- This One Is for the Groundlings
It was midsummer, but the sweat on my brow was not from the Florida heat. My Introduction to Drama class scheduled for the fall had very low enrollment. In fact, it might have brought new meaning to Michael Bérubé's "teaching to the six" (2002). So, as I checked the roster daily, I wondered why so few wanted to be introduced to drama. Why was it not popular? For many students, such a class might have been seen only as a layover in their academic careers, situated in some boring, rural airport, where they hoped to pass the time either sleeping or browsing Facebook. But drama is no such airport, regardless of what flashy city their final destination may be. [End Page 404]
Then the class made, and as I prepared my syllabus, I reflected on Walter Eggers's article "Teaching Drama: A Manifesto," in which he argues that "there is now no more popular form of literature worldwide" (2007: 271). While I, a specialist in medieval and early modern drama, adamantly agreed, I thought perhaps my students would be a harder sell. Drama has often been cast as either passé or for the culturally elite; however, historically, drama has been extremely popular—going to a Shakespeare play was like going to see the latest Coen brothers film—and it continues to be so today, just in forms that differ slightly from the stage. Its fundamental elements pervade our radio programs, movies, and television shows, and its literary history permeates our pop culture. Thus, all students encounter drama; they should enjoy studying it as well. Eggers, too, stresses the genre's popularity as an asset, but his precepts and prophecies, while provocative, give little practical advice for an Introduction to Drama course.
So, in this article, I hope to offer some pragmatic suggestions for "popularizing" drama in the undergraduate classroom. To be popular does not necessarily mean unacademic, and rather than rely on the binary of low and high art, my methodology seeks to show how the various elements present in drama exist symbiotically with other forms of modern entertainment.
First, since the formal elements of drama are sometimes stumbling blocks for students new to the genre, I used contemporary examples to elucidate them:
• To define an aside, I pointed out its modern use in reality television shows, such as Survivor, and even in faux reality shows, such as The Office.
• A similar correlation exists between the deus ex machina technique and certain crime shows, such as CSI ("Well, it appears our killer bought one of only three shirts made with real orangutan hair. His address is . . . ").
• I covered Shakespeare's puns and sexual innuendos, like Hamlet's "country matters," with clips from Austin Powers. The comparison of the two texts fostered a lively discussion on the mixture of tragedy and comedy in early modern plays versus contemporary works.
• For the clue dropping, hidden backstory, and flashbacks used in A Doll's House and Death of a Salesman, I noted their occurrence in modern suspense drama, such as Flashpoint, Cold Case, and CSI. The class also dialogued about whether the content revealed through these devices is to be trusted, in both the plays and modern television.
• To expound John Dryden's "Preface to Troilus and Cressida," I asked students to pick a modern movie that observes the Unities. One student pointed out that The Breakfast Club adhered well. [End Page 405]
But more than the formal elements of drama persist in our contemporary media. The human experience often has been, and still is, expressed through a recurring set of themes, characters, and plots. So, I used modern examples of these dramatic strands to unpack the plays we studied:
• I connected the popularity of Oedipus with Star Wars and Batman, noting that Sophocles' play was not performed in isolation but rather existed in at least three trilogies but likely more; its classical audience was already familiar with the Oedipus's story of incest and murder, just as audiences today are familiar with Batman or Luke Skywalker (another story of incest and murder) before seeing the latest release.
• To introduce the...