21L.486 | Spring 2006 | Undergraduate

Modern Drama


Moving from drawing-room comedy to absurdism, from political protest to the theater of science, we will sample a wide range of the fascinating drama that has been composed during the past century. Many of these plays are now acknowledged “classics” of modern drama; the rest are prize-winning contemporary plays that have broken new ground. We will study them both as distinguished writing and as scripts for performance. During the first century of film, television, and computers, it seems that writers for the theater have been especially attuned to the relationships between past and present and to the changing role of their medium. Paying particular attention to the importance of nationalism, group categorization, and science in shaping modern life, much of their drama suggests that current events are inseparable from a larger cultural history. Several of these plays have been reconceived for the big or small screen. Within this multimedia and socio-historical context, we will consider what drama in particular has to offer now and in the future: this subject is therefore cross-listed by Literature and Comparative Media Studies, and can help satisfy the theater history requirement for the Theater Arts major.

This is also a HASS Communication-Intensive Course, in which we will work on improving your skills, awareness, and confidence as a writer and speaker. Knowing without sharing is insufficient. A variety of writing opportunities (including revision of the first essay), class reports, and performance work will aid us in realizing these goals.

Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week
1.5 hours / session


1 Introduction and Overview
2 Shaw’s Pygmalion and the Drama of Language
3 Pygmalion from Page to Screen
4 Pygmalion, My Fair Lady, and the Musical Drama
5 Pirandello’s Henry IV and Psychological Relativity
6 Brecht, Mother Courage and Her Children
7 Brechtian Politics and Dramaturgy, continued
8 Beckett, Happy Days
9 Beckett, Pinter, and Domestic Absurdism
10 Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire
11 Streetcar, Poetic Realism, and the Method
12 Hwang, M. Butterfly
13 Wilson, The Piano Lesson
14 Williams, Hwang, Wilson: American Dreams
15 Soyinka, Kongi’s Harvest
16 Smith, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992
17 Twilight Reflections, and Kushner, Angels in America, Part 1
18 Kushner, Angels in America, Parts 1 and 2
19 Angels Reflections
20 Frayn, Copenhagen, Streetcar
21 Stoppard, Hapgood
22 Stoppard
23 Churchill, A Number
24 Conclusions

The Film Office usually can provide copies of the films we screen, and you will want to avail yourself of this resource should you decide to write on a particular screen version. If you will not be able to attend a scheduled evening screening, however, please let me know well in advance, so that we can use the office staff’s time appropriately.


You should come to class ready and eager to discuss the assigned play. That means having read it (at least once), thought about it, and taken sufficient care of yourself to be alert in mind and body.

Each person will take a leadership role in teaching one play. This will involve generating a list of questions and possibly other helpful handouts or presentation materials; initiating the discussion; and being prepared to provide some context and answer informational questions from your colleagues. You may think of creative, exciting ways to convey key insights and aspects of the play: you may want to consult with me in advance. I will guarantee you 20-30 minutes of the class time, after which I may lead the class in directions not yet addressed (if that seems helpful). Each person will also read an “outside play” from the appended list, and give a short oral presentation to the class based on that reading and accompanying research (15 minutes maximum): in addition to allowing each one of you to become the class expert on one play, this will familiarize the group with more modern drama than we could (reasonably) manage to read collectively. I ask that you turn in to me your written materials (report outline, discussion questions, supporting materials, bibliography) after your oral presentations. Everyone will write two short (5-7 pp.) essays, the first focusing on close scene analysis, the second on the topic most compelling to you. Revision of one of the two assignments above is required; revision of both, optional. Turn in your original drafts along with revisions. [Original grade and revision grade will be averaged to replace the original grade.]

In addition, you will choose between two options: (A) write two more short (5-7 pp.) essays, most likely drawing upon the material in each of your two oral presentations, or (B) write one longer (10-12 pp.) essay, which might well draw on that research as well, in a focused, comparative format. If you intend to count this class as a seminar for purposes of the Literature concentration, minor, or major, I will ask that you choose option (B). If you would like to write an essay eligible for the Kelly Writing Prize, I suggest you aim for 15 pages instead of 10-12. I am receptive to multimedia essays, or other topic ideas you may have for your later writing assignments.

Approximate Valuation for Grading Purposes

Essay 1 10%
Essay 2 15%
Essay 3 or 3/4 25%
Outside Play Presentation 10%
Class Leadership 10%
Class Participation throughout the Semester (including attendance, viewings, quality of personal contributions and thoughtful exchange of ideas with others) 30%

I reserve the right to alter this weighting somewhat in exceptional circumstances; often this works to your advantage.

This is a twelve-unit subject, which assumes that you will allot nine hours/week outside the classroom for reading, writing, rehearsing, and thinking deep thoughts about twentieth-century drama.

Please Note: Written work must be submitted by the due date. Except in cases of personal emergency, late work will not receive written response and will receive a lower grade. Unless you receive an individual extension for special reasons or petition to receive a grade of Incomplete in the course, no work can be accepted after the end of the semester.

I hope that the following statement is unnecessary: conscious plagiarism of any sort is completely unacceptable. Discussion of ideas and communal learning is a primary goal of this subject; stealing others’ ideas or words, (as distinct from citing or adapting them openly and honestly) undermines this goal. Please consult my stylesheet (PDF) and talk with me if you have any doubts whatsoever about proper citation of sources or about standards of intellectual honesty. Any act of plagiarism will be grounds for failure of this subject. The following is the Literature Section’s official policy statement:

Plagiarism-use of another’s intellectual work without acknowledgement-is a serious offense. It is the policy of the Literature Faculty that students who plagiarize will receive an F in the subject, and that the instructor will forward the case to the Committee on Discipline. Full acknowledgement for all information obtained from sources outside the classroom must be clearly stated in all written work submitted. All ideas, arguments, and direct phrasings taken from someone else’s work must be identified and properly footnoted. Quotations from other sources must be clearly marked as distinct from the student’s own work. For further guidance on the proper forms of attribution consult the style guides available in the Writing and Communication Center in Stata and the MIT Web Site on Plagiarism.

In addition to welcoming your participation in class, I encourage you to discuss your ideas and your writing with me during office hours, or at other times convenient for us both. I hope to meet with each of you individually during the first half of the semester.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2006
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments with Examples