What I hope you learned in “Understanding Drama”

I’ll be teaching “Understanding Drama”, a survey course for undergraduates in the English Department at my university, for the second time this coming semester. It’s been almost two years since I taught it the first time. Looking back through my folders I found this: a letter I composed for my students toward the end of the semester that summarized the ideas and aims of the course. Usually the “course objectives” are something you present students at the beginning of the semester (and I did that when I distributed the syllabus as well), but for whatever reason I got the idea to return to the “course objectives” as a recap at the end. I remember a sense of clarity emerging from this exercise out of what had been a struggle of a semester (first time teaching the class, new job, new country, new language, etc…). Perhaps I should make this a regular thing. Here’s what I wrote:

Dear Students,
It’s been a wonderful semester! I greatly appreciate the contributions each and every one of you have made to this class. You are smart, insightful, playful, and delightful. I look forward to getting to work with you again someday! Don’t be strangers; anytime I am on campus, I am at your service. I’d love it if you stopped by my office, J906, just to say hello.
We have covered a LOT of material in this class, and you worked VERY hard. “Understanding Drama” was a course designed to give you three specific things: 1.) the theoretical and practical tools you need to continue study in dramatic literature, 2.) the tools to appreciate and understand the performing arts in general, and 3.) the tools to understand “performance” as a concept and interpretive schema. Have I succeeded in giving you all three of these things? I hope so, but honestly, I don’t know for sure. I look forward to your evaluations (which I read carefully and take very seriously) to learn if you’ve found this to be a productive class. And I am always open to your constructive criticism. I mean that.
Any good teacher would agree that the conceptual framework for a class can be easily condensed into a brief, clear outline. To end our semester together, I’d like to summarize for you, in outline form, what I hope you learned.
A. The study of dramatic literature must begin in the history of theatre, which is ancient.
Drama is an art-form that draws from its prediscursive roots, even as it takes the form of discourse. Every drama has its roots in ritual, religious rites, mythology, and storytelling. How is Endgame like a ritual, for example? How does Angels in America construct a contemporary mythology?
B. The development of different styles in dramatic literature corresponds to the development of theatrical styles that are the result of specific cultural movements and historic events.
Think about how melodrama begets realism, which begets naturalism, which begets expressionism, etc. This is a literary and theatrical genealogy. Would Pirandello have written in a meta-theatrical style if he had not experienced fascism in Italy?
C. In order to understand dramatic literature, you have to know a bit about how theatre works. Dramatic literature reflects the theatrical spaces and performance techniques used by the artists who produce the plays!
Playwrights write for certain kinds of theatrical spaces with their specific architectures. These architectures reflect a certain kind of society. Playwrights write for certain actors and directors, whose choices reflect society’s changing attitudes and philosophies. (What would Chekov’s plays be like without Stanislavsky? What would Brecht’s plays be like without the influence of Marx?)

D. Dramatic literature is an artifact that documents performance.
The external form of dramatic literature is the blueprint for a production’s design. Every written drama has a production history, and the drama’s production history often affects the text itself.
E. Performance can be understood as a paradigm for knowledge and identity—for individuals, cultures, nations, and perhaps ultimately our globe. Drama and theatre describe the never-fully-describable relationship between Doing, Being, and Knowing.

That’s it! If you can explain and expand on any one of the points in this outline (maybe not all, but at least one), using the materials we studied in this class, then I would consider your participation and my teaching a success. Let me know! It would be my pleasure to hear from you. Shoot me an e-mail or send me a text message.
Your dedicated teacher,

Claire Maria Chamber
[email protected]; 010-5278-8911; Jeong Hasang Hall Room 906