Riders to the Sea

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One of the things that humanizes the classroom is storytelling. In their reviews of my teaching, my students have often mentioned that our drama classes were enlivened by some of the stories I told of my own experiences in the theater seeing plays. That surprised me, but on reflection I realize they were right.

For example, when I taught John Millington Synge’s Riders to the Sea I told my students about the first time I saw the play. It was 1957 in tiny Theater East when the Abbey Theatre brought its company to the United States for the first time since the war. Siobhan McKenna played Maurya.

I was brought there with a group from my undergraduate class, taught by the late David Krause, who was an Irish Studies expert and my drama teacher. I had no idea what to expect. We had not read the play in advance. It followed the performance of Synge’s one-act In the Shadow of the Glen and seemed to us a riveting drama.

But another drama intensified the experience for me. In the last moments of the play one of the actresses came onstage with her apron filled with glass milk bottles – Bartley’s body had been brought in and laid out and the women came in to mourn. The actress dropped her apron and the bottles broke on the floor. Everyone was barefoot, yet as the actresses came into the scene none looked down. Most of the glass was broomed into a pan. They walked across the remaining glass and seemed unhurt and unaware. At that moment they kneeled and began keening in what can only be described to someone who has not heard it as an unearthly wail of loss, pain, and sadness.

Amazingly, no one was hurt. The keening stopped when the play ended. There was total silence in the theater. The lights went down, the actors left the stage, the lights went up again and finally when the actors returned the audience—141 souls—broke into incredible applause.  Everyone knew this was a completely unforgettable experience in the theatre.

Have you had a similar experience? Have your students? How do you discuss performance and use storytelling in your classroom?

[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on October 26, 2011.)

About the Author
Lee A. Jacobus is a professor emeritus of English at the University of Connecticut and the author/editor of popular English and drama textbooks, among them The Bedford Introduction to Drama (Bedford/St. Martin’s) and The Longman Anthology of American Drama. He has written scholarly books on Paradise Lost, the works of John Cleveland, and the works of Shakespeare, including Shakespeare and the Dialectic of Certainty. Jacobus is a playwright, fiction author, and blogger. Two of his plays — Fair Warning and Long Division — were produced in New York by the American Theater of Actors, and Dance Therapy, three one-act plays, was produced in New York at Where Eagles Dare Theatre. His recent book of short stories, Volcanic Jesus, is set in Hawaii.