Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Basking in academic sunshine

Two great classes today. One was on journalism and ethics: I managed to restrain myself and not recount recent personal experience, but we usefully explored Nick Davies idea of 'churnalism' and the  difference between the ideal journalist as scrutineer of power on our behalf and the reality. Slightly hampered by the fact that very few of the students ever watch or read news broadcasts, but they're quick on the uptake when it comes to ideas.

The other class was my English Renaissance seminar. The subject was Ben Jonson's Volpone, in which a rich old Venetian man pretends to have a terminal illness in order to received splendid gifts from three other greedy old men, in the hope that they'll be named sole heir. There's a cast of freaks, a wily servant, the legacy-hunters, a bland young man who saves a bland young woman from rape by the eponymous anti-hero, and for comic relief, a naive English couple abroad, agog at the city's conspiratorial nature: they want in.

Volpone 'seducing' Celia in the 1941 French adaptation

I decided that we should look at the play as a performance, because that would require the students to consider all the other questions about how it works. So I asked them to prepare the scenes in which Corvino orders his wife Celia to sleep with Volpone, and the one in which Volpone attempts to rape her. They had to explain their casting choices, costumes, tone of voice, movement, set design, whether to keep the action in Renaissance Venice or move it to some other time and place, what to do about the language and a host of other things. Finally, they'd have to consider genre: how does a rape scene play in a comedy? In doing so, they'd have to make choices: about attitudes to sex, gender and ageing, whether virtuous Celia is a heroine or a prig, whether retaining the original setting and language distances a 2013 audience from Jonson's social critique, and how to portray the animal symbolism which structures the play: do we want to produce a piece of symbolic art or an intervention into a discrete cultural situation?

A more stylised production of Volpone

The idea was to get them to do a reading of the play in the seminar, once we'd discussed their ideas. They chickened out of that (though a few were enthusiastic), which I can understand completely (though it's going to happen soon, now I know how good they are), but otherwise the exercise was hugely successful. They enjoyed it, they drew on all parts of the play to justify their choices. One group went for the original setting but a farce-like staging, while the other chose a modern setting in a scrapyard, perhaps drawing on Steptoe to emphasis Volpone's purposeless acquisitiveness. One group decided that Celia is a figure of fun because she's so uptight and dull, so they proposed casting Sheryl Cole to avoid the audience sympathising with her: their Volpone was to be Alan Rickman thanks to his depiction of evil in Harry Potter. The other group went for a Benny Hill-style romp: lots of chasing each other round the furniture. 

I was so impressed by the sophistication of their thought. Just goes to show that breaking away from the standard seminar format can produce really rich results: we talked about all the same issues but the challenge of performance really added something. One of those occasions which makes this job so brilliant.


Anonymous said...

Dear Vole, I do worry about what you are teaching the kids. I am following your case with interest and cutting-and-pasting it for my post-grad students, as an example of how NOT to handle a libel issue. There is no “freedom of expression” to allege that a mainstream politician would have been a willing participant in the Holocaust. It's not satire, it's not impolite, it's not a tasteless joke, it's not a pithy opinion. It is libel. (see Having tweeted the libel, to then repeat it on your website and invite people to view it is reckless.

Unknown said...

Unlike anonymous, I don't worry at all about what you are teaching the kids. I'm going to link to this post as an example of an alternative seminar format for participants in our PGCAP. Thanks!

The Plashing Vole said...

Thanks for both of your comments! Unknown: feel free to take my thing and do something even better with it. I'll certainly try to refine it next time.

Firstly, I'm not teaching media law, which is probably a good thing.
Secondly, I'd ask you to use a little more precision. While I did refer to Theresa May willingly sewing on yellow stars, I didn't mention the Holocaust: as any historian will tell you, there's a difference. The Holocaust was probably initiated at the Wannsee Conference much later on. I would also remind you that yellow stars were first used to identify Jews in England in the 14th century.
Thirdly, where do you find me discussing libel? At no point have I suggested that I have a defence against libel. As you can tell, I'm not a lawyer, but I was under the impression that I DO have the perfect freedom to make comments that might later be judged libellous after a hearing in court. As you've expressed concern about MY teaching, I'd return the compliment: are you telling your students that nobody has the right to 'publish and be damned'?

As Milton said in Areopagitica, we should have the freedom to speak as long as we face the consequences subsequently.

If Theresa May did sue for libel, I would defend myself in the same way the Guardian did against Elton John. They won with the argument that a spoof diary was so plainly satirical that no reasonable person could have believed that the content was meant to be a) by him and b) a serious accusation. I would point to the increasing body of online satirical commentary – perhaps including the Leeds Airport 'bomb threat' case and argue that exaggeration for comic effect is a legitimate form of criticism which would be recognised by a reasonable observer.

And if you think I'm libellous, you really should look at the history of political cartooning.

Anonymous said...

Talk to Mrs Bercow.

The Plashing Vole said...

Although Mrs Bercow made a specific allegation about an ongoing case, rather than an analogy.

Anonymous said...

1. “At no point have I suggested that I have a defence against libel.”
2. “If Theresa May did sue for libel, I would defend myself in the same way the Guardian did against Elton John.”
Vole, you seem confused. It's almost as though you are daring May to sue

The Plashing Vole said...

Not confused at all. My point is that I've been writing about freedom of speech, which isn't the same as being immune from libel claims (something I didn't assert).

May can sue if she wants - but I suspect she won't because politicians tend to have thick skins and because they don't look very good suing citizens.

On the Bercow case, my understanding was that McAlpine was implicated by her in a specific crime. What I said about May was an opinion about her character: nasty and exaggerated, doubtless, but not a specific accusation.

Anonymous said...

Terrific vote of confidence in the good nature of a Tory politician! I wonder how you would react if someone wrote an unkind satire about you.

The Plashing Vole said...

The local paper's columnist critiques me - often very misleadingly – surprisingly frequently. I laugh it off. A sense of humour is essential in public life, whether in parliament or the classroom.

Anonymous said...

Lucky to get so much attention! Up here (Yorks) local press is very bland. Who's your tormentor?

James Harland said...

Haters gonna hate. I find your blog enthralling, sod what the Murdochracy thinks.