This unit is an introductory survey of drama for ninth graders based on six plays, each representative of different historical dramatic period: The
, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Wilde’s The
Importance of Being Earnest
The Wild Duck
, and Ionesco’s
The Bald Soprano
I chose this topic for many reasons, one of which was the students’ favorable response to drama as a genre. As a first-year teacher, I was impressed by the enthusiasm most students showed at the prospect of playing a role. An opportunity for a dynamic exchange between personalities develops. Students become increasingly involved in the problems of characters, and in the problem of separating the character’s personalities from their own.
The play exists on stage, but in modern times plays have also become reading material. When students study a piece of art which is sometimes a book, sometimes a classroom event, and sometimes almost “real life,” they come close to having a total literary experience. They are responding more intensely to both spoken and written language, and are becoming aware of the shadowy distinction between art and life.
Drama can create all kinds of learning opportunities. Different students respond to different types of learning exercises; drama can engage them emotionally, sensually, cognitively, and/or physically.
I want to use a variety of approaches, appealing to each of these perceptions. Exercises can be literary, emphasizing the linguistic problem of translation or the history of the English language. They can be visual, asking students to imagine settings and then to draw them or represent them with pictures from magazines. Physical, kinesthetic exercises can get students to act out roles, and to demonstrate communication skills through actions, histrionics, and body language. Recordings and rival readings can teach students to listen to language more closely.
Acting exercises and role-playing help students understand personality and motivation. The experience of exploring adult roles and attempting to realize strange situations can provide adolescents with skills for living. By improving their understanding of motivation, body language, and complex emotions, the study of drama can enhance both their intellectual and social skills.
The plays represent human experiences drawn from different times, countries, and cultures. Often they describe value systems and situations with which students are unfamiliar. Maturity has been defined by psychologists as the ability to tolerate differences in others; this trait is a product of the study of the humanities. Drama brings students closer to imagining and reproducing the feelings of people quite different from themselves, and this is a learning experience. The imagination is two-edged. It can create neuroses where none exist, but it can also teach people how to adapt to unexpected or unusual situations. You can, for example, prepare to cope with a difficult phone call or a court appearance by rehearsing it several times in your mind. Even soap operas can help with our “rehearsals”; they teach human response to tragedy and adversity. This is useful information. If my friend tells me he made his “Joan Crawford shoulders and walked out,” I know he has used a learned and reliable response to a situation he found unpleasant or difficult. We all need roles. Adolescents especially are searching for a repertoire they can draw on, and while soap opera and Joan Crawford have their place, great drama has satisfied wider audiences for a longer period of time. Good literature provides insights into such larger problems of existence as the purpose of life, the fear of the unknown, the meaning of religion, and the life of the unconscious.
All right. You might agree that drama should be taught, but why mix it with history and anthropology? Well, I’ve read as many arguments for teaching history through drama as I’ve read for teaching drama as an art form independent of its source and time, but I am very interested in tradition. You must understand the development of a people to understand their conscious and unconscious beliefs. The tradition of violence in America, for instance, is not a result of spontaneous generation. No, it isn’t. If you have ever wondered why Germans are militaristic and melodramatic, why the French kiss everyone, or why there are more Californians in the
Guiness Book of World Records
than any other group, you know what I’m talking about. The plays I have chosen encompass a larger tradition than any of these examples. They are part of the tradition of the Western world, the Occident.
Studying a historical flow gives me a conception of man’s history, not only in terms of artifact and anthropology, but also in terms of thinking, feeling, and reasoning. It gives me a sense of the changes in location of large masses of humanity. It makes me aware that there have been hundreds of thousands of lifetimes before mine and allows me to evaluate mine in relation to this truth. Knowing this, I don’t feel as isolated, and I don’t feel as important. I think overconcentration on the self is very bad, and it is certainly characteristic of this highly self-conscious age group we teach. Students whose minds and bodies are changing rapidly are susceptible to morbid intro version, to mild megalomania. There’s more than this. Thinking in a historical way has always given me a sense of belonging to an ancient and timeless group of thinking, living, beings striving to order their universe while coping with the petty annoyances of life on a daily basis. It is looking at the goblets of Napoleon and Josephine and realizing that they filled them with wine, laughed, talked, and spilled some on their royal robes. Kings got drunk and Elizabethans ripped their doublets. Of course they did. 1 hope to transmit some of these understandings to my students without simply creating heads full of Cartesian nonsense. I think these are worthwhile objectives.
What happened to art for art’s sake? I never intended to lose sight of it. I believe that a work of art can never be considered wholly apart from certain influencing factors. There are four of these factors: the work itself, its place in history, its creator, and its audience.* These factors combine and separate in my mind. Their realization is Protean. Forms become standardized, and at times contain their own message apart from content. They mean something. This meaning changes. The changes are a result of an audience, a creator, a history. And although forms may change, the fact of their inherent ability to
remains constant. Form and content are fraternal twins. I don’t play favorites. This understanding becomes more than ordinarily important when dealing with iconoclasts like Ionesco. I’m interested, therefore, in observing the development of a form over time in order to understand the origins and purposes of that form as responses to humanity’s changing demands. Demands change, as Ezra Pound invites us to observe with him:
The “age demanded” chiefly a mould in plaster,
Made with no loss of time,
A prose kinema, not, assuredly, alabaster
Or the “sculpture” of rhyme.
Activities concerning the art of drama and the nature of language, plot, setting, and characterization are central to the unit. These exercises should give students an understanding of the nature of literature: it is art as expression, art as pattern, art as ornament, art as necessity. I hope students’ skills in evaluating dramatic art and their skills in reading and comprehension will improve.
So there you are. I want my students to acquire skills ranging from vocabulary to the perception of form, the meaning of culture, and the meaning of maturity. What they will actually come away with is impossible for me to guess, but if everyone is left with even one lasting impression or idea, I will be happy. I’m easily pleased.
*See Meyer Abrams,
The Mirror and The Lamp