Introduction - The Play of Ideas

Submitted by Christopher A. Grobe on Thursday, 10/10/2013, at 11:09 AM

“Playing—doing something that is ‘not for real’—is, like ritual, at the heart of performance.  In fact, one definition of performance might be: ritualized behavior conditioned/permeated by play. … Ritual has seriousness to it, the hammerhead of authority.  Play is looser, more permissive—forgiving in precisely those areas where ritual is enforcing, flexible where ritual is rigid. ... Playing is double-edged, ambiguous, moving in several directions simultaneously.  People often mix bits of play—a wisecrack, a joke, a flirtatious smile—with serious activities. … It is a mood, an activity, an eruption of liberty; sometimes it is rule-bound, sometimes very free.  It is pervasive.”

- Richard Schechner, Performance Studies: An Introduction 

“Idea is a vague concept.  In one sense there are ideas in all words and therefore in all drama.  Tragedy has always suggested ideas concerning the significance of human life.  Comedy has suggested ideas of right and wrong conduct.  Seldom, however, have ideas been the lifeblood of drama.  … Moliere uses accepted ideas, lets characters embody them and fight it out.  The characters fight, the ideas lie still and unmolested.  In a drama of ideas, on the other hand, the ideas are questioned, and it is by the questioning, and could only be by the questioning, that the ideas become dramatic, for never is there drama without conflict.”

- Eric Bentley, The Playwright as Thinker

“Plot has always been the curse of serious drama.”

- George Bernard Shaw, Cymbeline Refinished

A Doll's House / The Quintessence of Ibsenism

Submitted by Christopher A. Grobe on Thursday, 10/10/2013, at 11:11 AM

Interesting thus becomes particularly handy as a euphemism, filling the slot for a judgment conspicuously withheld. But in addition to replacing or postponing aesthetic judgments, we also use interesting to facilitate our return to the object for judging at a later moment, like sticking a Post-It in a book. As if founded on a “feeling of incompleteness” that makes it anticipatory as well as recursive (what's anticipated is precisely a return), to call an object interesting in this regard is to make a silent promise to the self: come back to this later.

- Sianne Ngai, “Merely Interesting,” Critical Inquiry vol. 34, no. 4 (2008)

(see also Our Aesthetic Categories: Cute, Zany, Interesting [Harvard UP, 2012])


… in A Doll’s House the actor playing Nora must portray not only the Nora of the realistic play—a woman strong enough to forge her signature, to work secretly to repay a debt, and to walk out on her husband—but also the Nora of the melodrama unfolding in the character’s mind, the birdlike, game-playing Nora who has heroically ‘saved’ Torvald, and who envisions herself ‘tied to the tracks’ as Torvald, in turn, rescues her heroically.  The actor must reveal where Nora thinks she is headed as well as where she actually is headed.

Gay Cima, Performing Women: Female Characters, Male Playwrights, and the Modern Stage (Cornell UP, 1996), pp. 44-5.

Mrs. Warren's Profession

Submitted by Christopher A. Grobe on Thursday, 10/10/2013, at 11:12 AM

From a review of Candida (1897):

Fantasy has its place in the theatre, as well as realism, and that is one reason why the theatre has room for Mr. Bernard Shaw.  His method of travestying life is to eliminate from it everything but pure intelligence.  Just as Mr. H. G. Wells amuses us by supposing a world where the laws of gravity are suspended, or where there is no such thing as time or where space is of X dimensions, so Mr. Shaw amuses us by representing a world where conduct is regulated by thought, and men love women as the civil servant in Pickwick ate crumpets, on principle.

- A.B. Walkley, Drama and Life (New York, 1908), 214

A Woman of No Importance

Submitted by Christopher A. Grobe on Thursday, 10/10/2013, at 11:13 AM

There are only two literary schools in England today: the Norwegian school and the Irish school. Our school is the Irish school; and Wilde is doing us good service in teaching the theatrical public that "a play" may be a playing with ideas instead of a feast of sham emotions compounded from dog’s eared prescriptions. 

- G.B. Shaw, letter to Lady Campbell protesting her review of A Woman of No Importance


Mr Oscar Wilde’s new play at the Haymarket is a dangerous subject, because he has the property of making his critics dull.  They laugh angrily at his epigrams, like a child who is coaxed into being amused in the very act of setting up a yell of rage and agony.  They protest that the trick is obvious, and that such epigrams can be turned out by the score by any one lightminded enough to condescend to such frivolity.  As far as I can ascertain I am the only person in London who cannot sit down and write an Oscar Wilde play at will. … In a certain sense Mr Wilde is to me our only thorough playwright.  He plays with everything: with wit, with philosophy, with drama, with actors and audience, with the whole theatre.  Such a feat scandalizes the Englishman, who can no more play with wit and philosophy than he can with a football or a cricket bat. 

- G. B. Shaw, review of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, Saturday Review (12 Jan. 1895)

The Philanderer

Submitted by Christopher A. Grobe on Thursday, 10/10/2013, at 11:14 AM

A man, running in the street, trips and falls.  The passers-by laugh.  I think they would not laugh at him if they supposed that a whim had suddenly come over him to sit down on the ground.  They laugh because he sits down involuntarily.  It is not, then, his abrupt change of posture that causes the laughter; it is that there is something involuntary in the change; it is his awkwardness.  Perhaps there was a stone on the road.  He should have changed his pace or gone around the obstacle.  But through lack of suppleness, through inattention, or through the body’s obstinacy, indeed, through inflexibility or momentum, the muscles have continued to make the same motions when the circumstances called for another one.  That is why the man fell and that is at what the passers-by laugh.

Now, here is a person who devotes himself to his little occupations with mathematical regularity.  Only the objects which surround him have been meddled with by a practical joker.  He dips his pen in the inkwell and when he removes it, it is covered with mud; he thinks he is sitting down on a solid chair and falls full length on the floor; in short, he acts in the wrong way or functions in a meaningless way, always because of momentum.  Habit has dictated the impetus; the movement should have been changed or turned in its course.  But no such thing: he continued mechanically in a straight line.  The victim of the practical joke, then, is in a situation analogous to that of the runner who falls.  He is comic for the same reason.  What is laughable in one case, as in the other, is a certain mechanical rigidity exactly where we would hope to find the watchful suppleness and the enduring pliancy of a human being.  […] 

Attitudes, gestures, and movements of the human body are comic in exactly the same proportion as the body makes us think of a simple machine.

- Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic