WHO’S ELIZA’S MYSTERY STYLIST? (COLONEL PICKERING’S QUEER ROLE)

I show to my first year students the glamourous Ascot sequence of My Fair Lady and the moment I write ‘Cecil Beaton’ on the blackboard, I wonder once more why Shaw neglects to explain in further detail Col. Pickering’s role in Eliza’s transformation. We do know he is the one paying for the whole experiment, as he bets with Higgins, precisely, the expenses. Yet, Shaw is so engrossed by Eliza’s relationship with her impatient phonetics teacher (speech therapist, rather), that he forgets to explain her equally spectacular bodily transformation.

Whoever is responsible for that works fast, as by Act III Eliza, a pretty girl literally covered in uglifying gutter grime until Act II, already looks like a lady (her dreadful small talk, though, betrays her origins). Perhaps Shaw was thus making the point that anyone can pick up the right classy clothes, but the more I read Pygmalion, the more I think that that awful film, Pretty Woman, got this aspect of female metamorphosis right on, with Julia Robert’s famous shopping spree on Rodeo Drive. Now, whereas Cecil Beaton got all the credit he deserved for lovely Audrey Hepburn’s marvellous look in My Fair Lady, in the play Eliza-Cinderella’s fairy godmother goes uncredited, though she must have one. Remember what she wears when she first knocks on Higgins’ door… My students suggested Mrs. Pearce, but there’s nothing to explain why Higgins’ sober housekeeper should have such fine taste. Higgins himself dresses badly and knows nothing at all about women’s clothes. His mother, the elegant Mrs. Higgins, meets Eliza once her outward transformation is accomplished. This leaves us with only one candidate to be Eliza’s secret stylist: Colonel Pickering (um, one wonders what went on in the British military abroad…).

I’m not the first reader to notice that Pickering and Higgins form one of those happy, socially accepted, pre-gay bachelor couples (think of Holmes and Watson). See how romantic this sounds: Pickering has travelled all the way from India to London, just to meet Higgins, his hero phonetician. Once he sets the bet on Eliza in motion and the girl is admitted into Higgins’ house –not without Mrs. Pearce’s misgivings, soon confirmed by blackmail from Eliza’s father– Pickering quickly moves in. Mrs Higgins sees in this a perfect arrangement, worrying instead, like Mrs Pearce, about Eliza’s (sexual) function in her son’s household. Pickering himself seems also anxious to prevent Higgins from touching his pupil… I’m aware that by suggesting that Pickering is Eliza’s fairy godfather I’m using a politically very incorrect word to out him. It is far from my intention to sound homophobic, which I’m not at all. I do intend, rather, to bring Pickering into the ranks of the queer stylists who, like Beaton, give our sad heterosexual world the glamour it so badly needs (Is this homophobic? Cliched?).

Shaw would surely give me a good show of his famous Irish irascibility if he could read this, but if his homophobia prevented him from making Pickering openly gay this is his fault not mine. Perhaps, only a homophobic, misogynistic man would insist on making the abusive Higgins the main focus of Eliza’s transformation and not the gentle-man who enhances her good looks and, above all, her self-esteem. By treating Eliza with the respect any person deserves, Pickering accomplishes far more than Higgins, who clearly could take a few lessons from his good friend. It is in order to protect Higgins’ masculinist allure, however, that Shaw pushes Pickering to the background, leaving him closeted. And Eliza all dressed up but not quite her own woman.

ESPABILATION SKILLS, OR HOW TO MOTIVATE PASSIVE STUDENTS (part 2)

This is a regular teaching day for me this semester: 8:30-10:00, 20th Century Literature (compulsory), I face my sleepy-eyed, unmotivated first year students: 50% attendance, of those in class 50% don’t take notes (apparently they don’t even bring paper to class) and 50% don’t even bother to conceal their boredom (the ones not taking notes are not necessarily the bored ones). I’ve had, at the last count, three serious incidents with students deciding that class is up before I finish, having breakfast in class or –this one is new– kissing as I lecture. Second class: 13:00-14:30, Contemporary British Drama, an elective. Yes, attendance is also only 50% (but at least it’s the same students) and few take notes, but this is because they’re actively following what happens in class, particularly the amazing performances by their classmates. All seem highly motivated (I grant a few seemed less enthusiastic, I wouldn’t say bored) and class discussion must often be cut short for lack of time. I’m the same teacher in both classes.

If I consider what Joan Simón said in his seminar I’m doing things right only at 13:00: a) I’m bringing a collection of guests for my students’ benefit (5, which costs the Dept. some extra money – thanks!); b) I’m asking students to produce something on which they can invest their creative energies (a short play, which I’m not quite sure how to assess); c) they feel in charge of their learning, as shown in their performance of the selected scenes. Yes, the subject works beautifully and I’m enjoying it, particularly because I can relax for part of each session. More or less. I’m still shaking remembering how intense was the performance of parts of Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking this week.

Precisely, what I wondered when I saw the scenes was what could possibly motivate students to work so well, much above my wildest dreams. The marks? Certainly not. My ‘espabilation skills’? Ha, ha… I was really scared when I prepared the subject that students would not go along with the experiment and that the sessions would fall flat. I am no longer worried but whenever students thank me for the subject (sorry to sound appallingly smug) I insist it is not my merit at all: it is theirs. I am just VERY LUCKY.

I asked the students playing Ravenhill so brilliantly why they’d gone to such pains –literally– and they told me that it was something different: it was fun. Such fun, that I actually received two guests, friends of students in my class to see them… This worries me, for it shows that students’ motivation is not primarily learning but enjoyment. Of course, plays are perfect for mixing pleasure and learning, as students are discovering to my relief, but there is plenty of Literature less amenable to that reading methodology. Some texts must simply be endured –yes, endured– for the sake of learning about the History of Literature and I’m beginning to feel guilty that my British Drama class may be doing things harder for other Literature teachers. Even for myself in other classes.

Generally speaking, life is not fun and learning, even for the highly self-motivated, can often be mortally boring, a pain in the ass. We’ve become university teachers by spending many gruelling hours tied to literary texts we hated, breathing in deeply, and using whatever carrot and stick we had at hand. We are all Victorians for, as George Eliot wrote, we believe that “Conscientious people are apt to see their duty in that which is the most painful course.”

In contrast, our students belong to a generation fixated on their right to have fun. This was, to my surprise, formally acknowledged as a fundamental human right by the 1959 UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child but, somehow, it has spread beyond childhood to clash badly with adult duty, as adulthood is delayed and teenagehood prolonged (into the university classroom in what is called ‘bachillerización’).

Most of our students, particularly in the third and fourth years, are dutiful people, I know, but a significant minority still must learn that an adult is, simply, someone who must do his/her duty and have fun only once that is done. These are a worrying percentage of the ones we battle with on the front lines of the first and second years. And we must motivate them… Tell me how.

ESPABILATION SKILLS, OR HOW TO MOTIVATE PASSIVE STUDENTS (part 1)

I spent 4 hours last Friday in a seminar on formative continuous assessment applied to university teaching. The seminar, run by Joan Simón, a Pharmacy senior lecturer at UB (http://joansimon.nom.es/cms3/), was very good, and served partly as a therapy session, which we, first year teachers down in the trenches, need badly. As usual, though, I missed being trained by someone with experience in teaching Literature. I also missed taking the seminar together with our students.

‘Formative continuous assessment’, as you may know, corresponds to a fashionable teaching methodology in which the student is assumed to be a motivated autonomous learner. S/he uses guidelines and samples showing how to produce the evidence on which s/he is to be assessed to, precisely produce it; also, s/he benefits from teacher’s constant, constructive feedback. I am familiar with the more formal aspects of the methodology since 1998, when I started working as an associate teacher at UOC, but I’d been using it, without knowing I was a convert, since 1992 at UAB. My Department has never favoured lecturing (‘clases magistrales’) and much less final exams as the only way to assess students. Our passage to the new Bologna system is, for this, smoother than in other Departments.

What is happening now, as everyone can see, is that Bologna has finally institutionalised continuous assessment as the most desirable methodology to encourage student autonomy… just at a time when the younger generation shows a remarkable passivity for which, possibly, lecturing and final exams would be perfectly adequate teaching and assessment methods. My impression is that my generation (born in the 1960s) is now implementing the kind of university teaching we wish we had received but not at all what the new generations (born in the early 1990s) need or want. They’ll have to wait 20 years to try their own methods on a younger generation who, of course, will require others… maybe ours.

An autonomous student is by definition a motivated student, and this is what my young first and second year students are not, mostly (this is quite different at UOC, where I teach mature students). Any Literature teacher knows that this translates into students’ not reading the set texts, which makes teaching them an often impossible task. How should we motivate them? Well, apparently enticing them with the use of computer technologies –apart from developing materials that clarify how we assess them and what they should be learning (we already do that, though not as well as we should, it seems –too much to read…). I’m tempted to ask first year students to take the poems we’re going to read and accompany them with a PowerPoint presentation, with images suggested by reading them (as I’ve seen on YouTube). Then it hits me: this is ridiculous, as it will distract them from reading the poems, which is exactly what the Literature subject requires, and might even be more time-consuming than reading dictionary in hand. (I know I’ll end up giving this a try, anyway… more about it in May).

A witty colleague, Felicity, tells me that our students need ‘espabilation skills’ (‘wising-up skills’?) and I fully agree. What I don’t know is whether, we, university teachers, are best qualified to teach these, as we are possibly one of the most highly self-motivated collectives on Earth (I was going to write ‘bunch of i…’, given our rewards). We’re naturally inclined to studying… think about that! Faced with a student who is naturally inclined NOT to study, I don’t quite sympathise, much less feel, um, motivated, to help.

The funny thing is that the university system tells me I am the one in need of the ‘espabilation skills’ required to turn passive students into active learners. Maybe if unmotivated students took useful seminars like Joan Simón’s addressing them that would save us, teachers, precious time for… research?

NOW I GET IT!! (WHY THE MAs ARE REALLY BEING DISMANTLED)

I have heard many voices explaining that the cost of the MAs we established barely 5 years ago is too high for the Catalan university to maintain. I could not quite understand this as our now dying MA ‘Advanced English Studies: Literature and Culture’ (slashed for having less than 10 students) cost more or less the same in terms of teaching resources as our old Doctoral courses. A friend in the Philosophy Department, where they seem to have more alert minds but whose MA has been also slashed, nonetheless, has explained to me why this is happening. Here it is, for your benefit. Apologies to those who already know for my usual thickness.

MAs are taught by doctors, of course, which means that the more senior staff may use up to 25% of their teaching time for them. This absorption of resources by the second cycle leaves the first cycle, the new BAs, with fewer resources provided by senior teachers. The result? Associates are hired to teach anything and everything, particularly considering, in my own Department, the sudden increase in numbers in the first year, due to the establishment of combined degrees with other ‘philologies’. Our staff this year comprises one third senior teachers (tenured or under contracts lasting at least 4 years), two thirds associates, most of them on a yearly, provisional basis linked to the deployment of the Bologna-style BAs, some already doctors.

Now, take our now declining MA (we’re in the fourth, final year). It is very cheap if you consider that it only requires 8 teachers teaching 5 ECTS credits each (24 teaching hours), plus dissertation supervision value at an extra 5 hours (maximum 0.5 dissertations each teacher, so far). If you look at it this way, and consider that the number of students we’ve been teaching was the same as in the old Doctoral programme (around 7-8 new ones every year), the cost has not really increased. Now, if you put the 8 subjects we teach together, this amounts to 2 full time teachers (here we teach 4 semestral subjects each per year), or 2.5 associates (they teach 3 semestral subjects a year). Dismantle the MA and you have magically made room for 8 other semestral groups in the BA taught by senior teachers (54 hours each, by the way). At least two of the 5 associates we employ now in the Literature section (with only 6 seniors…) can be ‘released.’

What irks is that the Generalitat is not openly acknowledging this. Instead, we’re told that the MAs have intrinsic problems due to low registration figures (regardless, by the way, of the nature of each of them) because we don’t know how to offer attractive, market-oriented degrees. Of course, an MA degree is a requirement to enter a Doctoral programme and with fewer MAs in Catalonia, we’ll necessarily have fewer Doctoral students which, I suspect, is very much another unacknowledged ultimate aim. Fewer doctors also mean fewer accreditations and fewer employable university teachers, which will help reduce the size of the staff at PUBLIC universities in Catalonia. The rich, as a friend reminded me, do not care about this, as they send their kids to private or foreign universities, anyway.

Think, think… I personally feel as a dinosaur on the verge on extinction – Angloliteraturus redundantis.

THE FACELESS BUREAUCRAT ON THE OTHER SIDE (DOING PAPERWORK)

I’m enrolled to write paperwork for a new MA and I’m dismayed by how much we’re asked to do in so little time. This is so habitual in academia all over the world, I know I shouldn’t be surprised.

Also habitual is the supposition that paperwork must always be a priority, which means, specifically, that the research I’m currently engaged in will have to wait, once more. My teaching will necessarily go on but I’ll have less time to prepare lectures –students, be warned. Unless, that is, I take time off my weekend, which are the days, precisely, that I’m using to read bibliography for my research. Then there’s Easter, yes, but a have a life outside the university and people who share it and, um, they seem to want my company…

When I was young and dreamed of being a university teacher, thinking this was a glamorous life because my family was working-class, I only knew about classes and books. No one told me about paperwork, though I believe they may not have told me because twenty years ago there wasn’t so much. Or someone else did it, not the senior teachers and researchers, I don’t know. It’s hard to imagine Harold Bloom filling in forms…

Every colleague has the same problem: applications for grants and new degrees, the up-keep of cv itself –that time-consuming monster–, research and teaching assessments… You name it!! All in user-unfriendly computer applications which, I very much suspect, already act as a filter for the less committed. Students know nothing about this and probably believe we teachers enjoy unstressed lives in paradise, just thinking of new, devious ways to make their lives harder. I wish!

Since paperwork is fast becoming another of the genres I practice, together with the academic essay, I do wonder who reads it. I have foggy Dickensian visions of armies of clerks wearing sleeve garters and green celluloid visors, reading the ‘literature’ we produce for them and I wonder why they ask for so much. Do they love it? Really? Do they read it? Really? What kind of person cannot see the beauty of the principle by which less is more?

Call me paranoid, but, is this part of a vast conspiracy to not let us employ our precious time in thinking, which is what we’re paid to do? Just a thought…

EVA AND ELIZA: MIRROR IMAGES

Josep María Pou has staged J.B. Priestley’s classic An Inspector Calls at Teatre Goya here in BCN for the first time in Spain, with the exception of a 1973 version for TVE’s Estudio 1 (um, the good old times when drama had a place on Spanish TV… The new version didn’t apparently get the expected share last year…). I find Pou’s production very good as regards acting but disappointingly conservative as regards stage design. The memory of Mario Gas’s version of Priestley’s Time and the Conways, which I saw in 1992, doesn’t quite abandon me throughout Pou’s production. As happens, Stephen Daldry rescued Inspector, coincidentally also in 1992, in a production for the National Theatre of London, rightly famous for its stage design. This production just returned, this time to the West End, in 2009 (trailer at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y7jGR61PM6k).

Anyway, this is not my point today –though maybe it should if I think of the great session on radical stage design that Taisma Caparrós offered my class last Thursday. Rather, as happens, I’m teaching Shaw’s Pygmalion and it strikes me that the suicide girl in Priestley’s play, known among other names as Eva Smith, could very well be a mirror image of Eliza Doolittle, a very unhappy one.

A left-wing political play masking as traditional detective fiction, An Inspector Calls was first staged in the extinct USSR in 1945, then in London in 1946. It is set, however, in 1912, months before the sinking of the Titanic, mentioned by the pompous patriarch, Mr. Birling, as an example of British achievement that can’t fail. Pygmalion was written, precisely, in the Spring of 1912, but first staged in London only in 1914, after the Viennese production of 1913 and just a few months before the start of calamitous WWI. Eva, aged 24 in 1912 and Eliza, aged 18-20, according to Shaw’s directions, are thus contemporaries –working girls surviving as they can.

Whereas London offers Eliza –a street seller of violets who will not sell herself for money in the streets– the romance of her transformation into an ersatz lady, thanks to her bumping into bachelor phonetician Higgins and his pal Pickering, Eva is not so lucky in her northern Midlands town, Brumley, where the Birlings rule. I won’t spoil the play for you but, basically, Priestley narrates through the inquiry of the Inspector into the death of this girl (if she is one and not five…) the sad fate of abused working girls who simply demand better wages. There’s no Higgins to rescue Eva from the gutter and she sinks as low as possible. The Inspector can only apportion blame.

I marvel at how the two plays denounce the workings of patriarchal capitalism by focusing on a young woman, whether present (Eliza) or absent (Eva), and also at how well both plays explain the complicity of upper-class women with patriarchy. It seems that Pou was tempted to update the play to our times but found it would damage its credibility. I really don’t think so –particular points might need adjustment but the Evas of this world are still trapped 100 years later by unemployment, sexual exploitation, the jealousy of uglier women and a narrow-minded morality. Eliza’s story appears to be, by contrast, a mere fairy tale, though of a rather cruel kind. It is also, I believe, not so difficult to update (Willy Russell did it perfectly in his play Educating Rita).

If written by a woman both Pygmalion and An Inspector Calls would have been deemed feminist plays about the victimisation of women. Written, as they are, by men their politics appear to be socialist above all. I wonder what Eva and Eliza would tell each other if they could meet in that other world, where fictional characters live… and die alone.

BLAST ME IF YOU WANT (BUT I DON’T UNDERSTAND SARAH KANE…)

Yesterday four students offered us Scene 1 and Scene 2 of Sarah Kane’s Blasted, with a courage and enthusiasm far beyond my expectations. Josep and Helena, Julia and Isabella played Ian and Cate, with Julia doubling as the Soldier. To begin with, in Scene 1 we had a young couple (happy, I assume!) playing the alienated couple in the play, which added a strange tension –the class started giggling but grew silent as the scene progressed and jaded Ian’s aggressiveness towards naive Cate was made visible. In Scene 2, the necessary cross-gendering (there are so few men in class…) made it quite clear that Ian’s power over Cate and the Soldier’s over him can be disconnected from their gender. In the end, we agreed, despite common sense feminist belief, what matters more is who becomes a victim and who holds power, regardless of gender.

If you’re familiar with Blasted, you know that it has plenty of sex and violence (the worst physical violence erupts in Scene 3, in which the Soldier rapes Ian and swallows his eyes… later Ian eats a baby who dies on stage). Logically, the taboos operating in the classroom are much more restrictive than the taboos at work on the professional stage. The students decided to leave Kane’s directions regarding touching and hurting to a narrator, a wise decision which didn’t really detract from the impression of cruelty Kane wanted to generate. We wondered at how actors manage to play scenes like Kane’s and what kind of psychological make up they need not to be affected by all this…

Ensuing class discussion was short but very lively with three main reactions: downright dislike of the play (“We don’t have to like every play, do we?”), a staunch defence of its moral message (“Everyone is a victim, and anyone can be”) and, third, denial that the play means much (“This has no message, it’s just written for shocks”). The student who disliked the play claimed that it was actually quite easy to write something like Blasted but far more difficult to write something with substance (as an example, she quoted Daniel MacIvor’s In on it). I myself think that Blasted belongs to the particular 1990s moment that Aleks Sierz portrays so beautifully in his very personal essay In-yer-face Theatre (2001, see http://www.inyerface-theatre.com/main.html). I am not claiming Kane’s play is dated, proof of this was that it worked well in the classroom. My impression is, rather, than in-yer-face theatre is a bit childish, the adult equivalent of the young child shocking the adults by using swearwords. That was part of the mood of the 1990s: Tarantino is a main referent and so is Trainspotting.

18 years after the scandal raised by Blasted the shock value of in-yer-face theatre has somehow faded, maybe the pendulum is swinging. We all agreed that if Blasted were stage in Barcelona we’d see it –though more out of intellectual curiosity than for pleasure, intellectual or otherwise. Here is a Catch 22 situation, for if I claim that I don’t enjoy plays like Blasted, I’ll sound conservative and if I claim that I enjoy them I may sound too fond of gratuitous violence… Blast me if you know how to solve this dilemma!!

MISSING THE PUNCH LINE: TERRY JOHNSON’S HYSTERIA AND BEN TRAVERS’S FARCE ROOKERY NOOK

Last week we witnessed in class the struggle, brilliantly solved, of four students –Sara, David, Carla and, secondarily, María– with Terry Johnson’s demanding intellectual farce Hysteria (1993). They made the most of a plot which narrates Freud’s morphine-induced circular dream (or nightmare); in it, his subconscious or, rather, his conscience embodied by a naked woman, nags him mercilessly about his complicity with the male child abusers in his bourgeois circle, casting serious doubts about what Freud actually did to ‘cure’ his patients. The eccentric Dalí, who visited Freud in 1938, also features prominently, perhaps in an attempt to defuse with farcical humour the seriousness of the accusations (first shed by Jeffrey Masson in 1984).

I failed to locate an academic source that could help us with Hysteria until too late, once the scenes were performed –I’m not sure whether this was due to my thickness or to the new MLA platform, which, ironically given its name (CSA Illumina…), seems somehow more opaque than usual. I relied instead on Spanish, UK and US reviewers, who also seemed quite baffled about what kind of achievement this play is. A US reviewer called it, basically, a glorious mess and this is what my students felt it was. The academic article by Luc Gilleman I finally read sheds precious light on the play, explaining practically everything about it, including its being inspired by Ben Travers’ once very popular Aldwych farces. Luckily for me, a reviewer mentioned them and even more luckily, Christopher Innes makes generous room in his Modern British Drama for Travers, so my students got some inkling about the main intertext in Johnson’s hysterical play: Travers’ Rookery Nook (1926) This is even mentioned by Freud, twice if I’m not mistaken. Gilleman points out that “Freud’s inability to see the relationship to what is happening to him and the play he has just seen is not just hilarious; it is also sinister –indicative of the blind spots in his vision” (2008: 115). Em… and in ours.

The point I want to make here is that the level at which Travers operated very successfully as a playwright, shall we call it the ‘popular mainstream’?, usually falls below our literary radar and is particularly difficult to grasp by foreign audiences. I did mention Benny Hill as Travers’s most likely inheritor, and it turns out that Johnson wrote right after Hysteria a play, Dead Funny, which begins with Hill’s death and has certainly plenty to do with his dubious brand of humour. My class of Spanish students, with a high component of foreign Erasmus students, some of them English, recognised at once Hill’s name but Travers meant nothing either to them or to me. TV, of course, has an international impact that theatre can never have. I assume that a British teacher of Spanish Theatre might also feel mystified by a contemporary literary play using elements from the revistas of El Molino or La Latina, or the plays by Carlos Arniches.

We did manage to enjoy Hysteria nonetheless but, clearly, we missed Johnson’s joke on Travers. Freud wrote a famous book, Jokes and the Relation to the Unconscious, which his conscience in the play –Jessica– criticises, arguing he has no sense of humour. To prove her wrong, Freud replies that he laughed “three or four times” at the last play he had seen, Rookery Nook. We don’t laugh: we can’t. And, as everyone knows, the surest way to kill a joke is to explain it… Naturally, Johnson should not worry about his audience’s limitations, much less about ours as foreign readers, but this a reminder of how hard it is to cross cultural barriers when it comes to humour. Yes, we tend to miss the punch line.

AESTHETIC EMOTION ON THE STAGE (THANK YOU, KYLIE MINOGUE!!)

Two years ago I had the great pleasure of writing with my friend Gerardo Rodríguez a paper on Kylie Minogue, which we presented at the 2009 AEDEAN at Cádiz. Yesterday, we both had the pleasure of seeing Kylie perform here in Barcelona to a full Palau Sant Jordi (her boyfriend, top model Andrés Velencoso, included!!!). Not everyday can one can dance with a colleague, much less to the subject of a paper. Thank you, by the way, Mr. Andrés, we know we owe this unforgettable pleasure to your charming Ms. Minogue…

Being specialists in Gender Studies, the point we made in our joint paper is that Australian Ms. Minogue is being discriminated as a performing artist in comparison to Madonna and other female American stars, because she’s assumed to be too feminine to be in control of her career. This is false, we claimed: that femininity might be incompatible with feminism is already a worrying assumption and that Ms. Minogue is just a doll is simply wrong. She’s a devoted professional, capable of overcoming the disaster caused by her breast cancer with smiles and an easy charm that barely conceals an iron will to please. I was witness of this yesterday.

Watching her on stage, I realised what aesthetic emotion means and how deeply moving it can be –even to tears. Her show, part of her Les Follies 2011 tour, is based on the theme of her last CD –Aphrodite– and includes, as usual for her, a series of numbers in which she sings live (very well!) accompanied by a group of muscled, handsome female and male dancers (yes, gays love her for the men –but so do I). The spectacle offered is unique in its classy elegance and it is visually astonishing, perhaps only comparable to West End or Las Vegas-style musicals. This made me consider, of course, whether was I was seeing was theatre rather than a pop concert, which makes the experience particularly enriching (bitchy others think she’s using the show to mask waning musical abilities… this is so unfair…).

What was unexpected for me (and for Gerardo and our companions) was that we could we moved to tears by the beauty of what was offered on stage. A beauty which, and this is crucial, Ms. Minogue and company choose to provide at a high expense, regardless of how this diminishes their benefits. The last segment of the show, in which water plays a major role, is simply splendid. I was watching her sing surrounded by four couples of flying dancers, all glamour at the service of my pleasure, and I had to thank her mentally for caring to hire the right people, people who bring a truly avant-garde feel to what is, if you will, just a pop music gig.

Then I remembered that next week I’ll be working with my students on Sarah Kane’s controversial play Blasted, and I wondered why we make so much of that ugliness (poetic, some call it) and so little of this beauty. Since Ms. Kane has entered with full honours the history of British Theatre, I’ll do my best to help Ms. Minogue enter the bigger history of performance on the stages all over the world, to which pop music contributes much more than it is usually assumed.

Thank you, Kylie!!! It was a real pleasure.

LIKE A CROWDED PARTY: READING INTRODUCTIONS (TO BRITISH THEATRE)

Introductions to particular literary periods, genres or schools make me as nervous as a party where I don’t know anyone: I want to meet everyone but I know that I’ll end up mixing up faces and stories and making serious gaffes (um, same problem with academic conferences, apologies to all concerned…). I’m currently going through two well-known introductions to contemporary British drama –Ian David Rabey’s English Drama since 1940s and Christopher Innes’ Modern British Drama: The Twentieth Century– to reinforce my always improvable knowledge of the field, and I find myself struggling to take in so much old and new information. There’s nothing wrong per se with these two volumes, which fulfil very well the promise they make to inform the reader. The problem is that this particular reader is increasingly unable to absorb it all.

Yes, I’ve made notes and lists of the playwrights discussed and the plays recommended but I get increasingly annoyed that academic volumes have a prejudice against photos which might help me to distinguish, say, between Howard Brenton and Howard Barker. I’m also beginning to miss a more user-friendly layout with bullet points, highlighted issues, framed main points, etc. Yes, all those stratagems used to help less advanced readers understand and recall with ease. My colleague David Walton got it absolutely right in his academic bestseller Introducing Cultural Studies: Learning through Practice, which even includes cartoons and is my favourite specialised introduction of any kind ever. This is not at all dumbing down nor has it anything to do with those popular ‘dummy’ books (there is a Shakespeare for Dummies but it’s not what I am asking for). It’s about helping students and academics find their way into a field we know something or nothing about, with true didactic intention.

Perhaps, I thought, my discomfort is caused by the internet but browsing through the Wikipedia pages for British theatre confirms my suspicion that there is not yet any website that fulfils well the role of book-form introductions. My complaint is with the genre of the literary introduction as a whole. The success of literary introductions, I’m saying, is necessarily limited by each reader’s ability to absorb biographical information, career summaries and critical assessments in such tight packages. Also, let’s say it, by the genre’s conventions. Here’s one: plot summaries are never straightforward for that is apparently against the ‘rules’; the reader must painstakingly infer them from the criticism offered, which often feels to me like watching a film through a slatted blind. The language used is also particularly imprecise with a peculiar tendency towards the literary, as if because you’re giving information about literature your prose should also be literary. In the end, even though introductions are supposed to offer shortcuts, I increasingly feel that a simple list might do the same trick (I mean in particular as concerns authors).

Maybe the lesson to be learned is that there are no shortcuts. The best possible impression I can get of an author must come from reading, in this case, his or her plays. The difficulty, obviously, lies in finding the time to read 100 plays instead of one single introduction but, then, that is really the only way. And trying to find satisfaction in vaguely recognising a name next time I come across it at another crowded party.

TOP GIRL PERFORMERS IN CLASS

This week the experiment of having students perform scenes from a selection of contemporary British plays in class has started… with top results!!

The first texts were Act I and Act III of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls and I can only say that the women students playing the roles turned out to be top performers much beyond my expectations. They cleverly combined reading (as I’d requested) with using whatever props the classroom could offer –from chairs to our big screen– adding some themselves: minimalist items of clothing and even a bottle of Bailey’s which, somehow, stole a particular scene… Churchill’s text indeed came alive in a way that mere reading cannot generate and thus the whole point of the exercise was accomplished. The ensuing class discussion was, also, lively and productive. These top performers set no doubt a very high standard, a challenge to be met by the rest of the class. Well done and THANKS!!!

There are perhaps two moments I want to highlight, one from each act. On Tuesday, Act I, I was sitting among the ‘audience,’ making notes to comment on, once performance was over, and I was so enthralled by the lady reading Lady Nijo that I simply switched off: I was no longer in the classroom but in a real theatre listening to a real actor. Wow, Luca, thanks for that moment. And a thousand thanks to Gloria for her amazing energy in organising six women who hadn’t met before for that first experiment. It was brave… On Thursday, Act III, Gloria herself and Maria provided us with another unforgettable moment when, as sisters Marlene and Joyce, they argued about Angie’s future. This girl is Marlene’s daughter but was raised by Joyce and what was at stake was how Marlene’s professional success depended to a great extent on Joyce’s sacrificial willingness to raise the baby Marlene had at 17. Our two performers shouted and screamed at each other with passion, anger and love –Maria blushed so furiously we were all scared and Gloria visibly trembled with Marlene’s effort to control herself. We all giggled now and then, awed by their performance.

Unforgettable!!

CLASS ETIQUETTE: RESPECT FOR THE TEACHER AT WORK (PERDONEU PERÒ ALGÚ HO HAVIA DE DIR…)

One of my first year students eats during my class and I scold her publicly. I tell her this is rude, she should have had breakfast before 8:40. The class goes well but I must stop now and then to ask for silence. I have two clever-looking students who oscillate non-stop between chattering like old women (they’ll catch the allusion) and looking at me in enraptured attention. No middle term. Others use their computers and I trust they’re not checking Facebook.

The girl who ate her breakfast in class approaches my table to hand in an exercise and I take the chance to insist that her behaviour was rude. To my surprise she tells me that her seating-row mates were not bothered and I almost scream that I am, and that I am due respect as I’m working. She, very politely using ‘usted’ all the time, says she won’t eat again if that bothers me so much… She misses my point, thinking this is my personal caprice.

In the evening I watch a debate on TV3 about why young people are so rude and it turns out their parents don’t have the energy to teach them etiquette = how to behave in public places. I feel tense and upset all the time I’m teaching this class. They’re lovely people, don’t get me wrong, but I can’t be policing them all the time and since they seem to lack the rules of classroom etiquette, here’s what we expect at UAB:

Teacher at work:
– eat and drink before or after class, not during it
– listen in silence, unless you want to contribute to class discussion
– don’t use the cell phone to text friends
– use the computer only to make notes
– BRING THE TEXT we’re discussing and a piece of paper to make notes
– attendance is expected but not compulsory – if you’re terminally bored, go to the bar

All this amounts to: I’m not your mother, you’re not children and my class is not a nursery. The classroom is not your living room, either, and I don’t offer a spectacle to be commented on, like a film or a TV show. A classroom is a space for sharing ideas and thinking requires a correct body language and a respectful behaviour as I AM WORKING HARD FOR YOUR BENEFIT. Do I sound authoritarian? Well, I must be, otherwise I won’t be able to educate you. And, yes, all this is very important.

I know teachers all over Spanish universities share my feeling that first year, as a colleague told me, is becoming Bachillerato’s third year, with our classrooms colonised by some of secondary school bad manners (there are worse manners, I know, even worst). But I also know that students very often simply don’t know what is expected from them and this is why I’d rather be specific. I hope this helps.

THE PLAGIARISING MINISTER

Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg, the German Defence minister in Angela Merkel’s Government, has finally resigned. The reason? The newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung has made it public that Zu Guttenberg had plagiarised part of his doctoral dissertation: a staggering 20% of its 475 pages. Zu Guttenberg, a very popular politician, has taken his time to resign, as Merkel has supported him throughout this crisis, downplaying the importance of the offence committed.

I’m personally appalled by Merkel’s support, as a man who cheats to this extent can hardly be a reliable, honest politician (is that an oxymoron?). Yet, the obvious reason why I’m writing this entry today is to teach my students about the very serious consequences that plagiarising (= copying text from unidentified sources, pretending it’s yours) may have: it may ruin your career many years after the events. Just consider: The now ex-Minister stole someone else’s ideas, his or her intellectual property, and for a doctoral dissertation, which is, precisely, the kind of exercise in which you prove your value as a thinker of original thoughts.

Martin Luther King was guilty of exactly the same offence and, somehow, there’s a tendency to exonerate him because he compensated for this with many good deeds. Merkel seems to think that this is what Zu Guttenberg will do too –not become a second Luther King but just continue his brilliant political career. My view is that the sins committed by saints are sins nonetheless, and the sins committed by less than saints are also sins. We don’t expel students from the university for plagiarising (at least not at UAB) and I don’t think Zu Guttenberg should be ruined for life. Yet, plagiarising is a little bit like infidelity: you may forgive an unfaithful partner but can you ever trust him or her again? Fully?

Zu Guttenberg justified himself, quite predictably, claiming that he was under great pressure, had reached the end of his tether and had acted out of despair (if I had a million dollars for every time I’ve been given the same excuse…). What worries me is that this is part of that widespread view of education in which cheating matters more than learning. He tricked a serious German university into awarding him a title he didn’t deserve, surely like many others that have gone undetected, yes. For, typically, plagiarisers think that being clever is the same as being intelligent. This is where they all fail.

THE HEN! THE HEN!: AN HOMAGE TO THE LITLLE STORYTELLER ON THE TRAIN

I’d run out of reading matter a few stops from my station, which is annoying, when a hassled thirty-something mum got on, dragging a feisty six-year-old and holding a crying, twisting, screaming two-year-old. They sat opposite me. For some puzzling reason, the baby was shouting at the top of her lungs for ‘The hen! The hen!,” as her mum desperately tried to find something. “I can’t find the book!,” she finally declared in defeat just when the elder girl stepped in to help: “Shall I tell you a tale?,” she volunteered to her baby sister. Yes, the baby nodded. “And what do you want in it? Would a princess do?,” she asked, predictably. “A hen,” the baby replied. “Ok,” the sister agreed, “but a princess, too.”

She embarked then on the most mesmerising story you might imagine, with a princess, a hen, a thrilling metaphysical plot about the sky falling over, compounded later with a witch who had a strawberry shaped house and grew strawberries in a field. The baby and her mum listened open-mouthed… and so did I. A woman sitting next to me turned her head and we smiled at each other amazed at what we were hearing. Two stations later the story still continued and I found myself considering the possibility of skipping my stop. I decided to get off but I had to tell the little girl that I loved her story very much and was very sorry to miss the end. She looked pleased!

All writers fabulate, as the little girl did, when they’re children and I was wondering, as I listened to her, whether she was making up her story (and would grow up to be a professional storyteller) or borrowing elements from tales she’d read. Checking the internet I’ve located books in Catalan about “La Gallina Fina” (Fina, the hen) and one about “La Bruixa Maduixa” (yes, the strawberry witch) but even supposing the little storyteller had borrowed from them, what was mesmerising was how she could hold our attention, 1 baby and 3 adults included. I wanted very much to tell the poor, distressed mum that her daughter’s talent was precious but I felt too shy, opting instead for offering her girl my praise.

I just wanted to share this lovely moment, which made me feel like another little girl and also reminded me of how powerful oral storytelling can still be. Keep it up, little girl!!

(A friend has wrongly believed this is fiction, but, believe me, it is not!! All I write here in this blog is 100% non-fiction)

MORE ON MONEY: RESEARCHING THEATRE

I invite to my Contemporary British Theatre class Prof. Mireia Aragay and Prof. Enric Monforte of the University of Barcelona, two of the best Spanish specialists in the field and co-authors of the excellent collection of interviews with directors, playwrights, critics and academics, British Theatre of the 1990s (Palgrave, 2007) I interview them with interventions from my students (a format I’d certainly recommend) and they draw a very vivid panorama of what’s happening on the London stage right now. I’m amazed at how important money becomes in our discussion.

First, the matter of their book (the other co-authors are Pilar Zozaya and Hidegard Klein, by the way). It’s a great volume and I wish all my students could read it. This is unlikely, though, as it costs 72.62 euros (well, 55.99 at the usual lower cost place). The students will have to share the copy I’ve bought for the library –one of the few overpriced purchases I mentioned in my previous post. Mireia and Enric explain to me that publishing houses are reluctant to issue paperback editions of academic books unless they can be widely used as textbooks. They’re aware of how the high price limits the impact of their book but there’s nothing they can do. This, as you can see, connects with my comments on the previous entry on that expensive sociology book I didn’t buy.

Money also comes up next on two other accounts: one of my students asks insistently about the price of theatre tickets in London, as Mireia and Enric explain that there theatres are full every evening. We’d already had a conversation in class about how theatre is only relatively expensive: prices run from 8 to 70 euros (for a musical), which means that at the lower end, theatre prices rise slightly above cinema’s, whereas on average a ticket costs the price of inexpensive dinner (20-30 euros). I remind my students that rock concerts and, indeed, football matches are far more expensive but, somehow, the idea that theatre is expensive sticks.

Then, there’s the problem of research costs –here we go again. Mireia brings an impressive bunch of programmes from the plays she’s seen recently in London. It’s quite clear to everyone that a committed theatre specialist cannot be simply satisfied with the texts and that what is worth researching is, as Mireia underlines, the ‘cultural experience’ that the staging of a play constitutes. Ideally, this means travelling to Britain as often as possible. She and Enric quickly explain that they’re now making the most of their research project money but that, otherwise, their research travelling is necessarily limited. Mireia also points out that you might be in London for an expensive week and miss for just one day a very relevant play…

All this might explain why, as they told me, the research project they run, ‘Contemporary British Theatre – Barcelona,’ (http://161.116.168.92/cbt_joomla/index.php) seems to be the only one of its kind in Spain. Shakespeare, of course, is, from this point of view, easier to research, as one may focus on the texts, the films and ignore, depending on the budget, how he fares on the British stage. Some irony…