Form and Pressure

Going to attempt to bring a couple of threads together in today’s post, which could very well be titled “what the hell am I doing?”

Don’t worry, this isn’t my journal, but I do want to think a bit about the intent of this blog, of scholarship (and how the blog fits into scholarship), and tie that into theater and arts/humanities education.

One of the things I’ve come across in some of the critical texts I’ve been reading (most recently in Dryden’s “An Essay of Dramatic Poesy”) is the use of the dialogue form as a means to ruminate on something without coming down with a hard and fast opinion. It’s nice. It allows you to think about things without the pressure of arriving at an answer—which let’s be honest, I am at the beginning of a long journey of inquiry, any opinions I have now are probably going to make me shudder in a few years. So imagine this as a dialogue (diablog? Sorry.) where I’m beginning to work things out. Where I will probably always be working things out. Papers, articles, someday monographs—there—Thespis willing!—will be the arguments.

(If you’d like to read an article on “The Virtues of Blogging as a Scholarly Activity” and how it fits into other “scholarly activities,” go here.)

Incidentally, isn’t the dialogue one of the wonderful freedoms playwrights get to enjoy—the opportunity to express and work out ideas through the voices of characters who may or may not reflect their own opinions. Ah, symmetry.

Anyway, so I’m doing that. But what else am I doing?

When I was thinking about titles for this blog I came up with some terrible ideas. Really embarrassing stuff. Then, the inimitable TR, who has been working on directing a Hamlet had the idea of using this gem:

Hamlet: Speak the speech I pray you as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand thus, but use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. Oh, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb-shows and noise. I would have such a fellow whipped for o’erdoing Termagant — it out-Herods Herod. Pray you avoid it.

First Player: I warrant your honour.

Hamlet: Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.

Here, Hamlet is advocating that theater, well played, can illuminate how our society is shaped and constituted. So can scholarship. So can scholarship about theater.

Again with the symmetry!

Now, to my mind, these are perennially worthy and relevant goals. But I suppose to many these are not. This has come up a few times in my posts about arts education and arts advocacy. Why study something that will not directly  lead to tangible and immediate job skills?

It came up in January in the Chronicle of Higher Education when “Jody Olson” (a pseudonym) maintained that the doctorate in theater should be eliminated. Read it here.

He laments that theater education has become so practice based that MFAs and those teaching the “practical” skills are edging out candidates with PhDs, leaving the market over saturated. Therefore the only ethical thing to do is for departments to quit producing theater PhDs.

I’m sorry, but this is ridiculous. Educational utilitarianism hath made me mad! The answer is not to eliminate a field of study (so there will be fewer disappointed PhDs)—the answer is to push the boundaries, do it better, assert its relevance through excellence in scholarly practice. Show the world its form and pressure! Says the girl only just beginning.

Richard Schechner kind of thinks so too (Thanks to Hannah Smith Manziano for sharing). He writes in TDR:

Hold on. Is theatre only practice? Is there no room for scholarship? History, critical studies, dramaturgy, analyses of drama… Are they all to be eliminated? Are they irrelevant for practitioners? And since when has theatre exited from the humanities—as a “general” subject that everyone should know about? Who would teach theatre, not as practice but as part of a well-rounded education, if not professors-cum-PhDs?

But then he goes on to argue that maybe theater PhDs are less relevant, and that they should all become Performance PhDs. Oh NYU, you monolith.

Read that here.

Now I think he’s right that studying “performance” can encompass a much broader and shifting range of possible areas of inquiry and can perhaps provide greater flexibility in terms of study and perceived relevance. But someone’s got to look at theater proper, even if you want to categorize it within a larger rubric. It has been a long-standing practice across eras and cultures, and will continue to be so. It is engaged in an inquiry into the human experience, so we must be engaged in an evolving and vibrant inquiry into it. So no, let’s not get rid of the theater PhD.

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