by Jordan Greenwald, Comparative Literature
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2014
GSIs of reading and composition courses in Comparative Literature will likely find that the “close reading” skills that we teach our students do not easily transfer from one literary genre to the next. A student who feels that he or she is starting to get a grip on what it means to tease out the subtleties and nuances of a novel may feel that he or she is back at square one when faced with a play as the object of literary analysis. It was in my first semester as a co-instructor for a Comp Lit R1B course (“Family Drama”) that I learned that this was the case.
As I began to lead discussion about Ibsen’s A Doll’s House after a few weeks of class discussion about novels, I noticed that students’ observations tended toward commentaries on particular lines of dialogue removed from their dramatic context. This made perfect sense, considering that, when teaching novels, one instructs students to focus on the language of a single passage or even just a sentence. This same strategy, when applied to a drama, however, doesn’t allow students to account for dramatic action, situational irony, subtext, questions of staging, and moments of ambiguity that, as any director will tell you, are the meat and potatoes of dramatic interpretation. In short, a lot happens “in between the lines” of a dramatic text, and I realized that I would need to communicate to students that the act of interpreting a play is, in a sense, also an act of staging it: many of the questions they might ask themselves about a play as fledgling literary critics would be identical to those that a director or dramaturg might ask.
I also came to realize that this lesson could not be learned through class discussion alone, since asking these questions while leading discussion is pedagogically less effective than getting students to ask those questions themselves. I therefore decided, with the encouragement of my co-instructor, to design a group assignment that would familiarize students with the choices one makes when bringing a dramatic text to life.
Students, in groups of four or five, were to create a ten-minute presentation in which each group presented a five-minute staged reading of a chosen scene, and a five- minute analysis of the scene. I provided students with some examples of questions they might consider, but in general the task of thinking about the significance of the scene and its execution was their own. Each group would have a “director,” who would present the analysis of the scene itself as well as of the group’s staging choices; a “dramaturg,” who would provide an analysis of the scene’s importance to the play as a whole; and two or three actors, who explained the scene’s significance for their characters as well as their characters’ motivations in the scene. Finally, each group was to produce a brief written summary of the insights offered in the presentation, along with anything else they learned or realized about the play by way of staging the chosen scene.
The results overall were excellent, not to mention highly entertaining. One group, for instance, researched the tarantella (a central aspect of a famous scene) and staged the dance so as to emphasize its status as a momento mori, a reminder of the inevitability of death — one of the less obvious themes of the play. Another group pointed out the ambiance of intimacy that the lighting of a sole lamp cast on a scene of disclosure. To reinforce the lesson about the creativity of the interpretive act, we later discussed some clips from an experimental production of the play, focusing on how directorial choices reflected interpretive ones. Finally, students’ dramatic close reading skills were re-evaluated in the final research paper, in which many of the students chose to write about either A Doll’s House or Who”s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, another play we studied in the course.