Steve is a popular and insightful giver of talks and lectures. With many years experience as an academic, Steve is able to provide numerous talks, especially on film, performance and theatre subjects. These have proved to be popular both with academics and professionals as well as the general public. As a performer himself, Steve always brings to his lectures an engaging and involving manner and there is usually time left at the end of each talk for audience questions and, hopefully, helpful answers! Recently, Steve gave a keynote address on SATIRE at an open forum conference seminar organised by the University of Portsmouth.
Video extracts include examples both of Steve's lecturing and his appearances in the media discussing such issues as comedy, satire and broadcasting.
Video clips from Steve's talk AN INSIDER'S GUIDE TO LAUGHTER AND COMEDY given at The University of York can be accessed by clicking the icon to the right.
A full list of topics and lecture summaries are detailed below the video extracts.
This talk looks at the idea of the American Dream and how it is presented and reflected in the Broadway Musical. In the song "The American Dream" from Miss Saigon, The Engineer is looking forward to a new life in the United States. He reels off a load of goodies that he believes America has to offer, ranging from "Cars that have bars" to Fred Astaire, plastic surgery and that suite in a posh hotel. The number is a utopian list song on the theme of the American Dream, or at least the American Dream as perceived by a pimp in Bangkok. The American Dream is the theme of American musical theatre. It is the essential binding ethos that makes an 'American Musical' distinctly 'American', even when it is written by a Frenchman (Boublil) and a Hungarian (Schonberg). But in "The American Dream" we have the by-products of the ethos rather than its substance. To fully understand how and why the philosophy came about the lecture goes back to America's earliest dreamers, namely, the first settlers, Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers.
The talk gives a brief synopsis of this period. The first settlers or the Old Comers, who were only later known as the 'Pilgrim Fathers', came over on The Mayflower in 1620. These hundred or so colonists brought with them from Europe an essentially Calvinist tradition. At the heart of Calvinist belief is that to labour industriously is one of God's commands. Thrift, efficiency and hard work to these first settlers were simply signs of an individual's eternal salvation. To them, and their many descendants, to be prosperous was a mark of God's favour. This belief in industrious endeavour is more commonly called the Protestant work ethic. It became, and still is, a guiding principle of the American Dream. The talk offers Mister Snow in Carousel as the personification of this hard-work-will-reap-rewards philosophy. In "When the Children are Asleep" he sings of the day when he'll make enough money out of one little boat to put all of his money in another little boat so he can make twice as much out of two boats until he has a fleet bringing in "more and more and more". We have then the first essential ingredient of America's great dream ethos. In a word it is success.
The talk then develops some of the other ideas that gave root and birth to the 'American Dream'. Over a hundred and fifty years after the first settlers arrived at Plymouth Rock, another early dreamer, Thomas Jefferson, wrote "all men are created equal and independent, [and] ... from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". The phrase 'the pursuit of happiness' from The Declaration of Independence, signed 4th July 1776, has become part of the American way of life. It is this idea that The Proprietor sings about in "Everybody's Got the Right" from Assassins and that is "the right to be happy". Happiness then, the talk argues, is the next essential ingredient of the American Dream. In "Happy Talk" from South Pacific the "talk" is about a boy and about a girl who, since they don't even have a language in common, are clearly being encouraged to indulge in more than just aimless chitchat. As Bloody Mary, a would-be American not unlike The Engineer, repeatedly insists on saying, the boy and girl must "Keep talkin' happy talk" because "if you don't have a dream, How you gonna have a dream come true?"
The talk then jumps fifteen years from 1776 to 1791 and the First Congress of the United States where the first ten amendments to the Constitution (drafted by the founding fathers) were ratified and became adopted as a single unit known as The Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights stresses the rights of the individual such as free speech, the right of assembly and the forbidding of unreasonable searches. The famous 'Fifth' provides that no person shall be compelled to testify against himself. These points develop the right of all men to be 'independent' in The Declaration of Independence. What we have then is an emphasis on the individual, the third main ingredient of the American Dream ethos. It is the stress on the individual rather than the collective that essentially distinguishes a Liberal philosophy from a Socialist philosophy. And the singularity of the 'individual' in show after show after show is one of the most distinct hallmarks of the American stage musical genre.
The talk having established some of the philosophical ideas then moves on to see how they are manifested and explored in American musical theatre. One observation is that the Broadway tradition loves originals and strong minded characters, for example, the dominant and sometimes selfish character of Mama Rose in Gypsy who sings that "Everything's coming up roses / This time for me! For me! For me! For me! For me! FOR ME!"). the lecture suggests that it isn't so much that the American musical must provide 'star parts' but rather that musical theatre must reflect the ethos of an American way of life where the individual is expected to live his or her life to the full. Another example is Albin/Zaza in La Cage aux Folles: "I am what I am, I am my own special creation." A French setting maybe, but it is a distinctively American attitude in its celebration of individuality.
The talk suggests though there is a darker side to this 'American Dream'. Rose in Gypsy goes for the Dream not seemingly for self but her daughter. On the way Rose loses Herbie ("I still love you - but all the vows from here to doomsday...they couldn't make you a wife"). The lecture argues that in essence the dramatic conflict of the 'American Musical' is the contradiction at the heart of the American Dream: personal happiness and career success rarely walk hand in hand. The dramatic dilemma of many shows becomes simply which of these two seemingly incompatible goals the individual should choose.
The talk then develops this idea with specific references to various shows. The happiness/success choice, for example, is most stark in the back-stage musical. Should it be "Marriage Type Love" (Me and Juliet) or "You're going out there a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!" (42nd Street)? Fanny Brice in Funny Girl and Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun both must choose between the man and career. Fanny loses the man but ironically achieves great success by singing about losing her man in the torch song "My Man" ("All my life is just despair, But I don't care"). Annie, in a shooting contest with her man, Frank Butler, is reminded by Sitting Bull of her own words, "You can't get a man with a gun." She then knowingly misses the following four pulls (to the underscoring of "You Can't Get a Man With a Gun") and concedes the match. But she at least wins her man and the show gains a happy ending. The talk also looks at some of the male leading roles in musical theatre such as Pal Joey, Mack Sennett and Phineas Taylor Barnum, where a woman's affection was never likely to eclipse showbiz ambition. Indeed it is this drive in Pal Joey, Mack and Mabel and Barnum that gives these musical a hard edge and, at least in the case of Mack and Mabel, even a tragic dimension.
The talk looks at other shows which take a different approach. For example, Damn Yankees is a Faust story where the Devil turns a middle-aged Washington Senators fan, Joe Boyd, into a young baseball hero, Joe Hardy. But the Faust element has to compete with the love story so that although Joe is willing to sell his soul for the opportunity to be young again, an escape clause could allow him to eventually return to his wife, Meg. As the plot develops, 'Joe Hardy' returns to his wife as a lodger in what is, or was, his own home. "A Man Doesn't Know" and "Near to You" both use this situation to explore the deep feelings of husband and wife. Joe learns that a man truly doesn't know what he has until he loses it and that nearness is not just about proximity but intimacy and love. In the end 'Joe Hardy' does once again become plain Joe Boyd and no enticement at all can break the renewed bond of love and happiness he has rediscovered with Meg. Other shows take a more ironic approach to the dilemma. How To Succeed explores the American Dream ethos in that it promotes the ideal and mocks it at the same time. The hero, J. Pierrepoint Finch, climbs the ladder of success only to lose his girl, Rosemary, on the way up because of his obsession with work and his inattention towards her. Eventually they make up. She says she loves him for what he is and doesn't care if he "gives away the whole company" - which, ironically, is exactly what Finch decides to do. In a strange plot twist it seems as if Finch's original goal of success is being displaced by love but it is in fact just another ploy used by Finch to make himself even more successful - only this time the scheme goes wrong and Finch is ruined. In order to reverse his situation - and once again succeed - he reverses his own ethos and sings the praises of collectivism in "Brotherhood of Man". As a result of this ideological summersault, success is gained in the form of Chairman of the Board, a post offered to Finch but before he accepts he must first ask permission of his wife. The lecture suggests that this moment is very ambiguous and perhaps intentionally so. Is this a genuine moment of love coming before ambition or just another ploy to prove his sincere humanity and win favour with the boss? Whatever, Rosemary tells Finch she doesn't care if he works in the mail room or if he's President of the United States, "I love you." Finch asks her to say that again. She repeats the 'I love you'. "No", says Finch, "before that..." Here we have the ultimate in the American Dream: the White House. As Billy Bigelow says of his "boy Bill", he might be a "feller sells you glue Or President of the United States - That'd be all right, too." Naturally, "Bill" wouldn't be President unless he desperately wanted to be. No Bill would.
The lecture suggests that the resolution of the American Dream dilemma has two basic categories. First there is 'the need-for-success-always-loses-out-to-personal-happiness' category. Here the pursuit of ambition has its price and the price ranges across madness, death, despair, self-hatred, emptiness, self-delusion, bitterness, and loss and this can be seen in such shows as Follies, Sunset Boulevard, Funny Girl, I Can Get it For You Wholesale, Barnum, Pal Joey, Merrily We Roll Along, and Mack and Mabel. Second, there is the 'eventual-triumph-of-personal-values-and-happiness-over-the-push-for-success' category. Here drive and aspiration gives way to love or self-sacrifice and such shows include Allegro, Oklahoma!, Guys and Dolls, The Music Man, The Rink, Applause, Annie Get Your Gun, Damn Yankees and Hello, Dolly! where being a rich doctor, a cowboy, a gambler, a fraudulent salesman, an owner of a skating ring, an actress, a top shooter, a baseball hero, a millionaire with a cash register ("It's a little lumpy but it rings") all give way to love. Other musicals are also discussed in this context, including Show Boat, Love Life and A Chorus Line. Show Boat traces the pursuit of happiness and of riches of Magnolia and Gaylord from the 1880's to the 1920's. Love Life, which does something similar to Show Boat except its time span is from 1791 to 1948, is the story of one couple's trials and tribulations. A Chorus Line, although set in one day, actually in song order follows the life of a dancer from the early dreams at the ballet to leaving the theatre and kissing today goodbye. The talk observes that what also links each of these shows, apart from this trek across a whole life story, is some sort of never-ending image: in Show Boat it is the river that keeps on rolling along; Love Life is not only the story of a couple that never ages but also a show that has the form of a vaudeville show, and we all know that the show must go on, and, finally, A Chorus Line's final image is not really final at all because like the river, like the timeless couple, it too never stops.
The talk concludes by looking at some contemporary musicals and how the 'American Dream' dilemma continues to be explored to this day.
The talk begins by looking at the characteristics that could be said to define the stand-up comic
The talk begins by looking at the characteristics that could be said to define the stand-up comic in the field of theatrical and dramatic presentation. The stand-up is usually alone (though, of course, there are also double acts and comedians who use stooges) and the act itself is usually self-contained. The stand-up could be said to come from a story telling tradition that directly addresses the audience and is more often than not interactive with them. The manner of presentation is usually that of something that at least appears to be non-scripted, even if it is in truth well rehearsed and repeated exactly word-for-word every night. Next, the venue or playing area of the stand-up is looked at and although this has traditionally been a small theatre or festival venue, and more often than not just a room above a pub, in more recent years for very successful comedians large arenas have become used. Audiences are then discussed. These can be wide-ranging and, unlike those for the actor, sometimes exclusive, as stag and hen nights are quite common as are student gigs and corporate business events. The talk points out that the audience gives the stand-up a greater freedom to say things and go further than almost any other theatrical event. In this sense the stand-up is in the tradition of Lear's 'all licensed fool'. There are of course exceptions to these general characteristics, for the stand-up act, though usually self-contained, can sometimes become part of a play, for instance in a panto or as a character that sometimes breaks 'the fourth wall' in comedies such as those of Aristophanes. Double act comedy can sometimes directly address the audience but occasionally such acts perform sketches that keep the fourth wall. There have also been stand-ups such as Jimmy James whose act was part patter, part sketch and also used stooges defying all boundaries.
The lecture then looks at the historical development, including the Shakespearean clown and the farce tradition of the Greek and Roman stage, and more recently that of the stand-up from the days of the front cloth patter comedian of the music hall and variety stage, through to the working men's clubs of the north, on to the pc 'alternative cabaret' evenings of the 1980s and now the huge commercial popularity of the stand-up today.
Following this, the talk then looks at the types of stand-ups, briefly categorising them into those who say funny (the traditional gag man), those who do funny (comic characters and comedy magicians, for example) and those who can just be funny, that rare breed who are innately comic such as Spike Milligan and Tommy Cooper.
Next the concept of 'comic timing' is discussed by looking at comic rhythm and performance skills and this is followed by a discussion of the importance of 'comic perspective' for a comedian. Next some archetypes are looked at, for example the innocent fool (Norman Wisdom or Emo Philips), the precocious child (The Krankies, Jimmy Clitheroe) and following that the attributes that are needed for a comic performer, the importance of the individual way of seeing the world, the ability to captivate and communicate, the capacity to exist in the moment and be real and credible even if playing a comic character.
The talk then moves on to look at the increasing use of comedians as straight actors in plays, the benefits and advantages they bring as well as the drawbacks and from the other perspective the difficulties the straight actor has performing as a stand-up, particularly in dramas recreating the lives of a comedian or those plays such as The Entertainer, The Sunshine Boys, Comedians that feature comedic characters.
Finally, the historical place of 'stand-up comedy' in Shakespearean theatre is looked at from various perspectives, with explorations of the roles of the Fool in King Lear and the Jester in Twelfth Night, the difficulties involved in making incomprehensible jokes work in the Porter Scene in Macbeth and the demands of the very physical comedy routines of the two Gobbos in The Merchant of Venice.
This talk examines classical Greek theatre, looking at staging, performance and theatre presentation as well as the continuing influence of Greek theatre traditions on modern drama and the way practitioners have to think creatively about how they would stage or present Greek plays on the contemporary stage.
Steve begins the lecture with an examination of the role of theatre in Greek society. The plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes and Menander are then examined, concentrating on dramatic and theatrical technique. Each dramatist had a distinct style and lumping them all together as a unit is as foolish as putting Brecht and Coward in the same category simply because they wrote at the same time. Theatre presentation in ancient Athens and the whole Attic region is also examined but in many ways, as the talk points out, it is a detective story that has involved the accumulation of considerable evidence and numerous theories but no conclusive proof. Staging and theatre presentation in Greek theatre remains a minefield of academic conjecture. Conflicting evidence is offered as a glimpse into just how much hard digging goes on - literally in the case of archaeology - in trying to understand how Greek theatre operated.
The talk then goes on to look at these different aspects in more detail. There has been much discussion of the role of Greek theatre in Athenian society. The course looks at some of the major sociological issues raised by theatre historians in recent years such as the importance of the writer in the developing democracy (the special role of the sophos), the dramatic presentation of women and slaves on the Athenian stage (when they had little or no voice in the rest of Attic society) and the so-called peace plays of Aristophanes or the anti-war plays of Euripides at a time when Athens was more or less continually at a state of declared or undeclared war with her neighbours or Persia.
In looking at the dramatic and theatrical techniques of the Athenian playwrights, the talk examines, for example, the nature of conflict in Greek drama, its legendary setting, the use of irony, the repeated employment of certain story patterns and so on. Theatrical technique, on the other hand, looks at the use of silent or still characters on stage, the physical importance of certain properties (for example, the bow in Philoctetes), the meta-theatrical nature of Greek theatre, the role of the chorus and so on.
The talk also takes a brief look at Aristotle's Poetics, emphasises his methodology of putting the student at the centre of the process of 'tragic making' (a more literal and contextual translation of the term "poetics") rather than the 'rule making' perspective that many traditional critics have when looking at the work. The lecture traces the influence of Aristotle's so-called rules and devices on theatre and also the Christian absorption (or distortion?) of the importance of the Aristotelian concept of harmatia or 'error.
The talk next looks at the general influence of the classical period on theatre since Greek times, for example, how the conventions of the Greek Chorus have been absorbed into dramatic works and theatre presentations and how modern writers have written their own versions or 'takes' on classical Greek plays and legends, ranging from T.S. Eliot's The Family Reunion to Sarah Kane's Phaedra's Love. The lecture then asks 'How can Greek theatre work both in an ancient and modern context?' The talk hopefully suggests that Greek plays can indeed be read as a potentially living piece of theatre rather than seen as just dusty books fit only for a library.
The talk begins by asking the question 'Why does Peter Pan to come to the nursery window?' The visit in the play is well remembered, it is to find his shadow, but that is not the reason Peter repeatedly visits the Darling nursery. The reason, as he says himself, is "to hear stories". The idea of the need for story is one of the main themes of the lecture and it is explored in different ways. The talk though makes the point that one of the main purposes of story and its telling seems ironically lost on Peter himself.
The talk first looks at what we may mean by myth. One common concept of myth is to define it as the dramatic conflict of humans with the Gods and cosmic forces (the Homeric tradition of the epic saga, the ananke or destiny/fate at the heart of Greek theatre). A second common use of myth is as a legend or fantasy (the Arthurian myth). Another is as an allegory tale (the Frankenstein myth, the story representing scientific ideas that are out of balance with their moral implications). There are also recurring stories that simply by their repetition in other forms are spoken of as myths (Faust, Cinderella, Orpheus). Aside from the concept of myth as a story, the term is now also often used as a by-word for 'untruth'. All these ways of seeing or referring to myth make it a difficult term to pin down. For that reason perhaps muthos, the Greek word that gave us the term myth, is better a starting point. Using this word, muthos could be said to be the collective story of our lives in an abstract sense. It is the re-occurring 'Story of Life'. Our Life, My life, Her Life, His Life and most importantly Your Life. Myth is simply all our lives told as one life, it is one story and many stories. Myth tells us what we know in such a way that it appears we are hearing it for the first time. At its root myth or muthos is one story, the story of human life. This sense of oneness in the many is perhaps why Joseph Campbell called his famous book on mythology The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
The talk then moves on to examine the idea of 'rites of passage' in muthos. Religious ceremony marks change, from life to death and from death to life, which in many religious cultures is the same thing. And even in secular cultures society acknowledges and sanctions change in a civil rite, the registrar office marriage for example. Change is not a secret event but one that must be witnessed. Recent study into one of the best known of ancient Greek theatres at Epidauros has suggested that the theatre there had a dual function. It seems likely that this Greek theatron (or "viewing place") was not only a centre for drama but also a ceremonial healing centre. There is though a striking connection between the two, in that the medium of theatre offers the witnessing of change through dramatic conflict and transformations that are the life-blood of story. In Poetics Aristotle spends a considerable time discussing that which takes the protagonist from ignorance to knowledge through recognition or discovery, usually involving a self-revelation. The talk suggests then that the key to understanding any story is to ask, "What changes?" Is the change from powerless to powerful (Faust)? From loss to gain or from gain to loss (Orpheus)? From innocence to wisdom? (Candide) From death to life (Frankenstein)? From rags to riches (Cinderella)? It is interesting that character names are attached to all these titles. Each character in each myth makes some kind of story journey. We are taken in the drama from the person they were at the beginning to the person they become by the end. This character change is sometimes referred to as the 'arc of the character' or 'the story arc'. Furthermore, these stories are so universal that often they have given names to a whole family of stories across theatre, film and literature with the same underlying story arc: The Pygmalion Story - Educating Rita, Born Yesterday, A Star is Born, My Fair Lady; The Faust Story - Little Shop of Horrors, Damn Yankees, Angel Heart; The Orpheus Story -Point of Departure, Black Orpheus, Vertigo; The Candide Story - Pippin, Scoop, Forrest Gump; The Cinderella Story - The Sound of Music, Pretty Woman, A Country Wife; The Romeo and Juliet Story - West Side Story, Krapp's Last Tape, Harold and Maude. The underlying myth that seems to live beneath each new incarnation of the story is sometimes called the 'mythical infra-narrative'. (The jargon is unfortunately clumsy as jargon often is but the idea behind it, as it were, is important in understanding the working of myth in drama.) Prominent mythical infra-narratives are of interest to dramatists, psychologists and anthropologists alike because they are the first structures of culture. When a new story uses an old myth as its basis, however disguised or dressed up in modern guise that myth may be, people will have a familiarity and perhaps affinity with it. As with the old joke in Hollywood, "Everyone is looking for a new cliché".
The talk then returns to J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan and points out that the alternative title of the play was "The Boy who Would Not Grow Up." Originally the title was going to be "The Boy who Could Not Grow Up" but the altering of 'could' to 'would', making it a conscious choice, gives the play and the character of Peter Pan a weakness close to the concept of hamartia in tragedy. Hamartia is a Greek word that comes from archery and it means literally 'falling short'. With Peter Pan there is a sense that something in him is missing and he is out of joint, which leads him, some would say, to his tragic refusal to grow up and face maturity. Peter says, "No one is going to make me a man. I always want to be a little boy and have fun." The stage direction of J. M Barrie at this point is incredibly perceptive and important in truly understanding the character and the play: "So perhaps he think, but it is only his greatest pretend."
Following on from this, the talk at this point takes some time to discuss the psychology of Peter Pan. There is a scene in the play, rarely performed in modern versions, especially when presented at as a Christmas story, when Wendy says that mothers will leave their windows open for the return of their runaway children. Peter then explains that he once did go back to his own mother - but the widow had been closed and a there was another boy sleeping in his bed. He calls it a "kind of pain". Peter Pan may be a story about children but it is not exclusively for them.
The lecture continues by looking at some of the theories of the Psychology of Story, particularly the work of Bettelheim in Uses of Enchantment and Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The talk discusses how muthos allows children and indeed adults to resolve conflicts in the real world through story. It discusses also the idea of a story or dramatic presentation needing a time for reflection and the importance of later processing the ideas. Much time in dramatic theory is spent on catharisis and the immediate emotional experience experienced during a play but of equal importance is that part of the play which stays with us afterwards. The talk also at this point looks at the need especially in children for repeated viewing. The lecture concludes with the observation that the enemy of muthos is ultimately a sense of realism that comes from over rationalisation. The lecture ends with the thought that realism may be described as the illusion of truth but muthos has the greater power in that myth is the truth in illusion.
The talk begins by pointing out that one of the most British of musicals had its origins in a Greek myth, became the basis of a play by an Irishman, was then adapted into a musical by an Austrian composer, an American lyricist and a German choreographer. The musical is, of course, My Fair Lady. The talk suggests that perhaps when we refer to 'The British Musical' we should be asking instead 'What is it exactly that we mean by 'British'?' A distinction is made therefore between a musical that is generically British, because it happens to be produced in Britain or written by a British writer, and a musical that is genealogically British, because it can trace its values and essence to the nature of British society. This talk looks at both, but in the first section concentrates on what gives, as it were, 'Britishness' to a musical.
If My Fair Lady has this Britishness then how do we go about finding exactly what it is? 'British' though in a way is a red herring because as it is applied to musicals in truth its geographical parameters are stretched far too wide. My Fair Lady is in no way 'Welsh', though Higgins does find the origins of Doolittle's "natural gift of rhetoric" to be "the Welsh strain in him". And the only thing that is said of the other two countries in the British Isles is that the speech patterns of "the Scotch and the Irish leave you close to tears." The talk suggests that the 'Britishness' of My Fair Lady is really found in its 'Englishness', or more specifically "the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue." But Shaw's obsession with the way the English speak, perfectly captured in "Why Can't the English?", is only a means to an end. Higgins properly hits the nail right on the head when he sings "This verbal class distinction by now should be antique". It is class distinction that is at the heart of My Fair Lady and indeed the lifeblood of every British musical. Me and My Girl, Oliver!, Charlie Girl, Half a Sixpence and My Fair Lady all have the same essential story. It is the classic 'Cinderella' formula. Each musical follows the 'rags-to-riches' structure whereby the hero/heroine is removed from a low social status to higher social status with a temporary reversal back to the lower status before the higher status is once more achieved. The twist that makes each of these shows so characteristically 'British' is that the status change in each case is from one social class to another. More importantly, each musical exploits, usually for comic purposes, the resulting incongruities whether they are the different social mores or the contrasting political and economic situations of the two classes.
The talk goes on to argue that this is not what happens when American musicals use the 'Cinderella' story. What distinguishes My Fair Lady from Sweet Charity or Oliver! from Annie is that in the British shows the nature of the British class system is what is one of the main focuses of attention. In the "American" Annie and Sweet Charity the focus isn't so much on class difference but money and the work ethic versus happiness and personal well being. If class difference is the conflict that singles out the British musical then the parallel conflict in the American Dream musical is the difficult balance between the pursuit of personal happiness and the pressure for economic success, which is a theme explored in THE BROADWAY MUSICAL lecture. The talk briefly discusses this comparison and then moves on to examine the class differences in Blood Brothers and how they differ to those looked at so far. For example, Blood Brothers is unusual in that it is a musical with a tragic ending and unlike so many previous British musicals it is not a 'Musical Comedy'. The boy doesn't get the girl and the role of the narrator owes far more to the German theatrical conventions of Bertolt Brecht than any British theatre tradition. Also, Blood Brothers has more of a British pop music sound or more specifically '1960s Brit pop' as the world first experienced it in the distinctive Liverpool sound of The Beatles. "Marilyn Monroe" has the kind of playful lyric that Lennon would have certainly enjoyed and the tune has that occasional wistful quality you get in the more laid back of McCartney's melodies.
The talk then looks at shows such as The Good Companions, Cavalcade, Oh What a Lovely War!, The Boyfriend, and The Hired Man in the context of class before moving on to examine in some detail the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber and the shows presented by producer Cameron Mackintosh.
Gershwin was a man who said, "I want to be myself. My people are America. My time is today"
The talk begins with Gershwin in his own words. Gershwin was a man who said, "I want to be myself. My people are America. My time is today". With nearly all the work of Gershwin, whether it is Rhapsody in Blue or the song "Do-Do-Do", it is impossible to imagine that it could have been written before 1920 and in the same way listen to "Strike Up the Band" or "I Got Rhythm". It is also impossible to think it could have been written by anyone but an American. The music of Gershwin has its roots in the new, in the growing, in the urban and it the vibrant. Gershwin's generation, which included Kern, Berlin, Rodgers and Arlen were the generation that saw the Empire State Building being built floor by floor. The talk argues that the music of Gershwin is defined as the music of a confident and celebratory city.
The lecture gives a brief insight into some of the personal quirks and interests of George Gershwin the man. He liked cream sodas and scotch highballs. He kept pets, dogs. He read the moderns, Woolf and Hemmingway. He collected modern art. He was a modern celebrity on an ad for Lucky strike cigarettes.
Next the talk looks at his background. George Gershwin was born of Russian Jewish parents, 'Gershovitz' in those days, who left St Petersburg in the 1890s. The name was changed to 'Gershwine' before finally becoming Gershwin. His father had various businesses, bakery, pool parlour, Turkish baths, not always successful. His childhood was pretty normal involving street games and fights. He was noted for having a competitive instinct and became the champion roller-skater of Seventh Street. His mother Rose bought a piano for his brother Ira and the family story was that when it arrived at that their apartment - hoisted up - it was George who immediately sat down and played it. Secretly he had been learning to play on a friend's piano. Whether this happened or was more apocryphal, the point is that when he was taught to play he simply found that he had a natural talent to do so.
The lecture then asks the general but important question, 'Why was it that it was the American Jewish immigrants of that generation who gave us the Golden Age of American musical theatre?' One theory sometimes put forward is that the cantor tradition of Jewish music, with its strong emphasis on melody, is an important factor, though that by itself does not explain its distinctive American feel. What is important to note is that that generation did not look back to their past, geographically or musically, but instead embraced the sound of a new emerging urban city America. The talk observes that like many teenagers he was drawn to music that annoyed his parents and which they didn't understand. He liked Scott Joplin, Bessie Smith, jazz, the blues, ragtime. Perhaps though the simple truth is that he had the gift, and as he said himself, "No one expected me to compose music. I just did it." He had, as has been said, little training. "I've always had a sort of instinctive feel for tone combinations, and many chords that sound so modern in my orchestral compositions were set down without any particular attention to their theoretical structure". It is the orchestral compositions that make Gershwin a unique figure in that Kern, Rodgers and Porter did not write for the concert stage. In this area Gershwin was eager to learn theory but those to whom he went to be taught were worried that theory would dampen down his natural talents.
The lecture takes a moment then to look at the early stages of his life, particularly his time on what became known as 'Tin Pan Alley'. Writer Monroe H. Rosenfeld said that Twenty-Eighth Street, with its piano pluggers hammering away on sometimes untuned instruments, sounded like a lot of 'striking pans'. Gershwin's time working in 'Tin Pan Alley' was a way to meet people in the industry. He became a rehearsal pianist, and then began to make song contributions to shows. He met, and at one time wanted to work for Irving Berlin, who could create but not write music. Berlin told him to "stick to writing your own songs, kid". One such song was "Swanee", which, when heard by Al Jolson, led to Gershwin writing songs for the famous "George White "Scandals" (The difference, it was said, between Ziegfeld and White was that Ziegfeld gloried the American girl whereas George White undressed her). Gershwin's time on Tin Pan Alley taught him much about the business side of showbiz, as well as the creative process, the mechanics of a putting on a show and the need for constant revising and rewriting, all of which would come in handy in later years. One thing though at this time continued to puzzle his colleagues and that was his regular visits to recitals and concerts. Gershwin was a man who loved the music of Debussy as much as that of Kern
The lecture having set up some of the background to Gershwin's life looks in more detail at certain key areas. The first is Rhapsody in Blue. Gershwin wanted to "experiment in modern music" at a time when American composers were not well represented on the concert stage. "In Rhapsody," he said, "I tried to express our manner of living, the tempo of our modern life with its speed and chaos and vitality. I didn't try to paint a definite descriptive picture in sound. It's assimilation of feeling rather than presenting specific scenes of American life in music." Several versions and extracts are played in the lecture on the piece but the 1927 recording is notable for its playfulness, its rawness and most notably, its speed and pace! In 1920 many people could indeed play 'hot piano' but, the talk suggests, only Gershwin could write 'hot piano' .
The lecture then moves on to look at George's work with his brother Ira. Jazz musicians often think of the lyrics as they play their instruments and it is impossible in some ways to separate the music of George Gershwin from the lyrics of Ira Gershwin. Ira was a very different personality to that of his brother. He was modest and unassuming. In their work together George was the one who always had the final word. Ira was different too in that he was a planner who took days of thought to come up with his lyrics, whereas George was far more instinctive. Ira's lyrics are notably for their wryness, their wistful whimsy. These are lyrics with no sense of bitterness or loneliness (compare Ira's contemporary Lorenz Hart and his bitter regretful lyrics written in collaboration with Richard Rodgers). Ira's style was simple, colloquial and conversational. "I got rhythm" is not exactly not grammatical but undoubtedly more fun and more effective than had it been written and sung as "I have rhythm". Ira's lyrics could though be clever in a subtle way, for example, he could write song lyrics that used the action of singing itself to make a point as he does in the song "They Can't Take that Away from Me" where he writes, "The way your smile just beams / The way you sing off key" - a phrase this is often sung intentionally off key. He was sometimes too suggestive ("Do-Do-Do") but never smutty and often found lyrics in the everyday, even in overheard conversations as in the song "Nice work If You Can Get It". As George took his music from the sound of the city, in some ways Ira took his lyrics from the new emerging world and language around him.
The talk next moves on to look and listen to some of the characteristic aspects of George Gershwin's music, such as the repeated notes, giving the music an urban and demanding active drive ("Embraceable You" "...come to papa, come to papa, do...") and the 2/4 rhythms ("Of Thee I Sing", "Strike Up the Band"). On a general note, there is a contrast to be made with the music of Victor Herbert or Sigmund Romberg, and even Jerome Kern, in that when they wrote a ballad it stayed like that but Gershwin's music was taken up by dance bands across the country and democratised in a way by constantly been played in different ways on the radio. It is interesting to note that, as has been said, George was interested in art and he thought about his music in a parallel manner. Music for him was design, melody was line; harmony, colour, and dissonance like a distortion you could sometimes see and sense in a painting.
The talk next looks at some of the Broadway shows such as Strike Up the Band, Of Thee I Sing and Let 'Em Eat Cake. The lecture notes there are fewer 'standards' in these shows than one might expect but points out that the songs had to fit the plot (usually satirical and often bizarre), were frequently written as short verses sometimes without a chorus and many were expositional in character. However, of course, this is not the case with arguably Gershwin's greatest theatrical masterpiece, Porgy and Bess, which the lecture discusses in some detail, looking specifically at the origins and making of this twentieth century classic. The lecture then briefly looks at Gershwin's experience of Hollywood, or, as it was famously put, "When you get there - there isn't there." The talk concludes with some general remarks on Gershwin's legacy and his place in American music both on Broadway and on the concert stage.
In this lecture, the aim is look at some of the basic tools needed for the analysis of comedy drama
In this lecture, the aim is look at some of the basic tools needed for the analysis of comedy drama, especially farce, and to understand such terms as variability, direction and dynamics when applied to the rhythm of comic drama. The plays of Plautus are discussed but so are other farce dramas both historical and contemporary.
The talk briefly outlines some of the many theories of laughter, for example, 'surprise' and 'incongruity', and the various components of comedy, for example, 'exaggeration', 'targets'. Following on from this the lecture specifically examines aspects of comedy technique often used in farce, such as 'anticipation' and 'expectations reversed'. 'Anticipation' examines how farce comedy sets up certain moments that are then enjoyed in their completion and how also farce comedy interrupts, transforms or replaces expectations that are then reversed. The talk spends some time looking at other farce techniques such as identity substitutions, misuse of objects, intrigues and subterfuge, cruelty, humiliation and pain, juxtaposition of opposites and character archetypes. The lecture stresses the importance of an 'upside-down way of thinking' that is needed when experiencing the world of farce, especially those of satirical writers such as Joe Orton.
The talk goes on to illustrate the importance of structure and planning in the building of a farce. It looks too at farce's perceived 'heartlessness', introducing the concept of 'tragicomedy', a form alien to farce, which is, the talk argues, the purest of all comic forms in drama. The lecture examines the history of farce from its earliest roots in the Greek writer Aristophanes, as well as from a British perspective, for example, the comic farce found in some of the Medieval Mystery plays and also works of Oscar Wilde and Tom Stoppard, and also from the European tradition, for example, The Theatre of the Absurd, including Ionesco and Genet as well as N.F. Simpson.
The talk then looks at shows such as The Good Companions, Cavalcade, Oh What a Lovely War!, The Boyfriend, and The Hired Man in the context of class before moving on to examine in some detail the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber and the shows presented by producer Cameron Mackintosh.
The talk on the musical theatre of Stephen Sondheim concentrates on the theatre aspect of his work
The talk on the musical theatre of Stephen Sondheim concentrates on the theatre aspect of his work. Specifically the lecture looks in detail at the story structure traditions he works with and within, the aim being to illustrate his command of the musical theatre form. In simple terms what this means is Sondheim's ability to understand when and how to place the right type of song at the right moment in a story in the right style for that character to create the greatest dramatic and theatrical effect. For example, Sondheim's most famous song is a moment of self-revelation by a mature actress who suddenly finds love in an impossible situation for herself and her lover. Both the lyrics and tone of "Send in the Clowns" are pitched just right for that individual character at that specific dramatic moment in the story. The talk begins by pointing out that the musical theatre of Sondheim, and indeed all musical theatre, is one of collaboration. Working with directors such as Hal Prince, choreographers like Michael Bennett, and especially the book writers James Lapine, Arthur Laurents, Bert Shevelove, and Larry Gelbert, Sondheim has always stressed the collaborative nature of his work and is at pains to give credit where it is due.
The talk begins by making some general remarks about story structures and traditions. Most stories are told in the Aristotelian tradition of the linear narrative and linear action of the beginning, the middle and the end. But there are other traditions, for example the Homeric tradition which is more complex and geometric in shape, with a web of narrative lines and actions. Another point is that many stories are told as if there is some sort of design in life, a perceivable axis taking individuals and society in a particular direction be it good or bad. Rarer are those stories which deny or take away that axis. Linked to this is the psychological philosophy a story relies upon. Most are Freudian in that stories generally emphasise a single cause at the heart of a problem with a parallel single effect to solve the issue. It is a neat and simple approach. A more complex psychological philosophy is a more Jungian perspective where there is presented a myriad of competing elements that cause a problem and where there is no neat single 'silver bullet' solution. Another aspect of story is whether it comes from the perspective of a 'shame culture' or a 'guilt culture'. With the 'shame culture' is it the external values of a society, what other people think of you, that drive a character's actions, whereas with a 'guilt culture' the emphasis is inner belief, where it is the values one imposes on one's self that matter most. With these basic points established, the lecture then moves on to examine how they apply to the work of Stephen Sondheim.
The first show that is looked at is Gypsy (lyrics by Sondheim, music by Jule Styne). Gypsy is a classic linear story with a single driving action. For example, in what is sometimes called the 'I want song', Mama Rose makes her declaration of intent early in the show. This is "Some People". In classic Aristotelian terms, the action that was intended to achieve that goal - making her daughter a star - results in the opposite, with her first daughter running away from her. When the second daughter does become famous she does so for the wrong reason (stripping) and further bars Mama Rose from her dressing room. This situation is followed by a classic moment of self-revelation in the song "Rose's Turn". The talk then compares the structure of Gypsy with that of Company, a show that is far more geometric in shape being composed of numerous self-contained short scenes. The linking character is Bobby who seems almost passive with little drive or any perceived 'action' in dramatic terms. In this type of story shape Sondheim accomplishes something never before done in musical theatre and places the 'I want song', "Being Alive", right at the end of the show, making sense of the various scenes that preceded it.
Gypsy too could be said to be in the Freudian model of storytelling in that it is dealing with single drives, single causes and single effects, where Rose's actions directly lead to the counter action of her daughters. Merrily We Roll Along is also a 'cause and effect' show except that with this musical, because the show is told backwards, we see it as 'effect to cause'. There is though one Sondheim show (book by James Lapine) that denies the cause-effect philosophy of life and that is Into the Woods. There is even a song about the interconnectedness of cause, consequence and fault in "Your Fault". The talk notes at this point that Into the Woods, an inter-connected set of fairy stories using a Narrator, kills off the narrator thereby removing any sense of a structure to the lives of the characters and clearly no 'design axis'! The talk then develops the area of 'shame' and 'guilt' cultures and finds a recurring theme in Sondheim, especially in Sunday in the Park with George and Passion of the predominance of the 'guilt culture' ethos.
The talk then takes a look at another area of story presentation and that is the 'realism-fantasy' balance. Although musicals with people and choruses bursting into song are clearly 'unreal' they are still purporting to be founded in the world of realism: the grit, the dirt and the pain in Les Miserables tries to be as 'real' as it can. There are dream sequences in musicals certainly (for example, Oklahoma!) but oddly enough, with some notable exceptions, there are few pure fantasy musicals or musicals which depart too far from 'realism'. The talk then looks at several Sondheim shows in this context, particularly Follies, Assassins, and Pacific Overtures where conceptual ideas are sometimes presented in a non-realistic theatrical form.
The lecture moves on to presents the case made against Sondheim by certain critics who have argued that the musical genre is unable to sustain the sort of demands Sondheim makes upon it both in terms of stretching the form and the choice of unpalatable content. The talk though argues that Sondheim doesn't take the 'musical form' and impose content on it but rather he takes content or the conceptual idea and then decides what form it should take. And if the form doesn't exist, then he and his collaborators will simply invent it.
The talk 'Why do we laugh?' takes on one of the least addressed subjects in theatrical study.
The talk 'Why do we laugh?' takes on one of the least addressed subjects in theatrical study. 'Comedy' is a form endlessly analysed but what it sets out to do, namely make people laugh, is rarely discussed. Indeed, the lecture suggests, there seems to be a pervading attitude of 'never analyse funny' as if seeking answers to 'what makes people laugh?' would in some way break the spell and suddenly make you unfunny and unable to laugh. The talk discusses this attitude both from the point of view of the academic and the comedy practitioner.
The lecture next spends some time looking at when, why and where we first began to laugh? The talk looks at the experience of a baby learning to laugh playing 'Peek-a-boo!' finding in common important aspects of laughter in the game, namely surprise and relief, that directly relate to comedy. The talk then connects these initial learning encounters to the laughter experienced in adult life, analysing numerous jokes and the mechanism they use. The talk emphasises at this point the cerebral nature of laughter in that it is ideas that are being presented to the mind. The talk then moves on to look at our encounters as toddlers, especially that moment when the toddler falls over and is encouraged to laugh rather than cry. Discussed here is the importance of laughter to bonding and as a mechanism to cope with pain or disappointment. Again connections are made between the encounter of the toddler with laughter and the experience of the adult who uses laughter to deal with failure or indeed laugh at it, or perhaps with it, in others. The next development addressed is the ability to laugh when one sees one object in terms of another, the cloud in the sky, for example, that looks like a rabbit. Again the child will laugh and again a connection is made between this type of laughter and that heightened sophisticated and developed sense that creates laugher from a concurrence or co-existence of images and indeed concept.
The talk moves on then to ask when did we first laugh from an historical or anthropological point of view. Here the lecture offers the idea that this was probably linked to the sound early man made when it was established danger was over and the talk offers a somewhat conjectural story of the caveman who first made a laugh-like noise following a close escape on a hunt, sometimes classified as the laughter of the 'False Alarm'. What is though suggested in this section is the importance of a target for laughter and the social bonding and even hierarchical structure that are key elements of laughter. It is also pointed out that in a Darwinian sense laughter has an evolutionary purpose and several theories are offered in this area.
The talk next looks at some of the psychological theories of laughter noting that is probably it wasn't until human beings started wearing clothes that people began to make jokes about nudists. The point being that what is hidden away is often that which comedy and laughter seeks to uncover. Freudian theory is discussed as well as taboo humour and the laughter which results from the removal of moral responsibility.
The talk next looks at the idea of 'getting the joke' and the intellectual process the mind experiences in doing so. This area of the lecture looks at the importance of configuration and the effects that laughter can have on the mind when one is presented and challenged with alternate realities. The talk also looks at the concept of the 'comic gap', the difference between what should be and what is in comedy and its resultant laughter. The talk also looks at laughter that is generated without comic stimulus such as a tickling and excitement from hyperventilation.
The talk looks at a medical case study of laughter and concludes that the very mechanism need to create genuine laughter probably does not live in the part of the brain that controls conscious movement and so despite the adage that to one should 'never analyse what is funny' the talk encourages the ongoing search and analysis of one of the great mysteries of the universe and existence, why indeed do we laugh... ho, ho, ho...
The lecture begins with a look at Thomas Shadwell's The Virtuoso and specifically the character of Sir Nicholas Gimcrack
The lecture begins with a look at Thomas Shadwell's The Virtuoso and specifically the character of Sir Nicholas Gimcrack ('gimcrack' is a word meaning a cheap or showy gadget or trifle). Lady Gimcrack observes before Sir Nicholas's arrival, "He has a frog in a bowl of water, tied with a pack-thread by the loins, which pack-thread Sir Nicholas holds in his teeth, upon lying upon his belly on a table - and as the frog strikes , he strikes and his swimming master stands by to tell him when he does well or ill". This is a typical technique of the Restoration Comedy and that is to set-up a character's arrival with a detailed description of their physical characteristics, how they speak, how they move and so on. It is the sometimes difficult task of the actor to match up and fulfil the expectation of the comic description. What perhaps is even more difficult is that this must be seen immediately with the very entrance of the character for entrances and discoveries are an essential component of the theatricality of Restoration performance. The lecture explains that in the play Sir Nicholas is discovered swimming in air (scenery in Restoration had painted side-wings and shutters set in perspective and these could be drawn to the side in grooves quite quickly to create a reveal). The talk also explains that the play was a satire on The Royal Society and its inventions and gadgets (it oddly enough anticipates recorded sound and amplification with references to a "speaking trumpet" and a "sten-to-phonical tube"). The lectures though focuses on the actor and the challenges faced. The talk points out that the swimming scene offers a sort of metaphorical warning to actors who approach Restoration acting as if it were just a matter of learning a load of arm movements and archaic gestures. The talk suggests that if the actor learns the manners of the times simply by rote or by copying, as does Sir Nicholas, who hates the water and is only interested in the "speculative part of swimming", then they will totally miss the point as to why those manners exist and how they were meant to operate. Manners and gestures do not exist in isolation. The actor who puts on manners without connecting themselves to their character's sexual and emotional depths will create an action and a persona as empty and as pointless as "speculative swimming" in mid-air. From this observation, the talk introduces the idea of 'Comedy of Manners'.
Comedy of manners is the theatre of social presentation. In comedy of manners theatre, it is how characters behave and interact in a social setting - especially when the subject matter is sex and money - which is the main focus of the drama. Real concerns may well hide behind the artifice of manners and so the key to this theatre style in performance is for the actor to play the social codes in earnest but at the same time reveal the true concerns behind such manners. The two essential elements of the comedy of manners acting style then are to make real the artificial, so that the manners themselves are never seen as false but always an intrinsic requirement of social exchange, and at the same time to make the artificial real, so that genuine concerns, especially sexual needs, are seen to lie behind the mannered behaviour. The talk points out that if an actor cannot make the manners a natural part of their character and, at the same time, cannot reveal the reality of thought or feeling that lies behind such manners, then that actor will never be one suitable for comedy of manners performance. The talk goes on to observe that comedy of manners as a genre within the dramatic form of comedy has had various manifestations over the years. Restoration comedy of manners can arguably trace some of its origins back to Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, where how Beatrice and Benedict behave towards each other is the driving force of the comedy. However, seeing elements of comedy of manners in Much Ado About Nothing highlights a central problem when looking at comedy of manners which is that not all of that play can in any sense be classified as 'comedy of manners' in form. Much Ado About Nothing has both knockabout comedy, an underlying threat of death and verbal repartee which make classification difficult. What can be fairly said is that the actors playing Beatrice and Benedict have to have an understanding of the comedy of manners acting style in order to make their scenes work. A style and technique to some degree shared by those who worked on the Restoration stage.
The talk then moves on to look at the Playhouse of the Restoration period. As Cromwell had pretty much got rid of most of the public theatres by 1648 (though theatre did still continue as masques in private houses), the Restoration actors clearly needed a theatrical playing space of some kind in which to present plays. An initial choice was Tudor tennis courts, which were roofed and surrounded by upper galleries. It was an intimate space for around four hundred. Stage doors were built into the proscenium arch which led immediately onto the stage. The actor playing Horner The Country Wife would have had the double task of doing The Prologue and then existing through the door and then immediately re-entering as his character, Horner. What we have here is an awareness of the play acting, with the actors having a very close proximity to their audience. The scenery was limited (as said, the painted side-wings were set in grooves) but, as the lecture points out, there was equally a very limited number of scene settings, these being mainly the coffee house, the drawing room, the park, the bedchamber. Scene changes themselves were in full view of the audience which again gives Restoration actors the challenge of a heightened awareness of theatricality. An added difficulty for the actor was that there was no furniture. There was therefore the challenge for the actor of playing a scene with furniture on a stage with no furniture! There was, as has been established, a 'discovery area' upstage which was rarely used as an acting area. Actors moved forward to the apron and there are numerous stage directions in the plays such as 'advance' and 'come forward'. The lighting was by daylight or candles. In daytime performance when it was 'night', as with Shakespeare, candles were brought on to establish time of day. Darkness or at least a dramatic setting of darkness was useful for Restoration comedy, with its mistaken identities and intrigues. Indeed, part of the comedy came from the audience being able to see that which the characters did not. Also, the theatre auditorium was lit, plays were performed in daylight, and so the actors could see the whole audience. The important point is again an awareness of the theatrical experience and the implications for the actor accepting and indeed creating a sense of theatrical intimacy and connection with the audience - a style of performance often alien to actors in contemporary theatre where audiences sit passively in the dark. The pace too was set by the fact that scene changes were immediate and continuous, which is important for the pace of comedy and the momentum of tragedy.
The talk then moves on to discuss the audience. For a long time it was thought the Restoration audiences consisted mainly of aristocrats and whores and though these may have been in good if not equal supply, the truth is that there was a much greater variety in a Restoration audience. It would include nobility, professionals such as lawyers and doctors, gentlemen of leisure as well as quite respectable women unaccompanied by men. The Upper Gallery would have been for the servants, the Middle Gallery for the tradesmen, with Boxes for the royals and on the ground level as cosmopolitan mixture of judges, wits and whores. There was a lack of decorum, with many going to the theatre to pick up whores who then left early for that business to be concluded. It was not unknown for audiences to shout out, hiss or boo and even join the actors on stage. The implication of all this for the actors was a theatre of constant movement and noise. Though wider than the full range of society that visited the Shakespearean theatre, the social group who attended Restoration theatres were still relatively narrow. What the actor had to deal with was the knowing 'in crowd'. Many in the audience would have known both each other and the actors on stage. If a line was appropriate it could be half addressed to that member of the audience for whom it was best suited. An apposite phrase could also be directed to a particular area of the theatre, for example, the boxes where royalty sat. The implications of all this is that the actor must not only know how to work on the theatre stage, he or she must also know how to 'work' the whole theatre space for Restoration theatre was a very collective experience for both actor and playgoer. The talk points out that perhaps the downside of an appreciative audience was that it did not always lead to good acting. In Female Wits there is a scene with the authoress coaching her actors: "Dear Mrs Knight, in this speech, stamp as Queen Statira does, that always gets a clap - and when you have ended, run off, thus, as fast as you can!"
The next area the talk looks at is costume. For the actor, the costume, of course, should never be a costume but an outfit worn by the character. In Restoration times, clothes and the wearing of clothes were an essential part of a person's presentation of themselves to the world. In this sense, the outfit is a conscious part of the character's outer presentations. He same is true for props. For the male actor there was the sword, the hat, the mirror, for the fop, the handkerchief, with each movement an external indication and manifestation of his state of mind. The actress had the fan and the golden rule was that the one thing you should never do with your fan was fan yourself. Again, this could be used as an indication of mood. As Millamant says of Mirabell, "Here she comes, i'faith, full sail, with her fan spread and streamers out." The fan was to be used as a weapon, a means of flirting, or concealment or displeasure.. Anything but as a fan.
The talk then looks at some of the practical issues of Restoration theatre. During this period, there was no director, though perhaps with minimal stage blocking a director was not considered necessary. There was a degree of specialization by actors, and writers were known for writing specific roles for actors who had specific talents. The writing was prose, though verse was used for the Prologue, but is it elongated prose, with complicated similes that are not always easy for the modern actor to make understood. The style of the language is very specific. The actress Dame Edith Evans likened the rhythm of Restoration comedy to that similar "to a ball game with players tossing the ball back and forth - if a player muffed his catch or dropped it, the rhythm was shattered". The style was not one of naturalism and so it required, and for the actor today still does require, vocal virtuosity and dexterity in pitch, tone and range, perhaps more so than any other form of theatre. There are other specific problems too. The stage aside is often misunderstood. The actor is not speaking to himself, nor to the audience, his thoughts are to himself but are seen and heard by an audience. The difference is subtle but essential. The actors know they are performing but that is not the same as knowing they are in a play.
The lecture concludes that successful Restoration acting is certainly possible and when it works well is a hugely enjoyable theatrical experience. Its heightened awareness of theatricality makes Restoration theatre when done well a unique and invigorating theatrical event. Done badly though and an audience could be put off this subtle and very delicate form of comedy for life.
In addition to his work in the Drama Department, Steve was a lecturer on the interdisciplinary University Film Studies course. Each lecture used a key film as a staring point to examine a specific aspect of film study. Steve presented individual lectures on a range of films, including:
The film noir genre
This talk looks at the idea of genre and examines how Who Framed Roger Rabbit intentionally and very knowingly combines two established genres, film noir and animation, creating a unique movie that in some parts at least is about the very nature of these seemingly incompatible forms.
The lecture begins by talking about classification and categories, and how audience expectations are established by genre terms, establishing what is anticipated when one goes to see a film noir or cartoon. For film noir aspects such as the femme fatale, greed, anti-hero, investigation, high contrast lighting, the voice-over narration, an urban setting and others are all introduced. Examples are given from films such as LA Confidential, Seven and Chinatown as well as classic film noirs like Laura, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely. In looking at cartoons, specific genre aspects of animation are discussed. These include the unrealness of the cartoon world, jokes, special rules, the unchanging nature of a 'toon' and the knowingness of cartoon characters (where cartoon characters know they are cartoon characters, for example when Roger says he has to wait until a moment when it's funny before removing his hand from the handcuffs also attached to Eddie). The examples offered in the talk are mainly from the Warner Loony Tunes series, especially Duck Amuck. The lecture then asks and explores to what extent the conflicting aspects of both these genres can co-exist.
The lecture concludes by looking at homage in cinema, with specific regard to Who Framed Roger Rabbit but also at homage in general by listing the number of films that pay homage to, or 'inter-textual referencing' to use the jargon, that most homage of movies, The Wizard of Oz.
In this talk there is an examination of cinema about cinema
In this talk there is an examination of cinema about cinema, concentrating on audience response. The lecture begins by talking about what makes the cinema experience so different from watching television, reading fiction or a visit to the theatre. For example, the lecture explains the importance of the saccadic movement of the eye and how the size of the cinema screen (resulting in repeated saccadic movement) necessarily means the brain is more stimulated than when watching television (limited saccadic movement). The lecture also looks at other issues such as physical space, opportunity to view, cinema as a social event and so on.
The lecture then moves on to dispute the importance of the commonly held concept of 'a suspension of disbelief' in being in any sense relevant to the real process of watching a film. The lecture suggests that complete immersion, the psychological theory of suture, identification, cinematic literateness, aesthetic response and the on-going process of understanding a film once you leave the cinema are all far more important and certainly more relevant to the experience of cinema than the considerable limitations offered by the phrase 'a suspension of disbelief'.
The lecture then begins to outline how Woody Allen's Purple Rose of Cairo presents this complicated world of the cinematic experience in fantasy form. It also examines the nature of escapism (one key thought of the lecture is that one should never mock escapism if you've never needed to escape.) The talk goes on to compare Purple Rose of Cairo to several other films about the cinematic experience such as Cinema Paradiso, The Long Day Closes, Last Action Hero and Sherlock Jr.. How cinema represents itself is then compared to how cinema represents other mediums, especially how cinema represents television in such films as Network, Wag the Dog, Capricorn One, The Truman Show and so forth.
The lecture then looks at some of the technical aspects of The Purple Rose of Cairo. In this section the talk examines how the employment of a different film stock, high key lighting and 'American montage' editing all help to distinguish the 'cinema world' from the 'real world' in the movie. The lecture concludes by briefly examining the story structure of The Purple Rose of Cairo in terms of a traditional fairy fable.
The following lecture on Who Framed Roger Rabbit can work as a companion lecture with The Purple Rose of Cairo.
The talk begins by observing that the animated genre, and the Disney animation in particular
The talk begins by observing that the animated genre, and the Disney animation in particular, is one of the few genres that is sometimes defined by its audience, namely children. There is though, the lecture suggests, a wider adult audience for animation that can be as appreciative of Disney animation as that of young children. Indeed there are some references in Hercules that can be probably only understood by classically educated adults. There are also certain animations including, for example, Fritz the Cat that are specifically aimed at an exclusively adult audience. Although the talk rejects the idea that the animation genre should be classified by its audience, it does offer a second way of looking at the animation genre that allows for a classification outside the normal boundaries of genre. The lecture points out that a traditional way of examining genre, especially in areas such as the Film Noir, the Musical or the Gangster movie, is to examine the cinematic technique of the film making, covering, for example, lighting, mise en scene and editing. However, in a way, the animation genre goes one better than mere cinematic technique for animation can be singularly classified and defined at least in part by a specific film making process. However, what has confused matters, the talk suggests, is that that process has widened from a series of drawings to include Plasticine stop-frame animation (Jason and the Argonauts and the many films created by Ray Harryhausen) and Computer Generated Imagery or CGI (Terminator II). So the question is, should such films be classified under the 'animation genre'? This question, and the question about the relationship between genre and the audience, highlights one of the problems with any genre pigeonholing.
The talk suggests a better approach perhaps when looking at genre is to examine the form of a particular film, especially its narrative form and the form of the world that is created in the film. This approach is better understood when applied to specific examples within the Disney canon. For example, the traditional Disney animation is in the form of a single narrative telling a story that has some sort of irreversible end. The lecture then compares Disney's Beauty and the Beast and MGM's Tom and Jerry. In the first, there is a single narrative with an irreversible change, the Beast becomes human again, whereas in the second you have numerous stories and episodes in which, although the status quo may alter, neither Tom nor Jerry ever change from story to story in any irreversible way. Also, the form of the world of Tom and Jerry is a very different to that of the world Beauty and the Beast. Clearly both are 'unreal' in the sense that neither recreates our real world. However, each creates its own consistent reality. For example, Hades hair is a flame, and when he's angry it gets bigger, and when it goes out he goes in need of a hairpiece, but the point is that his hair is always consistently a flame. Indeed, if there were ever to be real hair it would become 'unreal' in the consistent reality created in the animation. Compare this to Tom and Jerry where both change temporarily from one mode of being into another, especially though physical force, for example an anvil or a spade. This change of form is merely in the moment and in a second is easily and often literally shaken off. The Disney world of animation though rarely uses this convention as part of its 'reality'. Indeed there are numerous such differences in style and presentation of 'reality' between the various animation studios.
The talk then moves on to briefly analyse the traditional narrative form of classical story telling structure, including objective narrative, protagonist-antagonist, unity of action, use of a deadline, linear time sequence, causality, irreversible change and closed endings. The lecture offers examples from numerous Disney animations ironically noting that the live action adventure George of the Jungle is far more uncharacteristic of the traditional narrative form in a post-modern way than are most Disney animations. Also introduced at this point is the idea that the animation genre borrows from other cinematic genres such as Romantic Comedy (Lady and the Tramp), the Adventure movie (The Rescuers) and the Historical Biography (Pocahontas). The talk observes that most Disney animations are in the form of a musical, often with Broadway composers at the helm of the score (Little Mermaid). The lecture suggests at this stage that to fully understand the Disney animation genre requires a knowledge of the film making process, an understanding of the form of a film, especially the narrative nature of the story telling, and an awareness of the established genre that the animation is, as it were, working within, especially the Musical genre. On this last point the talk considers in some detail how Hercules fits into the Musical genre. To illustrate this, the lecture highlights certain types of song and how, where and why they are traditionally placed in a musical's structure. These include the exposition song ("The Gospel Truth"), the 'I want song' ("Go the Distance") and the transformation song ("Zero to Hero").
The next section of the lecture begins by introducing some of the recent academic criticisms of Disney animation, including the accusation of inappropriate appropriation, where old stories and myths are given the 'Disney treatment' to the detriment of the original. However, on this point, the talk observes that even ancient Greek drama's portrayal of 'Heracles' ranged from the tragic hero of Heracles and the drunken figure portrayed in Alcestis to the deus ex machina of Philoctetes and the comic figure found in Frogs! The question is asked simply, 'Which of these is the 'original' Heracles?' However, the lecture does make the point, somewhat pedantically, that Thebes, though portrayed in Hercules as a New York style city by the sea, was in fact inland! On a more serious note the talk asks the question why should Disney follow the original story of say 'The Little Mermaid' when the original story reflected the self-repressive attitudes and psychology of Hans Christian Anderson that is hardly a positive image for young adults today. In this section of the lecture, the talk also looks at other academic approaches and attitudes to Disney such as gender, race, and pedagogy as well as personal, ideological and political readings. On the whole the talk rejects the call for academics to put forward 'privileged dominant readings of Disney animated films' , as suggested by some in the world of academia, arguing that is not the job of teachers to tell students how and what to think. The lecture also suggests, much against the current wave of criticism of Disney, that recent academics have sometimes taken a too literal approach to Disney, ignoring the work of people like Bettelheim who argues that literalness is unhelpful in understand fairy stories. For example, many critics ask why, if Disney cares about family values, aren't there more mothers in the animations. As Bettelheim as pointed out, stories such as 'Cinderella' do have representations of motherhood, both good and bad, built into the story structure, except, of course, they are not in literal form. It is also suggested that academics are sometimes a little too selective in their approach. For example, much is made of consumerism in criticism of Disney, including Ariel representing aspirations of consumerism by collecting the land objects. However, when Disney produced an anti-consumerist character such as Cruella Deville she is dismissed by some academics as an example merely of 'individual wickedness'. The talk suggests that this is hardly an even handed approach.
The lecture goes on to apply the seminal Campbell model of mythical story structure to Hercules, using the Joseph Campbell theory as set out in his book on myth and story, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. This involves the Call to Adventure (the discovery of the token), the Refusal (Phil's reluctance to accept the challenge), the Road of Trials (the first of many being Nessus), the Apotheosis (achieved by Hercules through self-sacrifice) and the Refusal of the Return (a rejection of his god form because he wishes to remain human). The talk then spends some time looking at the role of Mentor archetypes in Disney animation, concentrating on Phil in Hercules.
Having set out some of the mythological elements of story in Hercules, the lecture goes back to the first point made about Disney and the animation genre and that is its primary audience. Although not defining of genre, it can be argued that if academic critics ignore the key appeal of Disney animation for children then they are missing the genre's central nature and purpose. Here the talk suggests that the central theme of the Disney animated classics is the story of the outsider in their own community: Dumbo, Ariel, Belle, Quasimodo and even, despite his strength, Hercules. So many of these Disney characters are runaways from their own community, especially Pinocchio and Simba. Each story involves some degree of re-integration within that community or acceptance of a new community. What Bettelheim argues is that all children see themselves as outsiders to some degree and fairy stories at the very basic level are a means by which the child can cope with unconscious conflicts concerning their place in society. Although another writer on fairy stories, Marina Warner, argues for a more historical context for such stories there is still an acknowledgement that fairy stories of whatever period reflect the real domestic contexts that children find themselves in. The talk argues that either of these approaches to Disney animation is a more fruitful endeavour than the current pedagogy that dominates most academic criticism of Disney.
The Godfather series - The gangster movie genre
The talk on The Godfather begins by looking at the general nature of the gangster genre. First the lecture examines the various story patterns traditionally associated with gangster movies. These include the rise-and-fall plot (Public Enemy, The Krays), the cop-as-gangster (Donnie Brasco, White Heat), going straight (Roaring Twenties, Good Fellas), the head-to-head conflict of good versus evil (The Untouchables, Heat) and the 'Blood Brothers' narrative (Angels With Dirty Faces). The talk then examines the conventional portrayal of the gangster, which range from the flawed hero of Roaring Twenties, to the sexual psychotic of White Heat and the socially corrupted champion of Angels With Dirty Faces. The talk notes that all these gangster personas were played by Jimmy Cagney, the defining character actor of the 30s and 40s movie mobster.
The lecture then moves on to examine the nature of the downfall of the gangster hero and in so doing the talk also looks at the morality and ideology of the gangster movies of the 30s, 40s and 50s. The lecture here tries to define the ethics and structure of the gangster world. In doing so, a comparison between the "shoot out" of the gangster movie, which has few, if any, codes of conduct, and the traditional western "dual" of the same period, which has carefully applied rules of conduct as the two men approach the moment of the draw, is presented. The talk then investigates some of the conflicts of the genre, where the 'hero' is actually a 'bad guy' who kills people and where the positive American Dream aspirations of that hero are expressed and fulfilled by ruthlessness and murder.
Having established an over view of the genre, the lecture then asks, 'How does The Godfather fit in or not fit in to these traditional parameters?' To answer this, the talk first looks at the both the ethos of the Mafia and the characterization of the Don, two aspects of The Godfather that have arguably been added to the gangster genre. Next, the Mafia world and the portrayal of the 'Don' are compared to the representation of gangster worlds of the past and the representation of the traditional gangster hero. The talk suggests that the conventional 'downfall' of the gangster has been replaced in The Godfather with a more complex 'Faust' like story pattern where success destroys a man's soul but not his physical nature. The talk argues that The Godfather is, as Coppola himself has suggested, a modern myth of a family dynasty and more specifically the myth of kingship and succession — "a king who had three sons". Further examined is the claim made by Coppola and others that The Godfather is a metaphor for Capitalism and a metaphor for America.
The talk then moves on to look at the stylistic presentation of The Godfather, contrasting the traditional documentary greys and the découpage classique editing style of the 1930's world of the gangster movie with the cinematic art house style that became the hallmark of the Godfather series, that is, the 'Rembrandt' source lighting style of Gordon Willis and the Eisenstein conflict editing approach that can be found, for example, in the famous Baptism sequence.
The talk finally develops the argument for seeing The Godfather as a true Greek tragedy. The lecture compares one of the main themes of The Godfather with that of Greek drama, namely private vengeance versus public justice. Also developed here is the idea of kataskaphe, a key concept in Greek tragedy, meaning the razing of a dynasty, and this idea is suggested as a major aspect of the whole Godfather trilogy. The talk then looks at the complex Greek concept of hamartia. The lecture argues that Michael Corleone is not a flawed' character in the Christian concept of hamartia, but that he is truly a Greek character whose 'error' or hamartia was to go against 'the will of the gods' found in his own religious tradition in both his choice of wife and in the killing of his own brother. The talks also suggests that the Greek concept of philos, a bond of blood-line proportions that is developed by Aristotle in his Poetics, is another key and essential element in understanding and seeing The Godfather as a truly Greek tragedy.
In this talk on Pleasantville, the focus is on how cinema represents television
In this talk on Pleasantville, the focus is on how cinema represents television. The talk begins by considering Marshall McLuhan's famous remark from his book Understanding Media (1964) which says, "the medium is the message". The talk asks, one, to what extent the medium does shape and influence the message it transmits and, two, to what extent in these so-called post-modernist days are we too 'knowing' of the nature of the medium. Picking up on this last point, the lecture suggests that far from being a recent innovation, mediums have always had an awareness of themselves as a medium' or as transmitter of information, often from the birth of the medium in question. For example, in the novel there is Sterne's Tristram Shandy and in the theatre there is Aristophanes's The Poet and the Women. In cinema history there is the early example of Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr. The question is then asked, 'When a medium explores the nature of itself or another medium what aspect of that medium is being represented, the form, the creative process or the audience response?'
Before considering how cinema represents the medium of television the talk sets out some of the differences between the two mediums, including time, specifically duration and frequency, and space, particularly use of fictional space. The talk then notes that although there are differences, the two mediums do have one thing in common that is not to be found in any other medium in the same way and that is editing. However, the talk does point out that the two mediums have different editing styles and the lecture specifically discusses the television editing style of the American 1950s sit-com and its relationship to Pleasantville. The choice for the director in making Pleasantville was to choose between the presentational style of the sit-com form of the 1950s and the film editing style of the modern era. The basic point is that Pleasantville looks like a film not like a film reproducing a television form. Also on the subject of presentational style, the talk observes that television in the 1950s was in black and white, adding, that since it is in the nature of black and white not to be realistic, black and white is therefore always clearly a 'representation' of reality and can never be a simple reproduction of reality. This may seem a relatively unimportant observation but for younger cinemagoers and watchers of television, who are almost exclusively brought up on colour in both mediums, it is a major presentational difference. More importantly the change from black and white to colour is the main visual conceit of the film.
The talk then moves on to consider several key terms in academia that are often used to discuss film and medium referencing such as reflexivity, inter-textuality and meta-textuality. Reflexivity comes from the idea of the reflexive pronoun, for example, 'himself' - this lecturer thinks a great deal of himself. An example in film would be The Player, which ends with the central plot of The Player being offered to the character of the Player in the film as an idea for a movie. Inter-textuality occurs when another film (or text) is brought into the world of a film. For example, Wayne's World has a scene where the policeman from Terminator II asks, "Have you seen this boy?" Meta-textuality occurs when the film draws attention to its own filmic nature. In George of the Jungle, for example, the voice-over narrator observes, "Meanwhile, back at the big and expensive jungle set". The talk suggests that although such terms can be useful in introducing ideas there are also other less 'jargony' words that are equally useful when considering film referencing, and these include evoke, parody and homage. The lecture then lists a few of the references made in Pleasantville. The set design, for example, has a look of The Donna Reed Show and Don Knotts, famous as Barney Fife in the 1960's series The Andy Griffith Show, is cast as the TV repair man. Both clearly refer back to another era. As well as television references there are references to films, especially Patton and Citizen Kane in the portrayal of the Mayor. Also, the whole fantasy plot is Capraesque in that it draws from It's a Wonderful Life in both its structure and its setting. Indeed a strong aspect of the film's referencing comes from its use of 1950s iconographic images of small town America such as the pebbles at the girl's window and the soda cafe. Towards the end of the movie the allusions are brought up to date with a reference to the town of 'Springfield', the home of The Simpsons. There are also visual references to the Bible, specifically Eden and the apple of knowledge. The question the lecture is asking is, 'Can the complexity and range of the referencing that is present Pleasantville be accommodated by film studies jargon and, more importantly as far as the film itself is concerned, do such references conflict and potentially confuse the viewer?' One key point that can be raised as a result of the multiplicity of references is that Pleasantville is not just concerned with television and a focus on the medium of television alone would be a disservice to the film.
The lecture then moves on to briefly mention some films about films. These include movies about the film business (Get Shorty), film making (Shadow of a Vampire), stardom (A Star is Born), and the audience (Play It Again, Sam). Some are affectionate portrayals, some are more satirical. Next the lecture considers films about television that cover similar themes, including Broadcast News, Capricorn One, To Die For and King of Comedy. Following on from this, the question is asked, 'In the cinema's portrayal of the mediums of film and television, which medium is presented as telling the biggest lie?' To answer this, the lecture compares Singing in the Rain to Quiz Show. Both tell a lie, essentially both have characters speaking words that are not their own, but television tells the bigger lie. Another lie in television is that of the best friend in The Truman Show. The lecture develops this theme with numerous examples and then briefly compares films about the watching of television (Poltergeist and Videodrome) with films about the watching of movies (Cinema Paradiso and The Long Day Closes). This issue is the major theme of the lecture on Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo. The point of all these examples and observations is that, unlike most representations of television in the movies, the representation of television in Pleasantville is hardly clear-cut. Is the sit-com Pleasantville a good or bad programme? Is it good or bad to watch such television? In a way though, suggests the talk, these are the wrong questions. Gary Ross, the writer and director of Pleasantville, in the DVD commentary claims that the movie is about the failure of people to connect with the world. Both David and Jennifer fail to connect with the world around them, but when they do finally connect that is the moment when they change colour. Likewise the world of the town of Pleasantville, as presented in the film, had failed to connect with the real world of the 1950s and it is only when jazz and Picasso arrive in Pleasantville that it finally changes colour. The talk concludes this section by observing that television of the 1950s did not lie directly but it did lie through omission. The talk makes the observation that in more recent years movies have taken a more positive view in general of the power and influence of television citing examples such was Frost/ Nixon and Goodnight, and Good Luck.
The talk moves to a conclusion by observing that when film represents television the representation of television might not be what the film is actually about. If that is the only consideration then one might be missing the entire point of the film. The Truman Show might be regarded as being about television but it is also about rejecting the notion of the 'Grand Narrative' of life, where every action has a reason, every cause has an effect and every event has a purpose. Indeed the name of the guide or god-like overseer is Christoff. The talk suggests that Pleasantville is not really about television even though its representation of television is complex and challenging. Instead the lecture offers the idea that the real focus of Pleasantville, and numerous other films of the last twenty years, is America coming to terms with its so-called Utopian era of the 1950s. The talk argues that Pleasantville is setting out a third way of living with the past in the present. It seems to be suggesting not an attitude of outright rejection of the past, as Jennifer at first seems to represent, nor an outright rejection of the present, as David seems to want in the early section of the movie, but instead a coming to terms with both.
The Die Hard lecture discusses the action movie genre
The Die Hard lecture discusses the action movie genre, a genre largely ignored by academics and generally undervalued by critics and even the film making community. A great action movie remains though one of the most popular reasons for going to the cinema and yet, as the talk argues, it is still one of the most difficult to write and make work well.
The lecture begins by asking 'What is 'action'?', tracing the idea and its dramatic usage right back to Aristotle and his Poetics. It then takes various concepts of action such as purpose, desire, plan, project and plot and argues that clarity in the action line and how it is manifested in a physical manner is the defining feature of the action movie. In tandem with this goes the ability to create a situation in which that clear and distinct action line is developed imaginatively.
The lecture then moves on to ask, 'What is the special appeal of the action genre?' Here the talk looks at the verisimilitude of cinema compared with other media such as the novel, stage and radio. It examines too the pleasure of plot, suggesting no other movie genre puts quite so much emphasis on the strategy of the plot, its reveals, its twists as does the action genre with the emerging strategy and counter-strategy of the characters. It is in this sense that the action movie is creative even if such creativity is underrated and undervalued by academics, critics and the film community.
The appeal of the action genre is also examined in terms of the 'rooting interest' and the empathetic sense of danger. The psychology of the audience is one of the key elements often overlooked in examining genre and particularly the action genre, and this talk argues for a far more active audience involvement IN the action than is traditionally proposed.
The lecture then moves on to examine the action genre in the context of 'shame culture', an anthropological term defining a culture that puts great emphasis on the loner hero and the importance of doing the right thing based on how others think of you. The lecture compares the action movie to the Western, the ultimate 'shame culture' movie genre. The values of the hero in Die Hard are compared to the traditional value system of the hero in a Western.
The lecture next examines traditional 'readings' of the action movie genre in the context of Die Hard. These include the perceived threat to masculinity (John McClane is an outsider in a world where his wife is second in command of a multinational company) and nationalistic pride (the building is in LA but owned by Japan, the gang are German and McClane is betrayed by the incompetence of his own countrymen, the FBI). This section of the talk suggests that it is possible for the action movie to have and deal with complex social and political sub-texts. It argues that what makes Die Hard a classic 1980s movie from a twenty-first century perspective are precisely these social and political undercurrents that were clearly always present in the original screenplay.
The next section of the lecture examines in detail some of the creative problems in developing and writing an action movie. These include the problem of giving the hero depth of character and the justification for what he does sometimes called the 'warrant for action' (meaning in this context the use of violence as a justified moral action in the halting of an initial violence). This section of the talk also looks at different types of hero such as the anti-hero (Maltese Falcon, Unforgiven), the rogue hero (Lethal Weapon), the comedy/trickster hero (Beverly Hills Cop) and the travelling angel hero (Fistful of Dollars). The lecture suggests that John McClane is a rich combination of all these different types which in part explains his appeal. In terms of the 'warrant for action', the lecture looks at the particular problems the action movie genre has faced since 9/11. Several action movies have used alien invasion as a warrant for action, though even here there remains contemporary social and political undertones, notably, for example, in War of the Worlds.
The lecture next examines the 'arena' of the action movie. These can vary. In some action movies the arena is a moving arena (Speed, Raiders of the Lost Arc), in others it is completely enclosed and often even contracting (Airport, Towering Inferno, Poseidon Adventure). Die Hard, the lecture suggests, is a fascinating combination of the best elements of these two arenas of actions. Again the psychology of the audience is addressed in this section of the talk, with special consideration of the fear of enclosed spaces and natural resistance to the unnatural experience of flying or diving.
The lecture then moves on to consider one of the most misunderstood aspects of the action genre and that is the conflict of the forces of opposition. The lecture argues that the dramatic strength of Die Hard lies in its brilliant balance of its forces of opposition. The talk argues that in the action genre the 'protagonist' is not necessarily the 'hero' but sometimes the villain as, strictly speaking, the protagonist is the one with the action-plan whereas it is the antagonist with the counter-action. In the context of Die Hard, the villain then is the 'protagonist' and the hero the 'antagonist'. It is the both the imaginative strategy of the 'protagonist-villain' and the inventive countering of the plan by the 'antagonist-hero' that give so much dramatic pleasure in the movie. Related to this part of the discussion is the argument that much of the richness of the plotting is dependent on a comprehensive understanding of the many principles and stratagems of warfare. One aspect of these stratagems is that they depend on 'jungle warfare'. The film-makers themselves knowingly created Die Hard as 'jungle picture' in the sense that the world of the urban building, unfinished and still under construction, often takes on the appearance of a jungle environment.
The lecture then moves on to trace the history of the action genre back to the early Westerns, but argues that the first recognisable action movie was Gunga Din. The talk illustrates that in the history of the action genre certain 'compulsory scenes' have become a necessary feature. These include the non-violent confrontation of the villain and hero, the perilous situation when the hero is at the mercy of the villain and the reversal of that situation so that the villain is at the mercy of the hero. Such scenes can be found in a whole array of action movies, including Con Air, Raiders of the Lost Arc, Heat, True Lies, Jewel in the Nile and most notably the 007 Bond series. There are also movies such as Blade Runner where the boundaries of hero and villain are somewhat blurred with the result that these scenes become subverted and ambiguous.
The final section of the talk anticipates the change and development that might be possible in the action movie genre in the future. More females 'heroes' of the action movie may emerge, developing on from movies such as Alien and Laura Croft. Satire and comedy may also become a means of developing the genre. Also animation offers the genre further possibilities and the continued use of the 'comic book' tradition of heroes such as Batman and the X-Men. Despite the action movie being seen as violent it is interesting to note the number of heroes in the genre who transcend violence: Star Wars, Blade Runner, Mulan and Princess Bride. The irony of the action genre is that in the future its underlying value system may become that of non-violence as the primary means of overcoming initial violent action. Or not, as the case may be.
The talk on Wayne's World examines the ideas of post-modernism and their influence and their manifestation in the movies
The talk on Wayne's World examines the ideas of post-modernism and their influence and their manifestation in the movies. The lecture begins by asking 'Why choose Wayne's World'? True, it is hardly an example of serious film-making in cinema and certainly a film with more artistic merit could have been chosen, especially one with an 'Art House' or even 'indie' or 'underground' tag. The answer lies in part with Wayne's World way of toying with its narrative boundaries and its awareness of itself as a movie, both key elements in post-modernism. However, the very fact that it is an iconic movie celebrating television, the most disposable medium in the popular culture of our generation, makes Wayne's World an ideal representative of post-modernism and the perfect subject for post-modernist analysis - "Not!"?
The lecture begins with a look back at an earlier generation and the classic Chuck Jones cartoon Duck Amuck with Bugs Bunny controlling the animation story in which Daffy Duck is appearing, which, as with Wayne's World, also breaks the boundaries of its story and the medium of the narrative. Here the talk introduces the idea of the Jungian 'Trickster' figure, often associated with post-modern anarchy. The lecture argues that Wayne is created in this 'Trickster' mould and comes from the same movie tradition that includes Bugs Bunny and Groucho Marx. The talk puts Garth in the role of 'Puer Aeternus', the eternal boy or innocent abroad.
In practice, the 'Trickster' in a narrative is a de-stabilizer, at odds with order, and, in the context of creating a story in a movie, at odds with the very concept of 'The Grand Narrative', a pre-modernist view of the story world. Wayne's World revels in introducing other narratives into its story (inter-textuality) and pointing out the unreality of the cinematic medium within which its story is being presented (meta-textuality). The Trickster is also a comic force of reduction, attacking order, levelling people and cultural ideals, bringing everything down to his lower level. However, subversion, de-stabilization and attacking those in authority have been around for centuries in drama and literature so the lecture now asks, 'What is different about the post-modern perspective?'
Before looking at post-modernism, the lecture briefly examines the main ideas of 'modernism'. The talk outlines the history of the modernism from its roots in the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment (Kant, Locke etc), to the emergence of the Industrial Revolution, culminating in the First World War, the evolutionary ideas of Darwin and to the later psychological theories of Freud, the social theories of Marx and the anthropological research of James Frazer. The talk suggests that the Age of Reason, in putting Mankind's capacity to reason above all other aspects of existence, ultimately failed in its goal of understanding Mankind itself. Indeed the very quest of reason led to doubt and ended in confusion. The talk suggests that the human freedom to reason, pursued in the reasoned methods of Freud, Darwin, Marx and so on, ironically unlocked doubt and confusion as to Man's capacity and ability to be a truly free reasoning agent. To put it bluntly, free reasoning ended up proving it wasn't free to reason. The individual in modernist philosophy became unknowable to himself. An individual's real intentions (Freud), one's social position and role in society (Marx), one's true religious beliefs (Frazer) and even one's place in the history of the planet (Darwin) were respectively unconscious, controlled by others, relative not excluasive and part of an ongoing process rather than one of a theological or even teleological purpose. The individual was now alienated from his own mind and society, and from God because God was now dead. Man was a stranger to himself, living in a meaningless and purposeless universe where failure and futility were supreme. Cheerful stuff, Modernism.
Modernism, of course, was not only a philosophy it was also a creative and artistic movement. One of its key aspects in this context was its reaction against the prevailing 'Realist' tradition. Put simply, Realism sets out to produce the effect of reality whereas modernism sets out to present reality as a mere effect, something not really real at all (just compare Austen to Woolf or Shaw to Beckett). At its heart modernism doubts realism's ability to be either real or true. This is best seen in the context of the visual artists of modernism but it is also present in its literature and to some degree in its cinema. Often the modernist creative figures were a pretty exclusive bunch, very much aware of their own artistic merit and sometimes unwilling to let in any old painter or writer into their elite circle of artistic expression. Another key element of the modernist movement was the deliberate attempt of modernism to be 'modern', to go out of its way just to be new. The lecture briefly discusses the movie Citizen Kane in the context of these aspects of modernism. For example, in Citizen Kane new techniques of representation are used in a knowingly new but arguably a gimmicky manner. Also, on a philosophical level, a key point the film seems to be making is that no man can be knowably presented in a movie, no matter how real it purports to be.
With all this in mind the talk then compares the ideas at the heart of Wayne's World in the context of the ideas of modernism. Far from being a world of alienation, Wayne's World is essentially a 'Buddy-Buddy' movie. No one is completely unknowable with a mate - or better still, a Babe! And the artist in Wayne's World is democratic not elite, he is a suburban male in his basement, producing television for anyone who wants to watch it. And yes, the movie seems to be saying that the medium of the movie isn't real but, what the hell!, enjoy its unreality instead of undermining its possibilities! Post-modernism's message seems to be 'Modernism should just get cool!'
The lecture then moves on to take a look at the term 'post-modernism'. The term was first coined in the 1960s and has been seen by some to be the cultural term to sum up the period from the 60s to the late 80s. It has many meanings and applications - Damien Hirst, Big Brother and Graham Norton have all been describes as 'post-modern'. In the movies, films such as Pulp Fiction, Blue, The Player, Swingers, Clerks, My Own Private Idaho, Moulin Rouge and Reservoir Dogs have all been tagged 'post-modern'. The term is pluralistic and not as neatly confined or as defined as modernism. It is a rainbow term and is inclusive in its nature. A key feature though of post-modernism is a reluctance to distinguish between high and low art. It makes no distinctions between Bartok and Girls Aloud or EastEnders and Der Rosencavalier. In this context, the Wayne's World narrative is operating in, traditionally speaking, the 'lowest' of all media output: cable television. It is interesting to compare other films of recent years that have taken the medium of television as their focus. Few celebrate television, look, for example, at movies as Broadcast News, Quiz Show, Wag the Dog, To Die For and King of Comedy. Wayne's World though unashamedly says television is fun and is good for you.
An important aspect of post-modernism is the attitude that, since all narratives have been told and we now have an awareness of narrative itself, the only option there is must be to mix up narratives and make the audience aware that it is being presented with a narrative. In Wayne's World II not only does the audience get references to Batman and The Graduate it also gets references to story theory itself, with moments when the characters talk about how the story will 'pay-off' later and there are discussions too about the nature of the 'Herald' and the 'Mentor', both dramatic models for the Hollywood story gurus who use the theories of mythology highlighted by the academic Joseph Campbell.
Two key aspects of the post-modernist narrative technique are inter-textuality and meta-textuality. Inter-textuality in the context of Wayne's World simply means referencing other movies or 'texts'. Other movies of course do this: Swingers with GoodFellas, My Own Private Idaho with both Henry IV and The Wizard of Oz. Wayne's World references Terminator II ("Have you seen this boy?") and Psycho and Mission Impossible. Meta-textuality means basically making the audience aware it is watching a 'text' or movie. This technique goes back to Aristophanes and the first Greek comedies. It is also found in the early development of the novel (Tristram Shandy) and in 70s and 60s movies such as Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Weekend. In Wayne's World it is found in the subtitles (in Wayne's World II it is bad dubbing) and in various self-conscious camera moves. The talk also at this point discusses the philosophy of story in a post-modernist context.
The lecture then looks at the various arguments for and against post-modernism (the 'posties' verses the 'anti-posties'). This is seen in the context of the seemingly eternal battles between those who celebrate the new and the modern, and those who are concerned with respect for the old and the established (Swifts' Tale of a Tub from the late 1690s is an example of this eternal argument). The lecture ends with a brief look at Hellzapoppin', the Wayne's World of its day. It asks, 'Will those present in the lecture bemused at the antics of Hellzapoppin' see their grand-children equally bemused in several generations time by their beloved Wayne's World? And if Wayne's World doesn't last, does it matter? It was fun while it lasted. Not!'
The talk begins by making the somewhat obvious observation that we are all storytellers
The talk begins by making the somewhat obvious observation that we are all storytellers. Story telling is one of the defining characteristics of the human species. The need for story, as much as food and water, seems to be part of our genetic wiring and make up. Myths are passed from one generation to the next in such a way that stories act as a sort of encoded DNA so that messages can be passed on, as it were, from past to future, and from one generation to the next. Stories contain ideas, values and lessons that help shape what we believe and how we think and see the world. Stories connect the individual to society by seeing and empathising with the lives of others and also help connect the individual to himself or herself by seeing aspects of oneself in the lives of others. In this sense of 'connection' stories and myths become a means of seeing how a society thinks and how individuals see themselves within the context of that world. In looking at the specifics of the Hollywood Story Formula the lecture asks, 'To what extent can the American movie reveal about America and what is to be an American?'
The talk first looks at the idea of 'dramatic conflict' in stories. There are many areas of conflict in drama, internal with oneself, external with other individuals at a personal level plus conflict with whole groupings such as institutions and powers of government. There is also conflict with the environment and at an almost spiritual level there is conflict with the cosmic forces of destiny and those forces beyond our nature. The two extremes, internal conflict and cosmic conflict are more likely to be explored in the form of novels (the internal conflict of a human being is notably found in the works of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce) and epic mythology (the cosmic forces of destiny feature heavily in Greek theatre and the Homeric tradition) rather than in the standard Hollywood movie. The classic American story does though involve conflict with other individuals, social conflict with institutions and authority and the conflict of man with the environmental forces of nature. Jaws is a classic example. Individuals are in conflict throughout, there is also a battle of the Roy Scheider character with the commercial institutions of the beach represented by the Mayor and, as the movie progresses, the conflict of man with the sea and one the greatest antagonist of nature, the shark. Gone with the Wind too works with similar components in that there is a love triangle, a war setting and strenuous battle with the land and, famously, fire, with a city ablaze. The same can be said for The African Queen, which explores the conflict between the drunk sailor and the preacher's sister, against the setting of the First World War with the physical demands of the rapids and the swamps to contend with. The key point in all these films from the perspective of the talk is that the individual can and does make a difference. And it is not a small change that the individual makes but one that is substantial with lasting effects.
The talk suggests that these components of story are very different in what can be said to be the European tradition. The individual can and does make a difference, but it smaller and perhaps more realistic in scope. For example, the film Of Gods and Men, concerning Trappist monks in the middle of a conflict in Algeria in the 1990s, is about a group rather than an individual who do make a difference but it is relatively small and ultimately short lived. Some might even see it as futile, at least in a worldly sense. The talk suggests that the thinking and scope behind the distinctly bigger American thinking comes from the importance of the individual in the pioneering tradition. In anthropological terms American has been, and to some degree still is, a pioneer county in a way not seen or experienced in Europe. Central to the myth of the West is the lone hero, often outside the law in some way, who is ultimately though on the side of what is right. In Star Wars Hans Solo isn't called 'Solo' for nothing.
The talk then goes on to look at the tradition of what is sometimes called 'The Theory of the Grand Narrative'. This way of seeing the world perceives life as a series of casual events, events that are purposeful with an ultimate and achievable goal, where trials are overcome and where when the aim is accomplished the individual changes irrevocably so that a personal form of closure is reached and maintained. It is neat, clear and simple. The Grand Narrative is perhaps how we would like to see the world rather than perhaps how it truly is. Nevertheless, this way of seeing life is the one that is predominantly presented and told by Hollywood. The lecture suggests that perhaps part of human nature is to do with this way of thinking in that to some degree we are, as it were, 'hard-wired' as humans to search for connecting links, we have a brain programmed to find patterns and so we shouldn't be too surprised to find that many stories reflect that psychology and method. In life, it could be said, human beings find purpose and meaning in stories and so we think that we will find meaning and purpose in our lives if we see our lives as a story, with all its causal links and drives. The lecture though points out that this is not how everyone sees life at all. Experience shows us that life is not neat, not clear and rarely if ever simple. In Hollywood and American terms though, this is the way of seeing a story even though it is certainly not shared by the European and Russian traditions.
The lecture then goes on to focus on two films that are examples of the American or Hollywood way of presenting and telling story: The Shawshank Redemption and Casablanca. Both use prisons in a literal and metaphorical way. Both are redemption stories. Both feature a central figure of one man who can and does make a substantial difference to his life and the lives of others. Both stories too are love stories of male friendship and bonding.
The lecture then begins to look in more detail at structure, story components and narrative techniques. A guide-book setting out the way to create a story and specifically how to write a screenplay goes back at least as far 1945 with the publication of The Technique of Screenplay Writing by Eugene Vale. Arguable though it is a tradition that can be ultimately traced back to Aristotle's Poetics. The lecture looks, therefore, at one of his principles of dramatic construction, "the change from ignorance to knowledge" (anagnorisis), a modern way of expressing this would be the recognition 'story point' in the twist or turn of the plot. Numerous examples are offered as to how this works in practice in recent movies. Next Aristotle's principle of "the change of fortune to the unexpected outcome" (peripeteia) and the "leading to astonishment" (thaumaston). Again numerous examples are offered before examining how all of these dramatic techniques work in context with both The Shawshank Redemption and Casablanca, especially their links to the theme of Redemption. Once seen as mechanisms of story, story techniques to some degree lose their mystery, a bit like seeing the backstage life of the world of the magician, nevertheless they are very effective and, at least in Hollywood terms, perhaps now unconsciously required by the audience due to repetitive viewing over the years of movies that work in this way. The worry, suggests the lecture, is to begin to believe that that is the only way a story can or should work.
The lecture goes on to argue that what is important in these two movies is that the hero is seen and presented as the hero of his own story. It presents an ethos that says, 'I can change and become the person who I believe I can become and who I am meant to be'. It is also pointed out that each movie makes sense (without too much thought to some of the practicalities of the action) and is coherent, which, again in comparison with the European tradition of movie making tradition is not always so (compare, for example, the films of Haneke such as The White Ribbon and Hidden with your standard Hollywood movie). Some examples though are offered of some American movies in a similar vein but it is pointed out these are often low-budget independents with a limited cult following.
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