When did the Playwright turn away from others as a topic of his plays and turn into himself to become the Autobiographer of his own wishes, dreams and experiences on stage? The Amazing Howard Stein and I recently shared a conversation on this topic and Howard wondered if the first instance could be found in Aeschylus who wrote “The Persians” in 472 BC.

Or is a more likely culprit George Farquhar who wrote “The Recruiting Officer” in 1706?

Or did Friedrich Schiller become the modern father of autobiographical playwriting when he wrote “The Robbers” in 1782?

Howard recently exchanged paper mail with Shakespeare expert James Shapiro at Columbia University in the City of New York and asked him the same question that occupies us here:  “When did the Playwright become an autobiographer?”

Part of Shapiro’s response included a lament that the last time anyone asked him about Farquhar — was a long time ago when he was a young man.

James Shapiro makes an excellent, and sad, point — there really isn’t anybody left today on campus with those same interests and who wants to ask these sorts of questions.

Sure, today, students are smart and colleagues are wise, but there is an overweening selfishness that now imbues every act and decision.  Wonderment and yearning are considered old fashioned lines of inquiry and thought.  We are now run by machines.  We are more fact based and less truth injected because facts never change and the truth is something that is both always is and never was — and that that does not compute, by design, because it is a human equation of living with no solution or solvable problem except to expect this messiness in perpetuity.

The question of when the Playwright turned his pen from others to himself is important because that is the touchstone when entertainment became more about fame and less about enlightening the world with analysis and commentary that wasn’t selfish or centered on the self.  Perhaps if we can identify, and mark, that change in dramatic conflict, we can begin to repair the lesions that still ooze the amber puss of self-important celebrity today.

There was a time when if you were studying Elizabethan drama on campus, you read EVERYTHING that was written in the period to gain a greater and deeper understanding of the people. Today, in academe, if you’re studying Elizabethan drama, you read 30 plays and you’re done.

The material is the same. We, The People, are smaller.

7 Comments

  1. I have no idea how to answer this, but I sure do like the discussion. I wonder where all our big thoughts have gone on campus. Now it’s all about money. And prestige. And not learning.

    1. You ask a good question, Anne. When great minds like Howard Stein and James Shapiro are disillusioned with modern higher learning — what’s the next step? Can we go forward from here or do we continue a backward slide?