English R1B

Reading and Composition: Against the Theater

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
15 Fall 2020 Ogunniyi, Kevin
TTh 5-6:30

Book List

Aeschylus: The Eumenides; Beaumont, Francis: Knight of the Burning Pestle; Beckett, Samuel: Waiting for Godot; Euripides: Medea; Milton, John: Samson Agonistes; Racine, Jean: Phedre; Shakespeare, William: Coriolanus; Sidney, Philip: Defence of Poetry; Sophocles: Antigone

Other Readings and Media

(Potential) shorter readings (via PDF or course reader) from the Presocratics, Plato (Ion and The Republic), Virgil (Aeneid), Boethius (Consolation of Philosophy), Zhuangzi, Langland (Piers Plowman), Michel de Montaigne (Essays), Thomas Beccon (Displaying of the Popish Mass), The Marprelate Tracts, William Prynne (Histriomastix), Henry Fielding (Shamela), John Dryden (Mac Flecknoe), Jonathan Swift, Jeremy Collier (Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage), Lord Byron (Manfred), Lawrence Langer (Holocaust Testimonies).

Critical and theoretical readings from Kant, Jonas Barish (The Antitheatrical Prejudice), Friedrich Nietzsche (Birth of Tragedy), Martin Puchner (Stage Fright), and others.


What’s in a theatre? A stage, props, audiences, actors, devices— all sustained by a general acceptance that what happens on stage is not “real.” While the theatre’s composition has remained largely stable over time, the last few centuries have seen the emergence of a category called the “theatrical,” which both informs and derives from dramatic stagecraft. Not only plays but all human actions share in this quality. Alongside theatricality, a psychological resistance to the theatre and all that it represents has emerged—what Jonas Barish calls an innate “antitheatrical prejudice.” How has this so-called prejudice manifested? Does it drive toward the abolishment of all imposture, all theatre, all literature? Why have so many plays, alongside other “theatrical” works, seemingly sought to undermine the premises of the very illusion that sustains them? Can a work be antitheatrical without also being theatrical (and the reverse)? And is antitheatricalism really just a prejudice to be dismissed?

This class will survey the genealogy of “antitheatricality,” from antiquity to the twentieth century—considering both the historical trend of opposition to the theatre as an institution, largely on religious grounds, and the more general and pervasive suspicions of ‘inauthentic’ representational practices (e.g. dandyish dress, wearing make-up, writing garishly). Hostility to and suspicion of the theatre often arise at the margins of a given text—its paratext—and so might stand for the text’s internal tension or drive to contradict itself. Using the techniques of close reading and literary analysis, we will read plays that seem to reject different aspects of the stagecraft that sustains them, writings explicitly composed to attack the stage, and works that embrace and criticize different forms and practices of “inauthenticity.” Ultimately, we will consider whether the antitheatrical can be a positive (i.e. productive) aspect of a work of literature, or even of life. 

As an R1B, this course is aimed to give students experience in reading and in writing substantial research papers informed by secondary sources. The theme reflects the purpose. While works of invective against the theatre tend to have different evidentiary standards from academic research papers, the 'antitheatricalist's' literary methods and techniques for producing rhetorical copia—e.g. the use of commonplaces, subtle “They say/I say” gestures, the mutual (and theatrical!) substantiations of the argument and the one arguing—overlap with the scholar’s and might well spur good critical writing.

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