English 104 - Engaging the Arts
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
“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”? During the first half of the twentieth century, it was not unusual for a stage in America (or anywhere in the English-speaking world) to be filled with dozens of actors. Over the last sixty years, though, the crowds onstage have thinned. Today, three-, two-, and even one-person plays are as common as twenty-person plays once were.
In this course, we will study plays by American, British, Irish, and South African writers–from Eugene O’Neill and Samuel Beckett to Athol Fugard and Sarah Kane–who have found new inspiration within these tight constraints. In addition to paying close attentThis 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.
ion to the local detail of a play, we will stand farther away from it, inquiring into its broader structure and premises. How does this stage-world work? What are its rules, its tendencies, its textures? Most importantly, since this is a course on small-casted plays, how are characters created, tested, and distributed within the play? How might theatrical character differ from novelistic character or poetic voice?
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–or their identity?
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
Plot is never the only motor driving drama forward, though it is the most conspicuous. This class focuses on a long tradition of playwrights using argument--instead of, or alongside plot--to structure their plays. Readings in drama (mainly from the eighteenth century to the present) will be supplemented by consideration of the “dramatic” traditions in philosophy and in philosophical poetry. We will also pay particular attention to those playwrights who have written simultaneously in dramatic and essayistic forms. Why (and when) is thought theatrical?