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DRAMA 200 A: The Art of Story

Summer Term: 
Meeting Time: 
MTWThF 1:10pm - 3:10pm
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Odai Johnson \ Photo by Kyler Martin
Odai Johnson

Syllabus Description:

Drama 200, The Art of the Story:   Literature of the Plague

Odai Johnson (odai@uw.edu)

This class uses the occasion of the pandemic to re-visit the great plagues of the past by sampling the literature they inspired and exploring the form of the literature.  From the setting of Oedipus, the 430 BCE plague described by Thucydides, through excerpts of the Decameron of Boccaccio, to the first-hand accounts of Samuel Pepys' diary and Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Great Plague in London, to Edgar Allen Poe's Masque of the Red Death, the first AIDS plays of the 1980s, to theorizing the plague with Artaud's Theatre and the Plague, we explore the artistic legacy of pestilence.  


Learning goals:    to engage with past catastrophes; to think critically about how these catastrophes have been storied.   To re-engage with our own pandemic.   


A few caveats:

The course is not about the pathology, toxicology or causes and transmission of pandemics; it is not about what constitutes a plague (yellow fever, SARS, influenza, Zika, etc.), but about how writers have storied the great suffering brought on by various plagues.  

Because of the pandemic, this course will be taught remotely, but we meet at the same class time to discuss the reading of the day.  The class remains a hosted seminar built around reading and discussion and participation is expected.  

There are four assignments, these are three brief response papers (one–two page reflections on the themes of the reading, and are due each Friday); and a final research project of your own interest providing it intersects the subject of the class.    This final project asks you to take on a work not considered in class and trace how it treats the experience of plague.    5-6 pages. 


Grades are thus based in the written responses (33%), the final research project (33%) and day-to-day participation (33%).   Participation is defined as active, prepared engagement.    

Finally, a note on texts:  as we are working remotely, I have assembled electronic files of the readings.  They are not necessarily the best translations or publications of these classic works, or in some cases, not stand-alone texts, but part of a collection.  They are, however, the ones electronically available, remote and free. 


Week One:   Storying the Plague


Monday, June 22:   Introduction to the class, expectations.   How stories work; ‘Forms and Affordances’; plague narratives as a genre.

Tuesday, June 23:   Plague: as the Apocalypse.  Read and discuss the opening four chapters of Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/21970/21970-h/21970-h.htm  

Wednesday, June 24:    Read from Thucydides’ description of the 430 plague in Athens ( copy and paste:  https://www.ancient.eu/article/1535/thucydides-on-the-plague-of-athens-text--commentar/);  read 'Death of Rats,' (canvas file);  be prepared to discuss themes of interest.  Lecture:  The shape of Greek tragedy and tragedy as a form for storying the plague.

Thursday, June 25:   Read and discuss Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos (Oedipus the King)     

 available at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/31/31-h/31-h.htm

Friday, June 26:    Discuss the prompt on storying Covid and tragedy.   First response paper due.


Week Two:        Plague as Dance of Death  (Dance Macabre)

For Monday, June 29:   Read Edgar Allen Poe’s Masque of the Red Death   available online:  https://www.poemuseum.org/the-masque-of-the-red-death   and Edgar Allen Poe’s King Pest, also available online at http://pinkmonkey.com/dl/library1/pest.pdf

Tuesday, June 30:   Read from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, Day the First, and the First Story    (online ebook:  https://www.gutenberg.org/files/23700/23700-h/23700-h.htm

Wednesday, July 1: Litanies.   Read from Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, the description of the pageant, The Triumph of Death  (Canvas file, Piero di Cosimo, Spectacle of Death)  read Thomas Nashe, Litany in Time of Plague   (available at https://poets.org/poem/litany-time-plague;    Read from Bede the Venerable (canvas file) on the plague in early Christian England.

Thursday, July 2:  Read Everyman;  (available on canvas file, Everyman, in Early English Drama, p. 227-314).      

Friday, July 3  (no class)


Week Three       Reporting the Plague, first-hand accounts

Monday, July 6:  Documentary and Journals:   read a selection of descriptions:   Procopius’s description of the Plague of Justinian (530s CE, canvas file Procopius On the Plague); The Plague of Justinian, article (canvas file Plague of Justinian); Lecture:  background on Samuel Pepys, Daniel Defoe, and the London plague, 1665.   Second responses due.

Tuesday and Wednesday:  Read from Samuel Pepys’s diary account of the Great Plague of London (1665)                  (https://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/   1665 by month, July through September)

Thursday and Friday:   Daniel Defoe, A Journal of The Plague Year  (available through UW Library, Eighteenth Century Collections Online).    Friday:   Third Response Due.


Week Four:        Theorizing the Plague

Monday, July 13:   Read Antonin Artaud’s Theatre and the Plague, (canvas file, Artaud and the Plague); and ‘Small Oversights that led to the Great Plague of Marseille, 1720’  (canvas file, 1720 Plague, Marseille)

Tuesday, July 14:  Read from Montaigne’s Travel Journal:    The plague as metaphor of ‘The Contagion,’ (Canvas file, Montaigne’s Travel Journal)

Wednesday, July 15:   Plague as purge:  read from James Mohr, Plague and Fire:  Battling Black Death and the Burning of Honolulu’s Chinatown.   Planning research projects.

Thursday, July 16:    Read and discuss Camus’ The Plague, part one.  (e-book, online access through UW Libraries)   

Friday:   research day, no class, but office hours to discuss projects


Week Five:         Romance of the Plague

Monday, July 20:  watch and discuss:  How to Survive a Plague, 2012 documentary on the early days of the AIDS crisis.   Go to our UW Libraries catalog, log in, and find at the following URL:

How to Survive a Plague

Browse the background on the play:    https://www.act-sf.org/content/dam/act/education_department/words_on_plays/The%20Normal%20Heart%20Words%20on%20Plays%20(2012).pdf

Tuesday, July 21:  Read and discuss, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart,  https://alliance-primo.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/permalink/f/kjtuig/CP71328375200001451   

Wednesday, July 22:  Share research interests.

Friday, July 24:  papers due.




Additional Suggested Reading


Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Marquez

Blindness, Jose Saramago

The Last Man, Mary Shelly

Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks

Black Hole, Charles Burns

Salvation City, Sigred Nunez

Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Katherine Anne Porter

Studies on Plagues

Cultures of Plague:  Medical Thinking at the End of the Renaissance, Samuel Cohn

Armies of Pestilence, R. S. Bray

Epidemics, Joshua Loomis

The Power of Plagues, Irwin Sherman

Plague, Pox, and Pestilence, Kenneth F. Kiple, ed.

Cholera, Christopher Hamlin

Pandemic 1918, Catharine Arnold

America’s Forgotten Pandemic, Alfred Crosby

Rationalizing Epidemics, David Jones

Legacies of Plague in Literature, Theory, and Film, Jennifer Cooke

Plague Writing in Early Modern England, Ernest Gilman

Pestilence and the Body Politic in Latin Literature, Hunter Gardner

Breaking the Silence, Ellen Grünkemeier


A complete (I mean thorough!) collection of literary resources devoted to plagues, pestilence, pox and pandemics across the globe can be found at this University of Toronto archive:  https://guides.library.utoronto.ca/epidemics


Catalog Description: 
Survey of narrative tradition and structure as they pertain to arts, culture, history, and society. Examines the origins and uses of narrative on a global scale, and presents the various forms of storytelling that inform our daily lives, in particular the dramatic arts. Offered: S.
GE Requirements: 
Arts and Humanities (A&H)
Last updated: 
April 22, 2020 - 9:02pm