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3 Posts authored by: Lee Jacobus Expert

It is not always easy to distinguish between drama as literature and drama as theatre.  My view has always been that good drama is based on good literature, but having said that, we all know that there are moments in the theatre when the action moves far beyond the printed page and its stage directions.  Those are the moments when we realize that drama is theatre.


This meditation is a result of my having just seen a wild adaptation of Molière’s A Doctor in Spite of Himself directed and adapted by Christopher Bayes, whose roots are in the Theatre de la Jeune Lune.  Bayes tossed out the standard text and built a commedia dell’arte version on the comic bones that Molière had provided beneath the dialogue.


The result was dynamic, wildly comic, and enthralling to the audience.  And while the slapstick, the ham acting, the sometimes lewd jokes, the inappropriate, but funny, music, and all the  screaming, shouting, dancing and romping was over, we realized that the story line that Molière concocted as a way of ridiculing the current medical profession was in a bizarre way, still intact.


What I realized–and what delighted me–is that no printed version of this adaptation could ever have done justice to it.  And that goes for any version on YouTube or even the iPad or laptop–because much of the fun of seeing the play was in sharing the pleasure with a living audience.


In teaching I think it is important to try to talk about the aspects of the play that go beyond the printed page, but at the same time to make sure that the literary values are clear and that they remain the bones on which the production must be animated.


How do you teach students the difference between drama as theatre and drama as literature? What plays and/or performances have illuminated this difference for you and for your students?



[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on December 21, 2011.]] 

Lee Jacobus

Riders to the Sea

Posted by Lee Jacobus Expert Oct 26, 2016

One of the things that humanizes the classroom is storytelling. In their reviews of my teaching, my students have often mentioned that our drama classes were enlivened by some of the stories I told of my own experiences in the theater seeing plays. That surprised me, but on reflection I realize they were right.


For example, when I taught John Millington Synge’s Riders to the Sea I told my students about the first time I saw the play. It was 1957 in tiny Theater East when the Abbey Theatre brought its company to the United States for the first time since the war. Siobhan McKenna played Maurya.


I was brought there with a group from my undergraduate class, taught by the late David Krause, who was an Irish Studies expert and my drama teacher. I had no idea what to expect. We had not read the play in advance. It followed the performance of Synge’s one-act In the Shadow of the Glen and seemed to us a riveting drama.


But another drama intensified the experience for me. In the last moments of the play one of the actresses came onstage with her apron filled with glass milk bottles – Bartley’s body had been brought in and laid out and the women came in to mourn. The actress dropped her apron and the bottles broke on the floor. Everyone was barefoot, yet as the actresses came into the scene none looked down. Most of the glass was broomed into a pan. They walked across the remaining glass and seemed unhurt and unaware. At that moment they kneeled and began keening in what can only be described to someone who has not heard it as an unearthly wail of loss, pain, and sadness.


Amazingly, no one was hurt. The keening stopped when the play ended. There was total silence in the theater. The lights went down, the actors left the stage, the lights went up again and finally when the actors returned the audience—141 souls—broke into incredible applause.  Everyone knew this was a completely unforgettable experience in the theatre.


Have you had a similar experience? Have your students? How do you discuss performance and use storytelling in your classroom?


[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on October 26, 2011.)

This blog was originally posted on February 7, 2013.


One of the issues I mull over in teaching and writing about drama is the effect of actual production on the interpretation of a dramatic text. Theater people are sometimes said to privilege performance over the text, while English teachers are sometimes said to privilege the text over the performance. Because there is plenty of wiggle room in any such question, I know the lines are not drawn hard and fast. But wherever one begins talking about a play, it is clear that every production, like every reading/discussion/analysis, is an interpretation of the text.


The recent Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s production of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, which Sara Ruhl helped to translate with Elise Thoron and Natalya Paramonova and Kristin Johnsen-Neshati, concentrates on the text. Ruhl’s decision to produce a translation as close as possible to the rhythms of Chekhov led her to make some choices that resulted in a few awkwardnesses in English. For example, she often left out pronouns supplied by earlier translators and left in literal translations that were peculiarly Russian and more oblique than English equivalents. And because of Ruhl’s interpretation of the sisters, Olga, Masha, and Irina, she presents them much more as looking forward to their uncertain futures outside their home rather than looking backward to a time when their father provided security and an orderly life.


As a result, the play itself, with its frequent discussions of what “life would be like in two hundred years,” becomes in the Berkeley production very much about how the world will change, while asserting life for the individual might not change very much at all. When the Baron Tuzenbach is killed in a duel (clearly fought over Irina) at the end of the play, Chebutykin the doctor simply says, “There’s no difference. It’s all the same.” For him, all life is a dream.  For the rest, there is suffering.  The constant meditations on the meaning or lack of meaning of life are emphasized in the production and become central to its impact.


But even more central is the remarkable emphasis on work.  Tuzenbach, a Lieutenant, longs for the day he leaves the army and will go to work. The word “work” seems repeated more often in this production than it is in other translations. The family Prozorov is part of a class that avoids work, as we are told in the opening moments, but Chekhov knows in the future this class must work and his characters end the play with Olga as a headmistress; Tuzenbach in the brickworks (had he lived); Kulygin in his school; Andrei, the brother, in the Common Council; and Irina hoping to become a teacher. Masha, having lost Vershinin, looks forward to a life of boredom with Kulygin. Moscow, where the three sisters were born and raised, remains an ideal throughout the play, and at the end it is unrealizable.


One curious irony in this production is that with all the emphasis on work, the demand and need for work, all I could think is how many people in the audience and in the streets outside must also cry for work in an environment in which there are few jobs. This point alone helps to suggest an interpretation of the play that might have had nothing to do with Chekhov’s vision of Three Sisters.