Joseph Lauinger

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–

Undergraduate Courses 2021-2022

Literature

Theatre and the City

Open, Large Lecture—Year

Athens, London, Paris, Berlin, New York...the history of Western theatre has always been associated with cities, their politics, their customs, their geography, their audiences. This course will track the story of theatre as it originates in the Athens of the fifth-century BCE and evolves into its different expressions and practices in cities of later periods, all of them seen as "capitals" of civilization. Does theatre civilize, or is it merely a reflection of any given civilization whose cultural assumptions inform its values and shape its styles? Given that ancient Greek democracy gave birth to tragedy and comedy in civic praise of the god Dionysos—from a special coupling of the worldly and the sacred—what happens when these genres recrudesce in the unsavory precincts of Elizabethan London, the polished court of Louis XIV, the beer halls of Weimar Berlin, and the neon “palaces” of Broadway? Sometimes the genres themselves are challenged by experiments in new forms or by performances deliberately situated in unaccustomed places. By tinkering with what audiences have come to expect or where they have come to assemble, do playwrights like Euripides, Brecht, and Sarah Kane destabilize civilized norms? Grounding our work in Greek theatre, we will address such questions in a series of chronological investigations of the theatre produced in each city: Athens and London in the first semester; Paris, Berlin, and New York in the second.

Faculty

Toward a Theatre of Identity: Ibsen, Chekhov, and Wilson

Sophomore and Above, Seminar—Year

Theatre emerges from social rituals; and as a communal exercise, theatre requires people to work together toward a common purpose in shared and demarcated physical space. Yet, the very notion of “character,” first expressed in the indelibly defining mask of the ancient Greek protagonist, points paradoxically toward the spirit, attraction, and trial of individuation. And so we have been given Medea, Hamlet, and Tartuffe, among the many dramatic characters whose unique faces we recognize and who speak to us not only of their own conflicts but also of something universal and timeless. In the 19th century, however, the Industrial Revolution, aggressive capitalism, imperialism, Darwinism, socialist revolution, feminism, the new science of psychology, and the decline of religious clarity about the nature of the human soul—all of these, among other social factors—force the question as to whether individual identity has point or meaning, even existence. Henrik Ibsen, a fiercely “objective” Norwegian self-exile, and Anton Chekhov, an agnostic Russian doctor, used theatre—that most social of arts—to challenge their time, examining assumptions about identity, its troubling reliance on social construction, and the mysteries of self-consciousness that elude resolution. The test will be to see how what we learn from them equips us—or fails to do so—in a study of August Wilson, an African-American autodidact of the 20th century, whose plays represent the impact, both outrageous and insidious, of American racism on “characters” denied identity by definition.

Faculty

Previous Courses

Literature

First-Year Studies: Text and Theatre

Open, FYS—Year

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.

Faculty

First-Year Studies: Theatre in America

Open, FYS—Year

In the mid-1930s, the United States was struggling with the Great Depression, and the nation's destiny seemed economically, politically, and morally questionable. By the end of the 1950s, the United States was the richest and most powerful country in the world, styling itself "the leader of the free world." During the 20-year interim, the country waged successful war against dictatorships on two fronts, engineered a New Deal for Americans, and ratified legislation barring racial segregation in public schools. The country had also developed and dropped the atomic bomb on two cities, conducted remorseless and punitive investigations into "un-American" activities, and routinely practiced blatant racial and gender discrimination. Not by happenstance was theatre during this time rich in joy and devastating in self-reflection. In the first semester, "The Golden Age," we will examine the searching dramas of Clifford Odets, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, William Inge, and Lorraine Hansberry even as we consider the wonderful and complex musical collaborations of Richard Rodgers with Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein Jr., as well as the work of Frank Loesser, Leonard Bernstein, and Meredith Willson. Our questions will be their questions: What price paradise? Can the cowman and the farmer really be friends? The second semester, "The Age of Revolt," indicates the problematic nature of contemporary answers to those questions. Nicholas Ray’s great film of 1955, Rebel Without a Cause, sounded an alarm signal of unrest in a time of national self-congratulation; or, as a later musical would phrase it, “What's the matter with kids today?” The “kids,” as it happened, were not merely teenagers driven by sex, fast cars, and rock-and-roll. Rather, they were experimenters, doubters, seekers, absurdists; they were women, African-Americans, immigrants; gay, angry, dangerous, “funny.” The voices of musical theatre sing with dissonance and complex irony (Stephen Sondheim) or shout with frenzy (Hair). Plays deliberately unsettle and confuse (Edward Albee), rage (Amiri Baraka), challenge (Maria Irene Fornes), mystify (Sam Shepard), tease (Harvey Fierstein), and snarl (David Mamet)—often all of the above. The relation between performance and audience is drawn into question, and genres are collapsed. The Cold War, aggression in Viet Nam, and the bitter battles over civil rights suddenly suggest that The American Dream is a nightmare and that theatre is a place that must be used to wake people up. Is that possible? And, if so, to what light of day? Possible conference work: the novel, poetry, film, radio, television, and popular music of the period.

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Interrogating God: Tragedy and Divinity

Open, Seminar—Fall

The Greek gods attended the performances at the ancient theater of Dionysos, which both recognized and challenged their participation in human affairs. The immediacy of divine presence enabled a civic body, the city, to enter into conversation with a cosmic one, a conversation whose subject was a shared story about the nature of experience and its possible significance: tragedy. Divinity is less congenial about playgoing in later periods, but it seems to have lent tragedy both a power to be reborn and a determination to address the universe even as Christianity, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and the Industrial Age reimagine it. In this course, we shall read essential Western texts in which the constant of human suffering is confronted and the gods are called into question even as they shift their shape. Among our authors are Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Goethe, Byron, Ibsen, Beckett, Susan Glaspell, and August Wilson.

Faculty

Shakespeare and the Semiotics of Performance

Open, Lecture—Year

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.

Faculty

The Making of Modern Theatre: Ibsen and Chekhov

Sophomore and Above, Seminar—Year

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.

Faculty

Wilde and Shaw

Open, Seminar—Spring

Toward the end of the 19th century, Oscar Wilde stated repeatedly that he was “an Irishman”—and, therefore, beyond good and evil as defined by gentlemanly codes—while George Bernard Shaw deemed nationalistic allegiances absurd and (prophetically, given the wars of the 20th century) lethal. In their stances, we can begin to see how the complexities and paradoxes of Irish identity—ethnic marginalization, religious zeal (secularized), linguistic play, knowing laughter—informed their ultimate self-definition as citizens of the world and thereby enabled them to fashion distinctively challenging art. It is also no exaggeration to say that each left the English language not as he found it. Wilde’s life was short, and we shall read a good deal of his oeuvre: his fairy tales, his plays, his novel, much of his poetry, many of his essays. Shaw’s life was long, and we shall focus on his plays written before World War I, along with two brilliantly painful postwar works: Heartbreak House and Saint Joan. And, in both, we shall see how revolution can come disguised in conventional forms, as both playwrights transform drawing-room comedy into political commentary whose implications have yet to be resolved.

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