The “Smart Classroom” Meets Wagner

For those happy few who may be unfamiliar with the term “smart classroom,” it refers to an ordinary teaching-space fitted out with a desktop PC and monitor, a document camera, a multi-discriminating disc-player for CDs, DVDs and BluRay discs; a high-fidelity stereo speaker system, a digital projector, and a large movie-screen.

A “smart classroom” is, in other words, a high-end leisure-time entertainment system installed in a venue of learning where previously a chalkboard sufficed with occasional recourse to an overhead projector and what was once quaintly called a record-player.

“Smart classrooms” first appeared some fifteen years ago at elite institutions; nowadays they are de rigueur even in community colleges.

Many usages of the “smart classroom” are no doubt dumb, but then the dumbing-down of higher education is older than the “smart classroom” by fifty years at least.  Employed discriminatingly, however, it permits a type of course previously difficult to organize. Take my “Modern Drama” course.

I have been teaching “Modern Drama” in one form or another at one institution or another for twenty years, but until recently with a built-in shortcoming. As drama is meant to be performed, or anyway to be seen, the textual approach, while necessary and invaluable, stands in want of the essential stage spectacle. It is one thing intellectually to understand how a theatrical performance can solicit from the audience the Dionysiac fear and pity, but quite another to experience that fear and pity in the spectacle directly and grasp how stagecraft contributes to the famous catharsis.

Such considerations implicate the trio of authors around whom I have structured the course: Richard Wagner, Henrik Ibsen, and George Bernard Shaw. In this piece, I will focus on how the “smart classroom” enables me better to teach Wagner to my students.

The urgency in dramaturgy consists in translating from the implications and connotations of the text to the actual event of the performance, in which the audience participates in the moral-artistic vision of the author.

Students cannot fly to New York to see a live performance of Wagner at the Metropolitan Opera, but the “smart classroom” permits them to get a good notion of the phenomenon. Among the materials I use in my course are the Met’s recent Wagner DVDs of its new Ring-cycle, a fascinating documentary, Wagner’s Dream, about the gestation of that production, a marvelous, spare Tristan und Isolde from the Glyndebourne Opera under conductor JiĹ™í BÄ›lohlávek and a forty-year-old Radio Canada television documentary about Tristan, with tenor Jon Vickers as narrator.

In scheduling these items either in toto or in excerpts, I coordinate them various readings, including Friedrich Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy (1872), the libretto to Tristan, and Shaw’s Perfect Wagnerite.

So how well does this work?

My students are mostly “three-minute” kids–songs that they constantly audit through their “low-fi” ear-buds rarely last longer than 180 seconds—while the third act of Tristan, the one we watch in full, requires ninety minutes under BÄ›lohlávek.  Extended concentration is not the norm for them.

We take Acts I and II in the excerpts offered in the Radio Canada documentary.  BÄ›lohlávek’s cast sings in the original German, moreover, so that participating in the drama necessarily involves actively reading the subtitles. Wagner’s music makes its own case. The story, on the other hand, at first baffles these novices, even though they should have gleaned it beforehand by reading the libretto.

“I can’t figure out who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy,” one student said, divulging a grade-school bias about narrative that two or three years of college-level instruction have regrettably not disarmed. He was “frustrated,” he said.

It was a problem, I suggested, of misplaced expectation. In every film or television drama the student had ever seen, the scriptwriter had portrayed the figure of established authority (in Tristan that would be King Marke) as a self-righteous bigot and hypocrite whose main function consists in blocking the fun of the protagonists, usually happy-go-lucky teenagers. But Tristan and Isolde are not teenagers and King Marke is not a self-righteous bigot.

Marke has prevailed in a war against Ireland.  One of the treaty-concessions that Ireland makes is that Isolde should be sent as bride to the victor, to firm up the peace.  Marke is dutifully fulfilling his kingly office and never suspects until the end of Act II that his faithful servant Tristan has, legally, betrayed him.  Indeed, in Act III, Marke comes to Tristan’s castle, where Tristan lies wounded after his fight with Melot, to pardon the offenders and give Isolde to her true love. Marke thus magnanimously puts individuals before the state.  In so doing he redeems himself from Isolde’s just charge in Act I that statecraft has turned persons into pawns.

That notion the students grasp.  They can work backwards from the same notion to grasp also that in Wagner’s story it is the situation that hobbles persons and that people, for the most part, do in earnest what they are supposed to do.  To suffer is to learn, as Aeschylus knew, and as Wagner, who lauded Aeschylus, also knew.

Another student opined, “It should have been boring but it wasn’t.”  She was referring to the Glyndebourne performance’s nearly bare stage, a blue-lit space with an abstract altar-like arch, stage center, which rotates to effectuate minimal impressionistic changes in the scene.

I wanted to know, “Why weren’t you bored?”

“It seemed like something was always happening,” she replied.  I reminded her that the libretto is mostly long, self-explanatory monologues, or mere exchanges of names, in which very little happens, although symbolically the language is rich, but I also hinted that in the music things are always happening.  “That might have been it,” she said, but “that was weird too.”  “How so,” I wanted to know.  “Because,” as she said, “when she died, it was beautiful.”

A majority of students agreed that the music generally held their attention. The Liebestod at the end of Act III, as another coed put it, “was like movie music.”  The opportunity arose to reverse the observation: Movie music is like Wagner’s music.

A coed who identified herself as having marched in her high school band and played in the associated wind ensemble, took a deep impression from hearing Wagner’s full orchestra, with its miraculous blending of strings and winds.  She sensed that the music was “always changing the key – not like in the music we played in the band.”  She described the effect as “stressful,” adding that “it’s a kind of tension, when you don’t know what’s going to happen next.”  This student, too, found that “the story got better from the music.”

The young woman’s diction is perhaps immature and yet she gives evidence of assimilating the conventions of Wagner’s masterwork.  Such an initial coming-to-terms with the object is, naturally, better than no coming-to-terms at all.

The educational status quo has left my students, who after all are merely a sampling of the contemporary American undergraduate, badly deprived. Their education, even in college, once they get there, leaves them bereft of high-cultural experience.

That is a pity because taste tends to become fixed in late adolescence. They will never respond to esthetic sublimity unless they have an opportunity to experience it. Providentially, the “smart classroom” enables a few to have that opportunity.