21L.703 | Spring 2014 | Undergraduate

Studies in Drama: Stoppard and Company


Course Meeting Times

Sessions: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Course Description

Taking as its starting point the works of one of Britain’s most respected, prolific—and funny—living dramatists, this seminar will explore a wide range of knowledge in fields such as math, philosophy, politics, history and art. The careful reading and discussion of plays by (Sir) Tom Stoppard and some of his most compelling contemporaries (including Caryl Churchill, Anna Deveare Smith and Howard Barker) will allow us to time-travel and explore other cultures, and to think about the medium of drama as well as one writer’s work in depth. Some seminar participants will report on earlier plays that influenced these writers, others will research everything from Lord Byron’s poetry to the bridges of Konigsberg, from Dadaism to Charter 77. Employing a variety of critical approaches (both theoretical and theatrical), we will consider what postmodernity means, as applied to these plays. In the process, we will analyze how drama connects with both the culture it represents and that which it addresses in performance. We will also explore the wit and verbal energy of these contemporary dramatists…not to mention, how Fermat’s theorem, classical translation, and chaos theory become the stuff of stage comedy.


Reading, class participation and contribution, including watching films, providing feedback, and other events 30
Reports and class leadership 20
Focused single-play analysis (5 pages / 1250 words) 10
Self-assessments, scene and other writing 15
Major analytical essay / project (15 pages) 25

I reserve the right to alter the weighting somewhat in exceptional circumstances; usually this works to your advantage. If written work is incomplete or attendance is infrequent, you will not pass the course. I will consider each of the requirements in determining your grade. If you cannot be in class or meet a deadline because of an emergency, please speak with me (in advance, if possible); otherwise, absences and late papers will adversely affect your grade. I will expect you to write a one-page response essay on the assigned material on any day you miss class, after week one.

Course Objectives

In addition to participating in the fun of reading Tom Stoppard & Co.—and the adventures that any semester brings—I ask you to keep in mind these seven objectives, which connect our specific studies with larger learning goals that can extend into your future lives:

  1. To provide the tools and nurture your ability to read dramatic texts more pleasurably, fully, and critically. This should encourage you to remain a reader of challenging and amusing material throughout your life.
  2. To increase your consciousness of philosophical, historical, political, and artistic questions and approaches as distinct yet interrelated, so that you can study issues more effectively and function more sensitively and intelligently in the world.
  3. To learn more about contemporary British culture, and through a process of rigorous comparison to understand your own culture(s) more precisely as well as how culture and social location contribute to your personal perspective.
  4. To encourage a clearer understanding of your own personal strengths, passions, and creativity, increasing your self-awareness and the accuracy of your self-analysis, so that you can sustain a realistic sense of confidence and are better positioned to achieve whatever goals you set for yourself.
  5. To accustom you to the discipline of digesting new material and taking responsibility for communicating it clearly in a collaborative setting. Moreover (and distinctly), to improve and refine your abilities to express and communicate your own ideas, feelings, and arguments effectively and persuasively, so that you can know what you believe and can contribute and lead as a member of a team or community.
  6. To cultivate your intellectual curiosity and practice the discipline of independent research and writing, formulating appropriate questions and synthesizing credible information so that you can make a contribution to current knowledge.
  7. To consider how the arts, and in particular theatrical arts, function in the twenty-first century, and how the humanities complement artistic creation, so that you can appreciate both fields of endeavor and become a wiser artistic producer or audience member.

Not all of these goals will be fully realized by all participants, but among them, I hope you recognize at least some of your own personal priorities in taking this seminar. For your initial self-assessment essay, I ask that you consider your own background and learning objectives this semester, and how they mesh (or not) with those stated above.

An Important Note on the Readings

I use the word “read” in a variety of ways; we will be practicing a variety of reading methods in this subject. You will be skimming, dipping into, appreciating and thoroughly dissecting written texts. But unless instructed otherwise, I expect you to have read the assigned plays carefully.

If you find it challenging to read a play carefully, I suggest that you:

Read through the entire play quickly, as if you were an audience member watching it take place before you (i.e., read sequentially and don’t worry about every detail or go back over a scene studiously—though try to attend to as many clues and dimensions of the script as you can). Consider the play’s sequence and impact.

Re-read slowly and analytically, looking for meanings, patterns, poetry, characterization and themes, and studying the sections that confused you. Consider the play’s artistry and ideas, and the moment-by-moment unfolding of the action.

Literature Faculty Policy on Plagiarism

Plagiarism—the 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 and in all oral presentations, including images or texts in other media and for materials collected online. 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, review the article on avoiding plagiarism, and review MIT’s online Academic Integrity Handbook.

Other Resources and Requests

I will also provide my own stylesheet. In addition, you might find helpful:

Another important point: You cannot participate well if you are asleep, nearly asleep, or woozy with illness or exhaustion. Please take care of yourself—which obviously includes your body as well as your mind.

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.

And off we go!

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2014
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments
Instructor Insights