Description of take-home test + sample answer

ENGL 349: Modern Poetry in English

The take home test will involve answering one question on some general aspect or theme related to the course. Your answer should be a wide-ranging discussion, drawing on different authors and works that exemplify different ways in which the theme or aspect is manifested. I’m looking for a well-structured synthesis, an ability to make general claims without falling into generalization (including using specific examples to illustrate general trends). As always, you have to cite and reference any work you consult or quote.

A hard copy of this assignment is due in my departmental mailbox by 4:00 p.m. on Friday April 10. No late submissions. The paper should be about 3 pages long. For formatting and other related questions, see the Course Assignments page or check out the online writing resources on the Policies and Resources page.

Below is an example of the kind of discussion I have in mind. It is from the take-home from my own undergraduate course on Modern Drama. I can’t remember the question I was answering, but based on the essay itself, my guess was the question was something like this: “Discuss how modern drama deals with heroes or heroism.” (This is the kind of question you can expect for our course.) Your own take on the take home can vary: don’t try emulating my answer–use it as one of many possible ways to address the question you choose. Given that this course is “Modern Poetry,” your answer will probably require direct quotations than the essay below (because my essay is about plays that have plots, which can be paraphrased–unlike most poetry).

The End of Heroism in Modern Drama

Daniel A. Newman © 2007

In 1905 James Joyce wrote to his brother Stanislaus, “do you not think the search for heroics damn vulgar?”[1] The view is prevalent in Modern Literature generally, but because scepticism about heroics affects conflict, it is particularly relevant to Modern Drama. As traditional heroism became less tenable, tragic or comic dramatic conflict followed suit. With new forms of heroism necessarily came new forms of dramatic conflict.

The end of heroism seems to find its roots in realism. Heroism is incompatible with the doctrines of realist (including Naturalistic) theatre. Distancing themselves from classical and Romantic drama, the Naturalists attempted to capture the real lives of real people, which almost necessarily meant doing away with the unrealistic plot conventions that allow traditional protagonists to exist. Evil villains and whimsical gods were replaced as the hero’s foils by internal forces (heredity, indecision, complex motives) or external but unconscious ones (politics, social conditions, the environment). Hence the characters in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard are not impelled by heroic struggles, from which a sense of mission is easily recognized and accepted. Instead, they trundle almost aimlessly along their individual but intersecting paths. They do not propel themselves toward fulfilment, but rather inertly act only when it is no longer possible to stay still.

Realism made the idea of a single hero (a good guy, or even Good itself) dubious. As Strindberg writes, “there is no such thing as absolute evil”: what is evil to one person is good for another, and to exalt one as hero at the expense of the other is a totally unrealistic idea. “[The] multiplicity of motives,” continues Strindberg, “is typical of our times.”[2] This notion is antithetical to conceptions of heroism, and it survives breaks from Naturalist theatre in the works of Jarry, Pirandello, Brecht — plays wherein no character’s experience is dominant, let alone “right.” Without traditional heroes, the source and nature of dramatic conflict had to change.

The obsolescence of heroes complicates staging conflict among characters. If no viewpoint is granted special status, then the traditional resolutions of human-human conflicts risk becoming unsatisfying, dramatically speaking. New modes of conflict become necessary. The dramatist could look inward or outward, toward new sources of struggle for their characters.

The inter-character conflict between Solness and the “younger generation” (i.e., Ragnar) in The Master Builder is crucial, but hardly the central tension of the play. It is instead a symptom of the real conflict, which is in Solness. His fear of the younger generation has little to do with any antagonist — though it is embodied in some ways by Ragnar and by Hilde. The forces he opposes are products of internal conflict (guilt over his family tragedy and his refusal to build churches). Solness’s death is neither the happy end of Ragnar’s antagonist nor the fated defeat of a tragic hero: it is both, perhaps, and it might even be a little comic. By climbing and dying Solness does achieve a sort of heroism, especially if the fall is his intentional means of ‘winning’ his internal conflict, but this is a very new species of heroism. A modern heroism, flawed and ambiguous.

Society also provides good agent of conflict. In Mother Courage, capitalism and religion put people in conflicts of interest, but no individual is exactly guilty in the play, no matter how disturbing the consequences of his decisions. Conflict is not moral or idealistic, as in a classical or Romantic war play; it is instead the result of opposing individual struggles for existence. Here even an act of traditional heroism like Kattrin’s warning to the sleeping town is denied some of its melodramatic or tragic potential because her killers are humanized by recognizing their helplessness: they are forced by circumstance to kill her.

The conflicts between individual and society, like those that come from within or from a multiplicity of characters, cannot be resolved by the conventions of tragedy or comedy or even tragicomedy. The multifarious perspectives of various characters in modern plays lead to more complicated types of conflict for their protagonists. These include struggles against paralysis (e.g., in amoral dilemmas, such as Mother Courage’s non-choice between Swiss Cheese and her cart, her only means of survival); attempts to find freedom from the blind deterministic forces (e.g., in the changing social order in The Cherry Orchard); or quests for order and meaning against the spiralling complexities of identity (e.g., Pegeen’s attempt to fix Christy’s chameleon-like personality, the Characters’ disagreements about events in Six Characters in Search of an Author, or even Mère Ubu’s loss of control over her endlessly changeable husband).

These types of conflict are not easily resolvable. They cannot be wrapped up in a hero’s tragic death. Solness’s death, for example, opens up the meaning of his life, rather than giving it closure. Neither can they be put right by a device such as the marriage that ends so many comedies. Even if Varya and Lopakhin had decided to marry, too much uncertainty at the end of the play would leave the audience no less unsure about the characters’ future happiness. They end in endlessly interpretable ambiguity, in paradox, in mise-en-abyme, in circularity. The end of Six Characters in Search of an Author eludes fixity; the conflict among the Characters is fixed and eternal, and yet the play’s structure teases the audience with the glimmering illusion of plausible solutions. Ubu Roi’s final escape is ridiculous, leaving no conceivable way to imagine how a different ending would alter the meaning of the play. The Master Builder leaves the audience to interpret Solness’s death through the imperfect interpretations of Hilde, Ragnar, and Mrs Solness; the only character who might shed any light on the resolution of the play’s central conflict has resolved it by dying in the distance.

In modern drama, conflict is no longer a spur for plot and eventual resolution by a hero. Heroism evolves in response to multiple viewpoints, cosmic absurdity, and amorally/unconsciously deterministic forces; conflict, no longer a binary (such as good vs. evil), can no longer be resolved by either/or scenarios.

[1] James Joyce, qtd in Declan Kiberd (ed.), “Introduction,” Ulysses, by James  Joyce (Toronto: Penguin, 2000), ix – lxxx.

[2] August Strindberg, “Preface,” Miss Julie (New York: Dover, 1992), ix – xx.

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