Wednesday, 5 October 2005

Carry On Head Puppet Theatre

This week is the toughest of the semester in terms of the material we're reading. I'm having a difficult time with it myself, and I hope the students don't just give up on it, though realistically some of them will.

I should have said what the plays are: Ben Jonson's The Alchemist, and The Roaring Girl by Middleton and Dekker.

For all sorts of reasons it's a very good thing to put comedies not by Shakespeare into a Shakespearean comedy course, but I'm a complete neophyte at reading these particular plays, (let alone helping a class explicate and understand them) and in order to even grasp what's being said and done, I've had to revert to a method of unfamiliar-language play-reading that I haven't used for years.

This is what I do: the plays are comedies (so I'm told) so I think of a TV or movie comedy troupe, one with a range of familiar and distinctive voices, and allocate parts. The troupe absolutely has to be English. Fawlty Towers is very good if the play doesn't have too many parts; so is The Young Ones; Monty Python work for some things but not others. Unfortunately Little Britain is terrible (I found this out yesterday). Best of all, especially for anything with satirical tendencies, is the Carry On gang. Heaps of voices spanning a very useful range from dirty old man to silly woman to ridiculously affected and mannered, but very little opportunity for reverting back Received Pronunciation which is always a temptation with English plays, and is a proven and total passion killer. I use Sid James & Kenneth Williams most, with lashings of Babs Windsor, and a large, foolish sort of man whose name I can't remember.

As I read, I imagine how each speech would sound with the designated actor saying it. It feels very artificial at first but after a bit the speech rhythms kick in, and the lines begin to make themselves 'heard' in a very alive and spontaneous way. It's like I'm not actually supplying the expressive vocal patterns, and that is strange. The emphases fall in places that make comprehension relatively easy and natural - and importantly, with The Alchemist, make it easier to pick out the places where the characters are deliberately talking obscurantist jargon. I guess it's a way of turning off the internal censor that would otherwise take pleasure in incessantly reminding you that you're very tentatively feeling your way here. I used to depend on this method a lot for reading Shakespeare, and I'd more or less forgotten that it's quite a fun thing to do. It's fun to be surprised and carried along by the way your own mind makes sense of a printed page.

It's still hard work, though. I'm afraid any comic spontaneity the play might exhibit has to be pretty damn sturdy to survive this process. I wonder if I should tell my students about this. They might be cross that I aren't much chop at the old Ben Jonson. Or they might just look at me silently.......


Ampersand Duck said...

I think you should not only tell them about this, but have some play-readings of that vein with them, especially if you take the tutorials yourself. Anything that can help students get through that era without giving up is a valuable strategy! Fun fuels learning, as you've just demonstrated!

I remember (in the deep dark mists of my Arts undergrad days) going to a lecture on Hamlet at the ANU, hoping for something fresh to jerk me out of the dry hours I'd spent reading it. Unfortunately the lecturer stood up and proceeded to read straight from the book he'd written on it, without adding anything new or inpromptu. We could have accepted droning from a written lecture, but the fact that he just held his book up in front of us and droned was too much, and we staged a mass walk-out. Over 200 students stood up and left. I met him a number of years later, and was't surprised to find that he remembered that incident and actually had fear in his eyes that I knew about it (I told him that I'd heard about it, not that I'd been there -- he was then my employer, unfortunately). That is not the way to teach Shakespeare!

Lucy Tartan said...

oh no! What a remarkable story. Don't know who to pity most, the lecturer or the students. I mean, it's obviously insulting to stand there & read from a book for crissakes, but golly, a mass walk-out. I'm shivering.

I will talk to the students about ways of tricking your brain into play-reading mode, but on deliberation, I don't want to do any class reading aloud. Partly because of taking on board recent comments in Curriculum threads at Larvatus Prodeo about the deadly tedium of sitting there in the classroom while somebody reads. It's too demanding with non-actors, too risky.

A couple of years ago, in an Austen subject with a really exceptional group, we had a reading of Lovers' Vows, the play that's acted in Mansfield Park. It was a scream! So much ranting and storming and fainting and weeping! The exception that proves the rule, I'm afraid.

Scrivener said...

I am a whole-hearted supporter of sharing with students ways to trick your brain into comprehending texts of any and all sorts. I will often talk to them about reading strategies and explicitly tell them when one is a useful way to trick yourself into recognizing you know more than you think you do or can do more than you thought you could. Those are really useful devices to pass along. Some of them will stare at you like you are speaking Martian, but that's their problem. Others, like those named "jkhwq," will find it valuable.

Ampersand Duck said...

Yeah, those Martians are a problem. They seem to be everywhere.