Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Teaching (Not Preaching) Masterworks in Drama

Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Teaching (Not Preaching) Masterworks in Drama

Article excerpt


Instructors of dramatic literature face significant challenges to teaching undergraduates, caught between the established canon of university curriculum and ongoing field challenges to the same. The following article describes how a dramatic literature class at a mid-sized private university stimulates critical engagement through a syllabus structured on thematic usefulness and collaborative group projects using performance as an analytical medium. Students receive the benefits of canon-based learning--a shared vocabulary and knowledge base--without promoting an unquestioning belief in "great texts."


The problem of the canon has been an active part of field-wide conversation in Theatre Studies for almost three decades. Sue Ellen Case, in her seminal Feminism and Theatre, highlights the ways that works by women and minorities have been systematically excluded from consideration as masterworks. In the article "Disputing the Canon of American Dramatic 'Literature'," Ronald Tavel, founder of Theatre of the Ridiculous, criticizes the "academy game" of vetting plays as masterworks:

   the unspoken here is that there actually are a comfortable dozen
   American playwrights meriting university scrutiny, all of them
   great commercial successes, not to say household words, sanctioned
   by the democratic aggregate and therefore guaranteed inline,
   pre-laundered, and accessible [...] and a consensual breakdown of
   what they are about or ever will be is readily available in
   libraries. (23)

Theatre historian Juan Villegas has written: "Although traditional views imply that the selection is based on 'aesthetic values' and the 'universality' of the individual texts, today it is being pointed out that the selection is determined by socio-historical and cultural factors" (4). Addressing the way that the canon can bifurcate in circumstances where different camps promote differing criteria for consideration, Robert Markley references Restoration drama to demonstrate that the field divides works into one collection that emphasizes efficacy of production and another "deemed to have significant literary value even though they have rarely been produced since 1700" (227). These writers all voice the very rational concern that a play's merit cannot be determined solely by one small group of people any more than it can by its relative commercial success. Neither should the same elite group be allowed to monitor or mediate the interpreted meaning of such works, at least not without acknowledging the right of future readers to challenge their ideas.

The discussion has significant consequences for academics tasked with teaching dramatic literature to university students. As Mark A. Eaton suggests, borrowing from Susan VanZanten Gallagher, college syllabi are often the places where the canon is shaped (307). I teach a spring course entitled "Masterworks of Drama," a class cross-listed with our university's popular Great Texts program (GTX). The program's stated purpose is to offer "a sustained curriculum in the greatest works of human intellectual and creative achievement which will be a profound asset in any profession or graduate study" (Great Texts Program par. 3) In defining the term "great text," professor Rob Miner borrows from the band XTC in calling them "a wisdom hotline from the dead back to the living" (qtd. par. 1). Miner goes on to describe the business of a great text as imparting "wisdom about the highest things, the weightiest matters that concern human beings" (par. 2). He expresses a belief that persists in university classrooms, despite the growing ambivalence manifested in academic scholarship. "Masterwork" is a vexed, if not antiquated, term in the vocabulary of the contemporary academic conversation, and certainly raises red flags for critical thinkers, the watchdogs of hegemony and ideology, and advocates of cultural studies and diversity. …

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