Cynthia Wall / English

Too often we read older literary texts in a sort of vacuum, as if they’re free-standing forms, independent of time and place, and we end up missing some of the richness of nuance and association that would have been available to contemporary readers. We have more interpretive possibilities if we understand how metaphors resonate within their own ordinary historical world. I try to rehydrate the power of words and images that have disappeared or become invisible to later generations. So in all my 300- and 400-level classes I have students research the cultural landscape of their literary texts: they give presentations on architecture, fashion, music, politics, transportation, food, parks, coffee houses, hermits, gardens, furniture–whatever helps us visualize what’s going on in the novel or play or poem, whatever clarifies the relation between the text and its world.

What I would love to do in a 400-level seminar on drama and the stage is to coordinate all that research towards a real production. I’m currently teaching a version of this course, and I have students who already have experience with lighting, sound, stage design, music, and script writing, or who simply love plays. I envision pairs of students researching the various aspects of the theatre in the Restoration and eighteenth century: its technical innovations in scenery and spectacle (it was not until the middle of the nineteenth century, with Ibsen, that set design became an interpretive act specific to a particular play, but by the late 18thC Philippe de Loutherbourg was making the idea of scenery central rather than peripheral to action and interpretation, and earlier still, they gloried in spectacular effects of light and sound, not to mention elephants on stage); its seating, with the audience spatially divided by class into pit, boxes, and galleries (though some privileged people could sit on the stage itself, at least until spikes were added to deter rioters); the permeable boundaries between actors and audience, with the audience often throwing out witty lines that were later incorporated into the printed text; the actors and acting styles (who were the famous actors, and what made them so popular? what were their gestures? how did they speak?); the costumes (how did the Restoration and eighteenth century represent, say, the classical past?); the music–of Purcell, Arne, Handel, Mozart. Our investigations would determine our production. We would put all this research together, adapting a play or an opera (or writing our own “in the style of”), building a model stage set with lights and scenery (the flats and wings), designing costumes (or collaborating with the Drama Department and borrowing some), setting things to music, and at the end of the semester, giving a performance–in propria persona or with puppets–in the English Department Faculty Lounge to any interested spectators. We would, in effect, reconstruct a world.