This is an excerpt from a recent talk I gave at the Center for the Advancement of Teaching:
“In my encounters with Shakespeare and other dramatists, I have come to believe in the primacy of argument. I arrive at this conclusion because argument lies at the heart of Western drama.
This emphasis on argument stems from ancient Greek drama. This is fully realized, for instance, in the debate between Antigone and Creon over the burial of Polyneices, her brother. What is missing from our contemporary world of production is often the interplay of debate, the thrust and parry of competing visions of the world. What is also frequently absent is an actor’s ability to articulate a character’s particular vision of the world persuasively.
This is our ongoing challenge in putting on a play. We should continue to probe ideas through focusing on argument in drama and drama as argument. This can include Shakespeare, his Elizabethan and Jacobean colleagues, or George Bernard Shaw, himself a fabled arguer, through Ibsen and Strindberg, and concluding with Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and a host of others. Shaw, an early champion of Ibsen, created plays such as Major Barbara and Heartbreak House in which ideas clashed. O’Neill studied those damaged by war, modern fables, and pipe dreams, in plays such as Mourning Becomes Electra (his revision of the House of Atreus saga of ancient Greece), Strange Interlude, and The Iceman Cometh. Ibsen’s work in Ghosts and A Doll’s House unshackled women from a Victorian conception of marriage.
In Dance of Death and Lady from the Sea, Strindberg wrote of a world in which men and women had been forced into adversarial roles. Miller, currently undergoing a reassessment in line with the 100th hundredth anniversary of his birth, was also a social critic. His work depicts dreamers trapped in a capitalist nightmare in Death of a Salesman, and immigrants bound by society’s dictates struggling to attain the right to work in A View from the Bridge. And in A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Williams dramatically explored the problems of those whose sexual behavior deviated from the heteronormative practices of the mid twentieth century.
Eric Bentley’s book The Playwright as Thinker (1946) aptly sums up the role of many of these dramatists. They were not writing entertainment; they were thinking through the problems of their times. When transferred to the mass media, their ideas were inevitably watered down. This reveals the inadequacies of the motion picture and the studio system’s reluctance to contend with the problems of modern life. The rise of movies with sound as the primary mode of popular entertainment placed an emphasis on the primacy of emotion.
The Root of Dramatic Argument
But in my view, genuine feelings, feelings with human and social significance, and feelings possessing dramatic power, derive from an argument either explicit or implied. And just as feeling is most compelling when buttressed by argument, argument is most persuasive when allied and entangled with feeling. The question becomes how to recognize and access a character’s emotion in relationship to the language and formal structure of the play. And the best way, I believe, to arrive at this emotional component is to understand the dramatic argument at its root.
Sophocles’ Antigone has incited argument and debate from its premiere, circa 442/41 BCE. This play still has the power to ignite passions that inflame the young and old, religious and secular thinkers, women and men, and those who subscribe to a law presumed to be natural versus those who favor the laws of the state. Some view the debate between Creon and Antigone, uncle and niece, brother-in- law and daughter of Oedipus respectively, as a mere repetition of fixed positions, seeing their clash as an irresolvable conflict. There is no final resolution to the arguments presented in this essay, which is why we turn to them again and again. Analyzing their debates will continue to engage and teach us about dramatic art and the complexity of thought.
Instruction in argument and debate is instrumental in the creation of a more articulate actor and, perhaps more importantly, the creation of a more intelligent citizenry. New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts has always attempted to produce thinking artists. Our approach to undergraduate education, combining a liberal arts emphasis with rigorous conservatory training, supports this effort. Our emphasis on argument creates more nuanced actors who are better able to embody characters and to convey the thinking and ideas inherent in a play’s script. Through their studio work in drama, and through their intellectual and emotional engagement with the arguments plays embody, students become more adept thinkers, readers, and communicators. One way to think about argument is to consider how it emerges in the thoughts of characters who soliloquize, who engage us in conversation.”
Louis Scheeder is cocreater of the Shakespeare Pronunciation Audio App.