September 08, 2003

But Soft!/What Light Through Yonder Window Breaks?/It Is the East, and Juliet Is the Sun!

It's gotten to the point that whenever I go to hear one of the Berkeley humanities faculty talk, more likely than not I wind up frustrated: it's as though their eyes have been blindfolded and their ears plugged up by their disciplinary training, and they concentrate on small and boring but approved facets of their topic, while enormously exciting things lie ignored all about them.

For example, today I heard Bill Worthen from our Theatre Department talk about printing plays--how Harold Pinter wants his printed plays to have lots of white space on the page, how George Bernard Shaw wanted his plays to look as novel-like as possible (and also to be vaguely reminiscent of early printers like Caxton), how (until the first folio) it was not worth putting the fact that the plays were written by Wm. Shaxpur on the cover, and how people laughed at Ben Jonson when he included plays among his "works."

But from my perspective, he missed all the big and interesting issues, which all revolve around just what we are doing when we read a play. And why and under what circumstances do we decide to read (rather than watch) a play?

Two nights ago Ann Marie and I were looking at my copy of the Riverside Shakespeare--a true behemoth of a book, mine because I was fortunate enough to get A's in all of my courses my first semester at college. After she put it down, I picked it up to reread the first scenes between Romeo and Juliet. And when I read the words to be spoken by Romeo, what I see in my mind's eye is not the passage on the printed page but the passage as it was acted. (Actually, what I see is the passage as acted in Shakespeare in Love by Gwyneth Paltrow, who makes one kick-ass Romeo, but that's a more complicated story). The "play" overwhelms the "print"--is much, much more real and memorable--and this is true for me even for heavily-writerly playwrights like George Bernard Shaw. The text serves much more as an aide-memoire, as a jog to my visual and auditory memory, than as the equivalent of a novel. And the same thing happens to novels. For me, for the rest of my life, in Pride and Prejudice Colin Firth is Fitzwilliam Darcy.

It is these sorts of issues that seem to me to be most interesting things about the relationship between the acted play and the printed play (and the video-recorded play at all, whether it observes theatrical or cinematic conventions). Yet Bill Worthen did not talk about these kinds of issues at all. We heard, instead, about how as post-moderns we have no choice but to read white space not as the absence but as the presence of meaning, and about how there are modern plays pieces of which cannot be acted because there is no theatrical idiom to re-present what is written in the play text.

Posted by DeLong at September 8, 2003 04:16 PM | TrackBack

Comments

You might ask a humanities faculty member if that's not exactly the same general thing they think when listening to an economics professor.

Posted by: Silbey on September 8, 2003 05:21 PM

I wouldn't be surprised if it is...

:-)

Posted by: Brad DeLong on September 8, 2003 05:30 PM

The problem is they have already had that conversation many years ago. If you have to say something new about something that has been discussed for lots of years, what is the probability that it will be interesting.

Posted by: Josh Halpern on September 8, 2003 07:13 PM

Brad, you might just as well ask why the wind blows, or why Poon & Granger's meta-study of financial volatility studies in the current JEL doesn't come up with a better GARCH variant instead. People research what interests them, and (Paul's Theorem) the deeper they get into their own literature, whether it's economics or literature, the less likely it is they will research anything that interests an objective observer.

And on the "crowding out" effect of film when you revisit the printed word ... you're on Jerry Mander's ground with that one. Wasn't that one of the four reasons he thought that televisions should be banned: they replace our subjective images we imagine from literature with the narrow confines of how TV interprets same.

Posted by: Paul K on September 8, 2003 07:37 PM

Brad, you might just as well ask why the wind blows, or why Poon & Granger's meta-study of financial volatility studies in the current JEL doesn't come up with a better GARCH variant instead. People research what interests them, and (Paul's Theorem) the deeper they get into their own literature, whether it's economics or literature, the less likely it is they will research anything that interests an objective observer.

And on the "crowding out" effect of film when you revisit the printed word ... you're on Jerry Mander's ground with that one. Wasn't that one of the four reasons he thought that televisions should be banned: they replace our subjective images we imagine from literature with the narrow confines of how TV interprets same.

Posted by: Paul K on September 8, 2003 07:39 PM

Josh is on the ball, here. There are all sorts of theories of play-text reading: some based upon historical research (who exactly bought Shakespeare's quartos? who bought the folios? what did they want them for?) and some with a more ahistorical -- or at least, unashamedly modern -- view, analysing the way in which play-texts are used by playwrights to exert control of the text.

The basic response to Brad's initial point is a simple one: from what we know, Shakespeare had no real interest in what his plays looked like on the page, whereas Ben Jonson was an anally-retentive editor. But there are very good books on the history of 'reading Shakespeare': the creation of Shakespeare as a 'national poet', to be read from the page, even as his plays were adapted and edited till they bled to make them suit the tastes of each generation of audiences. And there are usually debates in the mandatory Shakespeare course in any decent EngLit syllabus around just what we're doing when we *read* Shakespeare, as opposed to seeing the plays in performance: such as whether it imposes notions of canonicity and textual integrity -- something that the Oxford Shakespeare has tried to challenge, emphasising the variant texts not as 'errant' but as a demonstration of plays evolving through performance.

Also, more people these days *read* plays than *see* them. Modern playwrights accept this, and have accepted it more and more since the days of the first closet dramas. Beckett, for instance, while an assiduous and regimental director, wrote many plays that are basically never performed, leaving us with with a text-space instead of a stage. (A staging-post, if you want to play with words.) And plays are strange, that way: a novel conjures up scenery and lures the imagination into filling in gaps, while plays are much sparser, much more of a challenge when viewed on the page.

What I suspect, though, is that an academic from the Theatre Department doesn't want to admit that no-one goes to see plays these days...

I should say, though, that the Oxford English undergraduate course has moved on in leaps and bounds to embrace film and television as not just extensions of stage performance but new media of literary transmission. It's still a slow trek: while Peter Conrad's course on Shakespeare in film (Welles' Othello, Olivier's Henry V etc.) was a welcome addition, it's still hard for someone who wants to study, say, Dennis Potter's television dramas -- as worthy as Pinter's stage plays, I'd say -- within the Oxford framework.

Posted by: nick sweeney on September 8, 2003 08:06 PM

And Brad, it's worse than that, from the viewpoint of a non-economist. If I were at a gathering of economists, and didn't care what they thought of me, I'd point out that at a time that historians might well consider pivotal to a couple of decades of financial crisis in this country, they are playing with trivial model details.

Posted by: Barry on September 9, 2003 04:26 AM

I have almost the opposite reaction to Brad's; when I see a play on stage which I'm familiar with in print, part of me is always fighting with the actor for reading the lines differently than the voice which ran through my head when I was reading the play.

Nick, in what way does any given printed version of (say) 'King Lear' do more to "impos[e] notions of canonicity and textual integrity" than any given stage production? The Riverside edition, for example, allows you to read the different versions of the different texts almost in 'real time', whereas a live production pretty much has to make an exclusive choice of one version or another.

Posted by: Jeffrey Kramer on September 9, 2003 06:09 AM

You want humanities guys to stick to first-year issues. I remember being told by several graduate level econ instructors that all the good stuff is in the intro-text anyway. The first-year issues are the big ones, but as other posters have noted, they aren't the ones that occupy professorial types most of the time.

Posted by: K Harris on September 9, 2003 06:17 AM

"People research what interests them, and (Paul's Theorem) the deeper they get into their own literature, whether it's economics or literature, the less likely it is they will research anything that interests an objective observer."

Yes. Now think back to the post about how university tuition keeps going up and up in real terms.

Isn't it too bad the university system doesn't have some mechanism to focus professors on what interests their students, tuition-paying parents and other objective observers instead of themselves -- e.g., the play, instead of the typesetting of it?

Adam Smith in _WoN_ has some comments on university professors, the cost of 'em, and their responsiveness (or lack thereof) to students that could have been written yesterday.

Our data on the high returns to higher education is based on education received a generation ago when costs were much lower. It will be interesting to see if the returns have stayed up as the costs have gone up.

Posted by: Jim Glass on September 9, 2003 07:26 AM

Jim Glass: "Isn't it too bad the university system doesn't have some mechanism to focus professors on what interests their students, tuition-paying parents and other objective observers instead of themselves -- e.g., the play, instead of the typesetting of it?"
That's what happens in the classroom, the primary locus where students interact with professors. I think the classroom does a fairly good job of focusing on what interests students and parents, by the simple law of supply and demand: if your class looks boring, students don't enrol (and if it IS boring, they drop). But here, we're talking about research. That is governed to a certain extent by objective observers, who determine your tenure and your pay raises based on what you speak about and publish.
I call this the stage/page dichotomoy, and it's central to teaching theatre. Many things on the page vanish onstage: this is explicit with Beckett and Ionesco. For instance, the first words of "En attendant Godot" are "Paysage avec arbre." Now the whole play walks a tightrope between realism and the absurd. So, from the first line, you have a question: what is that tree going to look like?
I find this question interesting.

Posted by: John Isbell on September 9, 2003 08:15 AM

But then, there is reading aloud. The storyteller is allowed the luxury of performance with none of the burden of creating the story. Reading aloud from Shakespeare's texts for a small audience is different from reading it silently to oneself. And harder -- I suppose one should start with "Goodnight Moon" and like texts and work one's way up...

But reading aloud was, for a long time, a fine part of our culture. Bible verse and tales, naturally. The Declaration of Independence was, if not written specifically to be read aloud, near enough so. Newspapers of the 19th century REGULARLY aided the orator by emphasizing, in upper case or boldface text, the IMPORTANT IDEAS within the story. Dickens or Twain's novels generated as much profit to their authors as publically read aloud to massive live audiences as ever they did in print.

NPR still runs "Selected Shorts" in which fine actors read fine fiction, aloud. Just heard a spooky Jane Yolen ghost story told over that radio venue last Sunday.

I think I had a point when I started this post but I've forgotten it now...

Posted by: Pouncer on September 9, 2003 08:32 AM

I've long wondered whether the German-research-university model that we in America have adopted is appropriate for the humanities. To me, the idea that a humanities professor has to have gotten a PhD through "original research" is very questionable.

The demand for originality in these fields, where few things are really verifiable (falsifiable I guess is the better Popperian term) leads to all sorts of craziness. Is there really all that much new to say about Shakespeare or Milton? And then to admit only people who claim to have found something new and original to say into the academy is bound to produce a bizarre culture in these departments.

Posted by: Curt Wilson on September 9, 2003 12:35 PM

"I think the classroom does a fairly good job of focusing on what interests students and parents, by the simple law of supply and demand: if your class looks boring, students don't enrol (and if it IS boring, they drop)."

And the supply and demand effect works on professors how? If students don't react favorably is their tenure lost, are their salaries reduced?

One of the well documented causes of cost increases in universities is the large number of near autonomous fiefdoms operating in areas of little interest where faculty pulls full compensation for teaching few or next to nobody.

BTW, Smith discussed this explicitly in WoN -- how professors who were paid by the actual number of students they had (like him) were much more attentive and responsive to students, and thus better teachers, than those who had chairs and guaranteed incomes from the university and who had no comparable incentive to care for students' concerns.

From my experience as student, teacher, and parent, things haven't changed a bit. What Smith wrote in 1776 could have been written today.

Posted by: Jim Glass on September 10, 2003 10:23 AM

And how do you feel about theology classes based on Buffy the Vampire Slayer? that is, the current limit of being responsive to students. The students may regret it later, but never mind that.

Perhaps tenure should be granted based on what proportion of a professor's ex-students' incomes are returned to the university.

I think the relation between page layout and drama is quite interesting. It comes up at Distributed Proofreading ( http://www.pgdp.net ) as a problem with obvious effects on readers.

Posted by: clew on September 10, 2003 01:09 PM
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