These essays, derived from classroom talks, are not scholarly publications with footnotes and all sources dutifully acknowledged. They are meant as discussions that should be friendly to students of drama interested in dramatic texts. However, they draw upon scholarship and previous interpretations and I try to make my arguments persuasive with evidence from the plays themselves. The pieces are “ text-oriented’, with the emphasis on the cultural and ideological circumstances out of which drama arises: how drama carries a ‘Supertext’ of cultural implication that a text draws upon, that illuminates it and to which it contributes in turn. Theater and Drama have generated a rapidly and ever expanding international literature; of documentation, fiercely competing movements and ideologies, technical innovations and experimentation beyond the scope of this site but available to the diligent reader on the internet. This last fact relieves me of the dismaying need to cover all or most ot it and, instead, to present a selection of plays I demonstrate as interesting in themselves and significant for the art form.
The essays derive from a Survey of Drama Course I taught at Carnegie Mellon University between 1987 and 2007 and are divided into four sections, following the format of my classes on dramatic literature at Carnegie Mellon University from 1986 to 2006.
- Greek (Athenian) Drama
- European Drama (Medieval to Spanish Golden Age)
- European Drama (Neoclassical to Romantic)
- Modern Drama – (Ibsen to 20th Century; Modern Arab Drama)
Apart from the essays on Arab drama, this is a traditional and 'Western' survey. There are other areas of important world drama - African-American, Native American, Arab-American, African, Asian and non-Arab Middle Eastern theatre; and Feminist, Gay, and various alternative theatres. Others are more competent to speak on them, have more interesting things to say and say them with better authority than I can offer. None is beyond my range of interest; only beyond my expertise. The commercial, academic and institutionalized theatre readers most likely will experience, predominantly reflects western forms and practices that emerged from long tradition. Powerful, alternative dramatic traditions have inspired experimental dramatists of the modern theatre but at present they occupy the margins of modern cultural consciousness. This always is subject to change.
Past forms of dramatic art remind us what the art form has been capable of. This can be dismissed as museum theatre out of touch with the cultural currents of the present, along with other anachronisms like earlier classical music. As a 'committed Ibsenist' I believe maintaining cultural memory is humanty's safeguard against becoming a one-dimensional species losing a sense of its identity and vulnerable to the manipulations of the dominant ideologies - or slogans - of the age. When we recognize how complexly and creatively human consciousness can express itself we are critically armed against on the one side, ideologies that want to restrict expression of our full humanity and, on the other, crassly commercial interests that work to debase it.
Samuel Beckett claimed his art was not about ‘truth’ but about precision. I would add the best art seeks, not truth, but adequacy, for which precision would be essential. Art, such as drama, is at least as important a cultural game as sport. Our culture insists that sport devises for its games stringent rules that need to be obeyed. The best art, too, is "in love with what is difficult" and sets itself rules that insist on its best efforts. The different conditions of difficulty are part of the great interest in studying earlier artworks: in seeing what were the rules the artists set and how adequately and rigorously they ‘pushed’ these to the most impressive performance. The public, generally, treats sport far more seriously than art. It will vehemently protest if it sees essential rules broken and will show contempt for inadequate performance. We need to insist art is as important as sport and, if the rules are understood, as exciting and admirable as a well-played football match or game of chess. Innovation is the artist setting challenging new difficulties and problems to solve. For this reason this site does not describe what the dramas are ‘saying’, but, like painting or music, what they are ‘doing’ – how a play organizes its elements into compelling aesthetic experience. Expanding our aesthetic consciousness by reconfiiguring emotion and intellect into new perceptions, is the great gift of art. It can't teach us how to live, only to see better.