't know history are condemned to repeat it." Would that it were so! Would that we could repeat Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Seneca, Plautus, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Johnson, and Webster simply by ignoring them! So that reason is out the window. So what works better? Remember, I teach at a liberal arts school, so these kids can repeat "it important to be a well-rounded person" right along with me. So as I look them in the eyes, what can I tell them? Help!


parabasis said...


I'll take the bait... I think there are many reasons to study theatre history (these are not in order of importance):
(1) Pragmatic: the world of your future employers and collaborators expects you to know this stuff.

(2) Inspiration: the past offers a lot of rich opportunities for inspiration. And they can't sue you for copyright infringement. Just look at how Equus borrows from Greek Tragedy.

(3) Understanding: Understanding the historical and social contexts that gave rise to specific plays will help you better understand both the plays and how our current historical and social context produces out theatre.

(4) Dialectical: Our work exists in history, we are always in history, and the work we do is at least in some sort of conversation with the past and the future. Knowing what the past is saying is helpful to having that conversation through our work.

(5) Pragmatic-2: because you'll fail them if they don't.

How's that for starters?

Anonymous said...


Just a few quick thoughts:

As I read your post and began thinking about your question, an image of Tonio, one of the itinerant players in the opera Pagliacci, came to mind. Before the opera begins, while the curtain is still down, he approaches this audience and, roughly translated says, "permit me to step forward to speak to you, the audience, and tell you about the special world you are about to enter."

There is something magical about being able to introduce students to the writers and spirit of early theatre history.

Beginning in the late 20th century, new technologies facilitated a rapid-fire information flow that continues to become faster with each passing day.

Despite the sheer volume of information and stories that we receive on a daily basis, we have lost the scale of Aeschylus, Shakespeare, and Marlowe. Many of these classic plays, left uncut, run for several hours and contain every possible human emotion and activity: love, lust, incest, hatred, fidelity, bravery, fear, friendship, redemption, and humor.

The theatre has always been, at least for me, about rekindling the soul and discovering what makes each of us human. Classical drama represents theatre at its best. It utilizes tragedies, dilemmas, choruses, and recognizable symbols in an effort speak to something within each of us that is fleeting and intangible. There is something heroic and grand about what these stories strive to grasp and, best of all, they never age!

If students carefully study classical plays and open themselves up the experience of them, they will be rewarded with the gift that accompanies all great drama: the capacity to live on a level that nontheatregoers will never experience.

While many Greek, Roman, and Elizabethan plays have been read, taught, and performed a million times, there is always room to grow and there are always new things to discover.

What you are offering your students is an opportunity to profit from thousands of years of wisdom.

Even though, by now, I am well versed in Greek Drama and all of Shakespeare's plays, I am, nevertheless often surprised by something new every time I reread one of them.

The "classics" operate on a grand scale, much like elongated carnival mirrors. They are packed with so much information and so many lessons that, as you get older and your life experiences become more varied, the pathos of a particular moment that never meant much before tends to suddenly take on a deeper meaning.

Harold Bloom has argued that Shakespeare "invented the human." His point is well taken, Shakespeare and the many writers that preceded him effectively passed on a theatrical model that interrogates, restores, and rekindles the human soul.

In the current theatrical environment, these lessons and plays are, perhaps, the only ones worth talking about.

PS- If you are looking for any supplemental materials or readings, Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare is a great and imaginative read. It might also be a useful springboard for many types of discussions.

Alison Croggon said...

People who don't understand the traditions of their artform reinvent the wheel. Constantly. You could quote Eliot on tradition at them, if you liked.

Also, the works are beautiful.

Anonymous said...

How about telling them your dilemma and explain why your are feeling this way. I would rather have a teacher telling me gray then black or white when it's not the case. Honesty goes a long way for those kids.

Scott Walters said...

How about this, from Kenneth Burke's The Philosophy of Literary Form:

“Where does the drama get its materials? From the "unending conversation" that is going on at the point in history when we are born. Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.”

Anonymous said...

More ammunition can be found in Robert Coles CALL OF STORIES.

Tom Loughlin said...

Hi Scott,

You can also try to take some different spin or approach to theatre history. I once taught the course which concentrated only on five periods and took in the relevant social, political and religious forces at work in context,which created the culture and showed how that society could support a flourishing theatre. It made students try to answer the question "what social conditions would have to exist today to create a more flourishing theatre?" I used to like to connect the idea of the rise of industrial capitalism in the 19th century and the concurrent rise of the "capitalistic" theatre, complete with a star system and wage slaves. I talk about the "entertainment syndrome" in modern society as described by Neil Postman and its influence on crushing live theatre. It seems today that the worst thing you can do (and what students most often rebel at) is a chronological iteration of the facts. You've got to find the "spin" which makes it all make some sense, so they can see the repeating patterns and connections to modern times.

Being a dean leaves so little tim e for blogging, so a belated thanks for your link and suggestions for starting a theatre. There are things in there I might take to heart, and I am also toying with the idea of "think globally, act locally" and maybe not go to Buffalo at all. Some good food for thought in that community aspect. I also like the API News blog; very interesting perspectives. We really, REALLY must have that talk about re-thinking theatre curricula. I will be eager to hear with you learn in NYC in February. -twl

Alim Al Razi said...

I think, there is no need to study Theatre. Because, through study theare one will lose his career. Studying theatre is nothing to do fruitfull for the society and himself. It is only for passing time being with ammusements. There will no prestigeous professional job be offered to a Theatre Academician. It is only for money and time loosing manner.

Scott Walters said...

Alim -- Money and theatre aren't the only yardsticks.

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Touchstone said...

Classic theatre history book now as an ebook PDF:


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