The politics of syllabi

For one of my first assignments, in a class that feels generally like a bit of a baptism by fire, I am to make a syllabus for a survey course in theatre history. Our professor emphasized repeatedly that it was to be a history not a literature course, though we are allowed to include one play per class. We are to accompany our list of assignments with 3-4 pages articulating and justifying our choices. At first I thought how much fun it would be—I love telling people what to read!—and making the initial list of plays and topics was, but as I’ve been curating this list I am finding it to be rather challenging and intensely political.

When you start asking what is the information folks should generally know so as to constitute a base knowledge of the history of theatre and you have 14 or 15 weeks (if you are generous) things get really tricky. Trickier than if it were a more specialized or thematically focused class, I think.

The fact that it is a history rather than a literature class also adds to the challenge, especially if you would like to think globally and inclusively. With literature you could take a comparative approach and a little fragmentation in the narrative would be fine because you could still employ a thematic coherence. But teaching history traditionally emphasizes change over time…it frequently involves some kind of narrative or logical progression/awareness of evolution. From my time as a student and in most of the text books I’ve looked at, there seems to be an agreed upon trajectory of theatre history—a predominantly western emphasis on how the European and American traditions influence each other. From this historians have constructed a more or less linear seeming history. They’ll throw in a play from Asia or Africa (often weakly tacked on at the end of the book), but that usually feels pretty cursory; the thrust of the narrative remains the western tradition. So it begs the question:  is there a way to really look at theatre history globally—especially in a pre-globalized era when the various traditions might not be affecting each other? And at what cost to the historical narrative? What is the value of narrative in a study of history? Should we favor breadth and fragmentation over what seems like logical evolution and an emphasis of change over time?

Also, I should probably select plays that are “historically” significant, no? But according to whom? Often the most impactful plays are those with the loudest voice, so to speak, and those tend to be the plays of our dead white men. But can I really justify leaving out some of the canonical plays in favor of something that might be lesser known and therefore have had potentially less of a tangible impact on the course of theatre history?  Can I get away with structuring it thematically rather chronologically? Do I have to force my students to study restoration comedy or medieval drama?

All of that is to say: this has been a challenge, and I’m nowhere near done.

I’ve tried to come up with some guiding questions in the hopes that these will help me with my selections. Tell me what you think of these, reader(s):

  • What is theatre? How does our conception of theatre and its role in society change/differ across times and cultures?
  • How is theatre made? How does this process change/differ across times and cultures?
  • What is theatre’s role/status/function in society?
  • What does a study of theatre reveal about our conception of humanity and the identity of the individual? What can it tell us about the individual’s relationship to state, class, and/or society generally? How does this differ across cultures and how does this evolve over time?
  • Does theatre have a role beyond the aesthetic? Is it ritual? Is it activism? Is it dissent? Is it education? How is theatre most impactful? Should it be?

Sorry if this feels like I’m using you, reader(s) to brainstorm my homework. It feels that way because I am. But I am curious what you think! Any other questions I should be asking? What plays do you consider crucial in a study of theatre? This is the perfect time to comment…

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