BA, University of Pennsylvania. MA, Oxford University. MA, PhD, Princeton University. Special interest in American literature and film, the history of drama, and classical literature; recipient of the New York State Teacher of Excellence Award and a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities; fiction and poetry published in Epoch, Lost Creek, Georgetown Review, Confrontation, and Pig Iron; plays performed throughout the United States and in the United Kingdom, Australia, and India; member of the Dramatists Guild. SLC, 1988–
Current undergraduate courses
In a nation invented on suppositions of individuality and equality, theatre has always held a peculiar place. On the one hand, Western theatre and the genres of tragedy and comedy were born from democracy in its ancient Athenian form; on the other hand, the communal nature of theatre goes against the expressions of self-reliance that characterize American vision and enterprise. This course explores the ways in which people who have called themselves Americans, sometimes with significant cultural modifiers, have thought about and made theatre from the 18th century to the present. We shall begin by looking at early attempts to create American “entertainments” based upon European forms. Soon, the displacement of native peoples, African slavery, expansion into the West, mass immigration, and industrialism led to new social and political uses of melodrama. In the 20th century, a “classic” American drama develops, represented in the works of Eugene O’Neill, Lillian Hellman, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller. We shall then retrace our steps in order to gain alternative perspectives. These come primarily from the influence of African American music, particularly jazz, as it informs popular entertainments and blends with European vaudeville and “gaiety” shows to create a new and characteristically American genre: musical theatre. Simultaneously, the element of improvisation as derived from jazz contributes to the idea of unscripted work as quintessentially American, challenging the entire role of the playwright and the boundaries of theatrical space. We will then be in a position to examine the paradoxes of contemporary stages in which the invention of the self—that unique American assumption, privilege, and burden—is conflicted by identity politics, postmodernism, and the reflexive poses of irony.
A study of the originality and influences of Ibsen and Chekhov, the first semester begins with an analysis of melodrama as the dominant form of popular drama in the Industrial Age. This analysis provides the basis for an appreciation of Ibsen, who took the complacent excitements of melodrama and transformed them into theatrical explosions that undermined every unquestioned piety of middle-class life. The effect on Strindberg leads to a new way of constructing theatrical experience. The second semester focuses on Chekhov, who in retuning theatrical language to the pitches and figures of music, challenges conventional ideas of plot. Finally, Brecht, Lorca, and Beckett introduce questions about the very sensations delivered by drama, plumbing its validity and intent.
This course explores the relation between the play as written text and the play as staged event. More than any other literary form, drama depends upon a specific place and time—a theatre and its audience—for its realization. The words of a play are the fossils of a cultural experience: They provide the decipherable means by which we can reconstruct approximations of the living past. With this goal in mind, we will read and examine texts from ancient Athens and medieval Japan to Elizabethan London and contemporary New York (with many stops in between) in an attempt to understand the range of dramatic possibility and the human necessity of making theatre.
The performance of a play is a complex cultural event that involves far more than the literary text upon which it is grounded. First, there is the theatre itself, a building of a certain shape and utility within a certain neighborhood of a certain city. On stage, we have actors and their training, gesture, staging, music, dance, costumes, possibly scenery and lighting. Offstage, we have the audience, its makeup, and its reactions; the people who run the theatre and the reasons why they do it; and finally the social milieu in which the theatre exists. In this course, we study all these elements as a system of signs that convey meaning (semiotics)—a world of meaning whose life span is a few hours but whose significances are ageless. The plays of Shakespeare are our texts. Reconstructing the performances of those plays in the England of Elizabeth I and James I is our starting place. Seeing how those plays have been approached and re-envisioned over the centuries is our journey. Tracing their elusive meanings—from within Shakespeare’s wooden O to their adaptation in contemporary film—is our work.