Reading in Genre: Political Theater

English 184S.01

TuTh 10:05AM - 11:20AM
Corina Stan

"Don't discuss state affairs," warn official notices in Lao She's Teahouse; and yet, since the time of Sophocles and Aristophanes to the contemporary age, playwrights have capitalized on enduring affinities between politics and the theater. Are such plays gestures of defiance or expressions of political commitment? This course offers both an introduction to the dramatic genre, and a deeper familiarization with some of the major political events that shaped the course of the past century. Our interest in the historical context of the rise of Nazism, the cultural revolution in China, apartheid in South Africa, dictatorship in Chile and Romania, the legacies of slavery, experiences like incarceration and trauma, or the psychological intricacies of powerful obsessions, will be on equal footing with an examination of the plays in their generic specificity. We will trace influences among various playwrights and map out some of the genre’s forms, such as Greek tragedy, Old Comedy, epic theater, the theater of the absurd, the theater of cruelty, “post-dramatic” theater.

The first part of the course is dedicated to some of the founders of the genre: our list will include Sophocles, Antigone (442 BC), the famous Greek tragedy about rebellion, honor, and fidelity that inspired so many writers in later centuries; Aristophanes, The Wasps (422 BC), the most representative of the Old Comedy genre, widely believed to remain one of the greatest comedies of all times; for good measure, the unavoidable Julius Caesar (1599) by William Shakespeare.

Shifting our attention to the past century, we will read a gangster play by Bertolt Brecht, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1941), an allegory of the rise of Nazism that also sheds light on the Chicago gangster wars during the Prohibition era (1920-1933); Lao She's masterful Teahouse (1956), chronicling major shifts in Chinese history (1898, 1917, 1945); Jean Genet’s masterpiece The Balcony (1957), set in a brothel, possibly about the French revolution; Athol Fugard, The Island (1973), an apartheid-period play set in an unnamed prison in South Africa, where two cellmates rehearse a performance of Sophocles’s Antigone, in which play they see parallels to the situation of black political prisoners; Ariel Dorfman, Death and the Maiden (1990), about national reconciliation following Chile’s military dictatorship; Caryl Churchill, Mad Forest (1990), based on improvisations around the Romanian 1989 revolution. We'll conclude with analyses of two American plays: George Wolfe’s The Colored Museum (1988), a highly humorous satire about Afro-American history, which invites us to buckle up our shackles on the Celebrity Slaveship, and refrain from drumming and singing; finally, Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-winning play Disgraced (2013), a combustible exploration of race and religion, freedom of speech and political correctness, questions about art, Islam, Judaism, and the state of humanity today.