Friday, May 13, 2016

Absurdism & The 20th Century

What did you learn about 20th Century Europe?
I think reading these plays really drives home a lot of what we have learned about movements in visual art in the postwar era. The plot is not too important (only in general), the way that realistic representations of a subject were not too important in artistic movements like dadaism, cubism, and surrealism. The action of these plays, like the images of those paintings, evoke a feeling or idea rather than showing it in a conventional sense. Following the utter destruction of the two world wars, people in Europe were left fundamentally uncertain- of their values, their morality, and the core beliefs they held. This is represented strongly in these plays because no, they don't really make sense in a conventional sense, but the ideas they hold come through loud and clear. The 20th century was one marked by ideas and fear, and what better way to show this than a couple of guys waiting for a prophet that never comes and an unstoppable disease of people turning into soulless stampeding rhinoceroses?

The trajectory of the 8 texts and European intellectual history
From the first plays we read (Moliere) to the last (Beckett and Ionesco), the literature of theatre in Europe transitioned its focus more and more from entertainment with purpose to a reflection of life. Moliere's plays were not just entertainment for rich French people, but his rhyming couplets and larger-than-life characters service his audience's humor more so than his political purposes. This is similar to Beaumarchais. His plays take more of a stand on class, but the ridiculous schemes and games of the plot serve to entertain as much as they do to inform opinion. I felt that starting with our reading of Ibsen and Chekhov the focus shifted towards truly representing life and pushing an idea as the purpose of a play. A Doll's House spoke specifically to the power of women and did not feature any bells and whistles to keep the audience entertained, just a strong message and an engaging story. The Cherry Orchard went beyond this and presented the audience with an economically, socially, and gender-diverse cast of characters in a familiar situation and asked the audience to interpret it for themselves. I felt that the message of this play was not so set in stone, that one reader/viewer could interpret the message wholly different than another. By the time we reached the twentieth century, writers chose to reflect life in a way not as realistic as the nineteenth. They (Beckett and Ionesco) reflected the prevailing ideas of a time and took a stand on them without rooting their stories in actual reality. I think this idea even carried into plays at the time that didn't fall into the category of absurdism. Plays like All My Sons (which, yes, was American) present a story and characters which are not abstract in the slightest, but nonetheless are not *about* their plot, but rather their message. I would argue that All My Sons is not about a man suffering the repercussions of a choice he made years prior, but rather about the idea of moral relativism and how family impacts our conception of morality. In both absurdist and not absurdist plays, authors show the audience something that will force them to think critically about the world and about themselves, and this thinking takes precedence over what is literally happening onstage. Reading these eight plays has really helped ground my understanding of the time periods we studied, because I think the way playwrights see the world really reflects how everyone does.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Rhinoceros: Well, I Don't Know What I Expected

Having read Ionesco's one-act play The Chairs, I came into Rhinoceros with some confidence that I know what I was getting into. I knew that he dealt in theatre of the absurd, and that my reading of it would be highly different than someone else's, and theirs from someone else's and so on. As I got into Rhinoceros, I was surprised that unlike The Chairs, I quickly recognized his social commentary. Ionesco being a Romanian with Jewish heritage, his experiences in World War II and the Cold War informed his writing. The turning of the people of this town into Rhinos seems to parallel the conversion of seemingly regular and moral citizens to extremist ideologies like antisemitism during WWII and communism in the Cold War. I think this is the clearest symbolism in this play, but not (as is classic of Ionesco) all that is going on.
Ionesco's questioning and mockery of logic and reason fits right in with the artistic trends of the time. If any play could match a cubist painting, this is it. He abandons rationality, showing viewers something reminiscent of something they know- with realish people in a realish town speaking a language we should understand, but not in a way that is realistic. Through the character of the logician, Ionesco mocks the idea of logic itself, as the logician says things that while "logical", ar impossible, like that dogs are cats because they all have four legs. Ionesco believes that there is more to knowledge than logic, that some things are just true without needing to be rationalized with math or theory. Whenever the logician spoke, he seemed silly, while more illogical characters were much more sympathetic and realistic. Berenger, despite his drunkenness and quirks remains the human center of the play as everyone else turns into a mindless rhinoceros, and the housewife who is just really sad that her cat died is super relatable. Logic is a roadblock in this show, and regularly stops people from seeing the actual truth, a strong statement from Ionesco which demonstrates well the postwar attitude and uncertainty in Europe, even 10+ years later.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Chekhov/Ibsen Reflection

I really enjoyed reading these plays for third quarter. Especially since we had only read French playwrights up until this people, it was cool to read plays that reflected such a different point of view and experience than the ones we had read before. I read A Doll's House many years ago, and I really liked revisiting that and finding a deeper understanding of its themes and characters both because of what we have learned in Euro and just the experience and amount of knowledge that I have now that I'm not reading it as a middle schooler. I also really liked The Cherry Orchard because Chekhov is a writer I really admire and looking really deeply into the context of his plays and the rich/complex storylines he used was really interesting.
 
Both Brody and Hannah noted the differences between the endings of our 19th Century plays and the ones we had read before. They said that the others had all, regardless of what had come before, ended with everyone happily married, and how these shows ended with people facing loss, but not being "owned" as women often were at the time. These kinds of endings, I think, are more satisfying to the reader and make a stronger final statement about the themes of the play.

Talking to our group really helped me understand the complex web of characters and plots in The Cherry Orchard. As I was reading it, I could follow what was happening and had focused on a few story lines and motifs that I found significant, but I didn't pick up on everything. Everyone in the group read the play in a different way-some focusing on comedic elements, some dramatic, some the stories of the lower class characters, some the romantic stories, some the financial ones. Talking to the whole group was really valuable in helping me see everything that was going on and have a stronger appreciation for The Cherry Orchard.

The views of people who traditionally did not have power and the realism represented in these plays were highly indicative of their era. Both followed the romantic period, and therefore were very upfront about how they reflected life and what they aimed to say. They also both gave a voice to people who were slowly working their way up in society: Women in A Doll's House, and ex-serfs and servants in The Cherry Orchard. We learned a lot about the rise of the working class and a little bit about feminism in this time, and I like how these plays support these movements.

A Doll's House: Basically Shawshank

Something I found really interesting about Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House was it nonconformity to any genre. It wasn't full of weird happenings and jokes like a comedy, didn't have the somber tone of a tragedy, and didn't fit too clearly into any other genre. Many writers would have taken Nora Helmer's story- one of sacrificing convention and pleasure for the one she loves and in the end losing him as well- as a tragedy. A woman who despite her best efforts and cleanest conscience, could not end up happy with her husband. Ibsen takes a different viewpoint. To him, her tragedy is life with Torvald, and her salvation is her leaving.
Despite everything she knows she will have to cope with as a divorced/separated woman (socially and economically), Nora sees in her departure a sense of hope. Ibsen's writing makes her exit one which, if sad, is triumphant. She directly tells Torvald she does not love him anymore and needs to start her life over, and that that is okay. Torvald believes he is losing everything (i.e. his trophy wife), but the audience and readers see that she has finally found freedom and is taking control of her own future.
I found it so impeccable in A Doll's House that even though Nora lost contact with her children, her financial stability, her love, and her social status, she is not a tragic figure. She has won, in the end, because her independence and self-determination is greater than all of these things. It is Torvald who lost, because in his reaction to her confessing her loan, he lost Nora, who he never understood was not his to own.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Cherry Orchard: Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes 

Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard features a large ensemble of characters whose lives either are being completely changed, or already have been. At the center is Liubov Andraveena's family, a bourgeoisie landowning group who have found themselves out of money and gathered together in their country home for the first time in a while. This is a family who does not know how to be without money, unable to part with anything they have (despite the necessity to do so), and continuously spending lots of money on things like the party in act III. They also are faced with the difference between their present and their past, as many have not returned to their estate in years. Their antagonist, Lopakhin, is the son of a serf who now has the money to buy out his father's owner's estate. His life is extremely different from his father's, and he is faced with new opportunities. Coping with these changes, both personal and societal, proves a challenge for all of the characters, and dealing with history's repercussions is an issue spoken to at length by the permanent student Trofimov. In a century of upheaval (particularly in Russia, the setting of the play), it makes sense that Chekhov wrote on the difficulties of coming to terms with large changes. An interesting thing, though, was that no matter what changed for any given character, all of them were still very focused on money and property. Lopakhin has more that he was prepared for, while the family has less. Either way, all of them are primarily focused on wealth, indicative of the main focuses of the time (namely, who deserves wealth and how it should be earned). 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Marriage of Figaro: How Very Unclassy

While The Marriage of Figaro is filled with intertwining plots, plans, and characters, I found the real intrigue of the play to lie in its statements regarding the power systems in place at the time. From the very beginning, we can see that Figaro and Suzanne are the smartest and most cunning of the cast, as they repeatedly trick the Count. This is notable in the end of act 2 (which we watched in class in its opera form), when the audience sees Suzanne and Rosine hiding Cherubin from the Count, with Figaro eventually helping them. Here we see a noblewoman, a common man, and a common woman effectively trick and make a fool of a noble man, who is supposed to be the ruler of all of them (since Rosine is his wife and the other two are of a lower class). Even Cherubin, a commoner and only slightly older than a child aids in the tricking of the count. Through this scene alone, Beaumarchais is saying that the people in power at the time, the noblemen, a) are not the best and brightest of the people they rule, and therefore b) do not necessarily deserve the power they have.
Beaumarchais reiterates this point throughout the play, but most directly in Figaro's anti-class monologue in act 5. In his tirade, he denounces the power of the Count, saying that he is smarter and better than him despite his illegitimate birth. He says that the Count does not deserve the right to be with Suzanne, his beloved. This is significant because to Figaro, being with a noble is not a positive for Suzanne, even though it would come with considerable money and power. In effect, the nobility is worthless to the commoner, and undeserving of the powers it has. This point of view is radical for Beaumarchais' time, and his strong beliefs on the subject are what makes the play interesting to read. Overall, I did not really love this play for its plot or dialogue, but it was fascinating given its context.

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Barber of Seville: Cutting Hair and The Class System

Something I found interesting in The Barber of Seville was the interplay between the social classes. It makes a mockery of the assigned social classes, as the characters have to jump through hoops to seem as they should in society. Almaviva pretends to be Lindor in order to more discreetly woo Rosine. It is his class that causes him to make this choice, as it is unbecoming of a count to lust after a ward. Figaro also demonstrates Beaumarchais' view of social class. Figaro is a barber (relatively lower class), and yet he still is completely in the know about the goings-on of all of the other characters. He is effectively in control of the plot from beginning to end and is the titular character despite being socially "below" most of the others.
This criticism of the social order was perfectly in line with the ideas brewing in the eighteenth century. Enlightenment thinkers had been advocating for a more merit-based class system, with responsibilities decided by talent rather than birth. The French Revolution came to embody these ideas at the close of the century, as the people there overthrew the Old Regime and with it the division of people by estates. Both of these were larger forces than those present in Barber, but Beaumarchais' statements about the outdated nature of the social order are symptomatic of the larger ideas present in his time.