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Study of a Literary Genre: What Is a Play? Drama on Stage and Page

ENGL 103.601
instructor(s):
fulfills requirements:
Sector 6: 20th Century Literature of the Standard Major

It has often been said of William Shakespeare that he wrote his plays with spectators in mind, investing little energy in transforming the scripts he wrote for the stage into reading matter. In equal measure, his fellow playwright Ben Jonson has been labeled a man of the book, expending much effort on giving his plays a second life on the page. Whether they liked it or not, Shakespeare, Jonson, and many other dramatists of their day saw their plays performed for audiences and printed for readers. Since these early days of print, drama has developed both on stage and off—as performance art and as literature. This course will take as its starting point the rich debates in seventeenth-century England over the aesthetic, economic, and political value of seeing a play staged at the theatre versus reading it in a book. Is play-reading an inferior substitute for seeing a play performed in the theatre? Or does it offer a different—and perhaps more enjoyable—experience? What does it mean for our ideas about drama today that we tend to “see” plays primarily in heavily annotated scholarly editions? To answer these questions, we will consider a range of plays first on the page and then in recordings of stage performances and/or film adaptations. We will think broadly and theoretically about play-reading and play-going as distinct modes of encountering drama, paying particular attention to the work of book design and stagecraft in managing our attention and capturing our imagination. Plays on the syllabus might include Hamlet (Shakespeare), Volpone (Jonson), Doctor Faustus (Christopher Marlowe), Arcadia (Tom Stoppard), Cloud Nine (Caryl Churchill), The History Boys (Alan Bennett), and Clybourne Park (Bruce Norris), the last of which we will see staged by the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia.