The English Department at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) is offering a summer institute for English language arts teachers on “Teaching Drama (without Fear).” The four-day institute provides 20 hours of professional development, covers a wide range of topics, and is taught by TCNJ faculty.
Day 4: American One Acts/Theater as Public Ritual
July 13, 2017
facilitated by Prof. Lincoln Konkle
The morning workshop focuses on the conventions of the one-act play, a theatrical form that can be less intimidating for teachers and students to read, compose, and to stage than full-length plays or musicals, but no less rich and rewarding to study. The quintessential one-act play is Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story—at least as the form was practiced in the early days of the Off-Broadway movement in the late 1950s through the 1960s. All that is needed to perform The Zoo Story is a bench, a book, a rubber knife, and two actors. While it may remind participants of the Greek agon studied earlier in the week, this deceptively simple play packs a wallop both emotionally and intellectually for its dramatization of one man’s attempt to communicate through the alienation of modern life, and for its reflection on American society, all on a sunny Sunday in Central Park.
The morning session also illustrates the full range of theatrical styles possible even in the one-act form. To represent phase one of Modern Drama—the revolt against romanticism and melodrama of the early 19th century—participants discuss Susan Glaspell’s Trifles, a widely anthologized one-act play written to be performed in realistic style. It contrasts with Albee’s play in its more extensive set and prop requirements, its period costumes, and its much lower key action and dialogue, though based on a real-life turn-of-the-century Iowa murder of a farmer by his wife that occurs before the start of the play. Trifles is also a pre-19th amendment commentary on the gender roles of early twentieth-century America. (Participants may be more familiar with the short story version, also by Glaspell, “A Jury of Her Peers.”)
In diametric contrast to the realism of Trifles is Thornton Wilder’s cosmic one act Pullman Car Hiawatha. This is one of three short nonrealistic plays Wilder experimented with before writing his masterpiece Our Town, which is one of the more famous examples of phase two of Modern Drama: the revolt against realism. Like the more famous full-length play, Pullman Car Hiawatha employs a “Stage Manager” who breaks the “fourth wall” and addresses the audience directly about the characters, actions, and philosophical implications of all that occurs. The play dramatizes a journey from New York to Chicago, using only chairs and chalk markings on the stage floor to represent a passenger train. The characters who ride on the train form a microcosm of American society, but other characters are pure theatrical fancy: a ghost of a German immigrant who died while constructing the bridge over which the train passes, a field in Ohio, two archangels, the weather, and the planets. This short play contains the universe, demonstrating that the only limitation to theater is the imaginations of the playwright and the audience.
The principal goals of the morning workshop will be for participants to understand better
- the one-act play for its simplicity of form and potential for complexity of social and philosophical commentary
- the requirements of stage realism
- the possibilities of theatricalism, expressionism, Epic Theatre, or other nonrealistic approaches to playwriting and production
The afternoon session briefly reviews the origins of theater as religious ritual both in ancient Greece and again in Medieval Europe, and how more secularized subject matter and realistic theatrical style evolved from ritual, though literal public ritual survives to the present day in the form of national and religious holiday celebration (e.g., Thanksgiving Day parades, Christmas and Easter pageants). We next turn our attention to cultural anthropologist Victor Turner’s theory of how theater as ritual functions as a critique of current societal structure against a community’s deeper values. After hearing about a few historical examples of plays that sparked or reflected social upheaval, the workshop participants explore in small groups an American one-act play that responded to the distress of the Great Depression in a series of vignettes framed by a union meeting that erupts into a strike: Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty (often cited as an example of “agitprop”). Modeling a technique participants can employ with their own students, each group a) analyzes one vignette for its commentary on 1930s American society and the core American values at issue, and b) proposes a vignette idea to form part of the workshop participants’ choice of contemporary American issue or crisis.
The principal goals of the afternoon workshop will be for participants to understand better
- theater’s origin in religious ritual
- theater’s communal function of social critique
- a classroom group exercise applying the lesson of theater as public ritual
Texts: The Zoo Story by Edward Albee, Trifles by Susan Glaspell, Pullman Car Hiawatha by Thornton Wilder, Waiting for Lefty (provided).
Lincoln Konkle (facilitator on Day 4)
Having earned bachelor’s (Indiana University), master’s (Kansas State University) and doctoral (University of Wisconsin-Madison) degrees in English, Lincoln Konkle is Professor of English at The College of New Jersey where he teaches courses in dramatic literature: World Drama, Modern European Drama, American Drama, and upper-level seminars on the playwrights he has published on and other drama/theater-related topics. He has published articles in scholarly journals and books on Thornton Wilder, Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, and others. He is the author of Thornton Wilder and The Puritan Narrative Tradition (University of Missouri Press, 2006) and co-editor of Thornton Wilder: New Perspectives (Northwestern University Press, 2013) with Jackson R. Bryer, and co-editor of Stephen Vincent Benet: Essays on His Life and Work (McFarland, 2003) with David Garrett Izzo. He serves on the Boards of the Edward Albee Society and the Thornton Wilder Society.