Thursday, March 10, 2011

Beverly Long and Mary Hopkins, Performing Literature [L3]

Long, Beverly Whitaker, and Mary Frances HopKins. Performing Literature: An Introduction to Oral Interpretation. Eaglewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1982. Print. (This links to the second edition, which is pictured below; my citation is for the first edition.) (L3)

This book isn't quite what I expected. While Long and HopKins briefly mention (in the Afterword) the features of orality that constitute oral performance, their main purpose is to offer basic instruction in the performance of literature. And this instruction is directed towards how performance can help students to understand and to interpret texts and on how effectively interpreting texts can lead to better textual performances. Here, then, performance is understood as oral interpretation (hence the subtitle): interpreting written texts through the process of performance. This process includes preparation to perform and most of the book is geared towards helping students prepare themselves to perform various texts in public forums, especially the classroom.

As I see it, this preparation can be broken down into two parts:
    1) learning to recognize and understand the features of narrative that lend themselves to performance (i.e. context, drama, tone, attitude, form) and
    2) learning to translate these features into an engaging, persuasive performance.
The basic principles of dramatic/critical/rhetorical analysis and narratology are thus the first things students need to learn when approaching a text with an eye toward taking it off the page. Only then, Long and HopKins suggest, can students effectively focus on bringing the narrative to life and interpreting it for an audience. And such interpretation should, in turn, be informed by certain rhetorical concerns, including how the performer's actions, attitude, preparation, and diction (from the time they stand up to perform) and how the performance setting (which includes the physical environment; the use, or not, of props; and the use, or not, of a script) influence the audience and their reception and understanding of the text.

Although this introduction is an insightful beginning to the study of oral interpretation, the authors' discussion of the process is offset by a sprawling anthology of texts that they find worthy of interpretation through performance; these texts include poems (lyric, narrative, and epic), fiction, non-fiction, and drama. Granted, by devoting so much space to presenting these texts and by including a series of workshops at the end of each section through which they illustrate the principles that have been discussed, Long and HopKins suggest that the performance of literature can only be learned through practice. But I was hoping more for an exploration of how the principles of orality might influence our reading, reception, and interpretation of written texts and how we might translate that understanding into the processes of primarily oral performance.