Christopher Grobe

Associate Professor, Amherst College

Courses Developed

English 104 - Engaging the Arts

SYLLABUS (2017) 

When writing about literature, performance, or indeed any form of art, you face a difficult task.  In order to share your perceptions with readers, you must first conjure the artwork for them using nothing but words.  The ancient Greeks had a name for this feat: ekphrasis, literally the “speaking out” of an experience or thing, the verbal description of a non-verbal work of art.

In this class, an introduction to literary study, performance analysis, and critical writing across the arts, we will study ekphrastic poems, prose, and plays in order to see how they conjure works of art.  We will then test our own ekphrastic powers, not only on these literary works themselves, but also on art we encounter near Amherst College.  Since this will require you to attend an assortment of performances (literary, musical, theatrical, and dance-based) and to visit museums, cinemas, and art galleries near campus, it will serve as your introduction to the wide range of cultural institutions in the area.

First-Year Seminar 121 - The World, Performed

SYLLABUS (2015) 

“Mere theater!” we might say dismissively of a political event.  “He just loves drama,” we might say about a friend behind his back.  “She’s such a diva!”  “He’s putting on a show!”  You get the idea.  Our language often implies that the world is a theatrical performance, and when it does we usually mean that it’s insubstantial or inflated or fake.

But seeing the world as performance can also be a powerful and empowering act.  In this course, we will chart the history of this Janus-faced concept in the West, from its ancient roots in the notion of the theatrum mundi  (the theater of the world) to the present-day understanding that gender, for instance, is “performed.”

We will attend performances and watch films; read dramatic, literary and theoretical texts on this theme; and discuss them together as a class.  You will also attend non-theatrical events in order to examine them "as performance."  In frequent writing assignments, you will learn how to bridge the gap between the Big Ideas of this course and particular texts or performances, but we will focus, not just on critical analysis, but also on the creative craft of essay-writing.  For instance, special attention will be paid to the way your writing might evoke a lost or absent performance for your reader.

English 230 - Introduction to Performance Theory


The term “performance” can refer to any of the stylized doings that define our world.  This, of course, includes the traditional performing arts, but it also encompasses religious rituals, public ceremonies, political protests, sports events, social media use, etc.  “Performance” can even describe the regimented behaviors that structure our everyday lives, whether we’re aware of them or not.

In this course, you will explore this full range of performance through readings, screenings, and attendance at live performances.  We will be guided in our approach by critical and theoretical texts in the interdisciplinary field of “performance studies.”  Guiding questions will include:  How is a performance different from a text?  How do we enact a shared reality?  How have the major forces shaping our world (e.g., race, gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity, nationality) been created and sustained through acts of performance?

English 231 - Reading Small Drama


How small can drama get while remaining “dramatic”? That’s the question at the heart of this introductory course in drama. Early in the twentieth century, it wasn’t unusual to see a stage filled with dozens of actors, but over the last seventy years these onstage crowds have thinned. Three-, two-, and one-person dramas are now just as common as twenty-person plays once were.

In this course, we study plays by writers who have found fresh inspiration within these tightening constraints. Using a small number of performers, they nonetheless find ways to explore massive social issues, draw out deep psychological truths, and test the limits of theatrical representation. As experiments at the lower limits of theater-making, these “small dramas” will help you isolate and study the most fundamental elements of drama. Once you understand these elements, you will see how playwrights use them—not only to construct a theatrical world, but also to conjure onstage the forces that shape our world.

In recent years, featured playwrights have included Eugene O’Neill, Samuel Beckett, Athol Fugard, Paula Vogel, Michael Frayn, Caryl Churchill, debbie tucker green, David Mamet, Cherríe Moraga, Suzan-Lori Parks, Young Jean Lee, Rajiv Joseph, and Amherst’s own Annie Baker. Beyond studying “drama” (narrowly defined) we also consider the place of other practices (e.g., performance art, stand-up comedy, and cabaret) within the history of solo performance.

English 232 - Reading Drama


This course explores the unique challenges of experiencing performance through the page.  While this course is not intended as a survey of dramatic literature or theater history, students will be introduced to a variety of drama from across the English-language tradition.  The organizing theme of the course may change slightly from year to year, but the goal will always be to explore a wide array of theoretical and methodological approaches to drama.  Of particular interest will be the relationship of play-reading to other reading practices.  What does a play demand of the reader that a novel, a poem, or an essay does not?  How must the central elements of storytelling or world-making (character, plot, setting, dialogue, point of view, etc.) change when they are required to appear onstage?

Mellon Colloquium 235 - Archival Research in Drama: The Samuel French Collection


This course is part of a new model of tutorials at Amherst designed to enable students to engage in substantive research with faculty. Amherst College is home to one of America's most extraordinary archives of theater history: the Samuel French Collection. In this course, you will work extensively with this collection, using it to enrich your understanding of dramatic literature. Hands-on exercises will teach you basic archival skills. Then, we will collaborate on a large-scale archival project as a class. In frequent seminar-style discussions, we will apply what we learn in the archive to our reading of printed plays.

English 329 - The Poetics of Performance


Poetry is not merely a written form; it is an oral art and a prompt to performance.  Students in this course will learn to use “close listening,” as well as the embodied experience of performing poetry themselves, in order to access poetic meanings that are unavailable through silent reading alone.  This course will require both written analyses and performed repertoires of poetry.  No prior performance experience is required.

English 338 - Shakespeare


A survey of plays by William Shakespeare with special emphasis on questions of staging, adaptation, allusion, and pastiche--i.e., the many ways in which we "do" Shakespeare.

Mellon Colloquium 339 - American Performance Culture circa 1900


Centering on the Samuel French Collection, a rich and untapped archive of theater and performance history at Amherst, this course will explore American culture at the turn of the twentieth century through the lens of performance.  Through shared readings, discussions, and archival exploration, students will consider the complexity of each of the terms in this course’s title, asking such questions as:  (1) how local or transnational was American performance? (2) what kinds of behavior “counted” as performance in this period? and (3) how did such performances take part in the creation of a truly national culture in turn-of-the-century America?

Students will learn how to pose a productive and original research question, how to master the critical and historical literature relevant to that question, and how to enter into the scholarly conversation on their topic.  Particular emphasis will be placed on the value and difficulty of interdisciplinary work.  The semester will culminate in two projects.  Individually, students will produce research papers involving materials from the Samuel French Collection.  Together, the class will curate an exhibition of materials from the archive to be displayed in the Frost Library.

English 434 - Technology & Performance


In this course, we’ll explore the history (and the fantasy) of the performing machine on stage, on screen, and beyond.  It’s easy to think of technologies as dead things that enhance the live performances of humans.  This course will ask you to do something harder:  to find the liveness in a machine and to take its agency seriously.  We will watch how new technologies tangle with humans in performance, and we will ask:  what happens when human actors begin to accept a new technology as their scene partner? What happens when they choose to embody a new technology themselves?

The course will consist of a few themed units (e.g., Robot Performance) with primary sources including plays (e.g., from R.U.R. to Hataraku Watashi), films (e.g., from Metropolis to Ex Machina), and popular performance (e.g., from “doing the robot” to the latest Janelle Monáe).  Secondary readings will run the gamut from cultural history and performance theory to reports on contemporary developments (e.g., in artificial intelligence, biomimetics, and theatrical robotics). Other units might cover:  communication technologies, vocal and bodily prostheses, or musical instruments and other resonant things.

You will be required to do some short-form writing and oral presentation throughout, but the course culminates in an extended research project of your own devising.

English 435 - The Play of Ideas

SYLLABUS (2017)SYLLABUS (2016) / SYLLABUS (2013)

We don’t just think, speak, or write our ideas; we perform them, too. Think TED Talks. Think political movements. Think 400-level seminars in English. In this course, you will read plays that are fueled by an argument and arguments that look an awful lot like plays. Readings will range from ancient philosophical dialogues to modern “plays of ideas”—from essays on pedagogy to works of social theory. As the semester wears on, you will begin to research your own angle on our central theme: ideas performed. Your final project will be a mock prospectus, in which you imagine this “angle” turning into a thesis project–creative, critical, or a mixture of the two.

Previous experience with drama or performance theory might help, but is hardly required for enrollment. As a matter of fact, this course works best when students from a wide range of majors enroll. The reading load isn’t heavy, but expectations are high that you will turn up to class prepared to engage in an active discussion. I mean, would you show up to a performance not knowing your lines–or fail to speak when you heard your cue? 


copyright 2015, Christopher Grobe