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A Brief Biographical Sketch on Miller:

1915: Born in New York
1929: The Crash ruins his family
1938: Graduates from U. of Michigan
1947: All My Sons
1949: (Feb. 10) Death of a Salesman
(Feb. 27) “Tragedy” in the NYT
1953: The Crucible
1956: HUAC
1961: The Misfits
1983: Directs Salesman in Beijing
2005: Dies in Connecticut at 89 on Feb. 10, the anniversary of Salesman’s
Premiere. Same year as Wilson.


Caveat lector:

The use of a universalized “man” and masculine pronouns strikes us as exclusionary:
“From Orestes to Hamlet, Medea to Macbeth, the underlying struggle is that of the individual attempting to gain his ‘rightful’ position in society.”

Yet, Miller is democratizing, Americanizing tragedy.


Overturning Aristotle’s Idea of the Tragic Hero:

“If the exaltation of a tragic action were truly a property of the high-bred character alone, it is inconceivable that the mass of mankind should cherish tragedy above all other forms, let alone be capable of understanding it”—Arthur Miller.

“I think the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing—his sense of personal dignity”—Arthur Miller


Medea’s Motives Become Clearer in Miller’s Definition of Tragedy

“The fateful wound from which the inevitable events spiral is the wound of indignity and its dominant force is indignation.”

Hamartia, or the tragic flaw need not be a “weakness,” and could be simply an “inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity, his image of his rightful status.”

Society itself might carry the flaw.


Dramatic and Theatrical Realism:

Acting and set design appear like “real life.”
Does not use theatrical conventions like asides, a chorus, other theatrical effects.
Psychological motivations for character behavior often taken into account.
Allows us to consider human experience in particular social contexts.


Some Historical Context for Fences: Baseball

Segregated Sports: African Americans not allowed to play in Major League Baseball from 1900 to 1945.

First “Negro League” founded
in 1920.

The painting on the right is of
Josh Gibson, referred to in Fences,
known as the “Black Babe Ruth.”


A Brief Biographical Sketch on Wilson:

1945: Born In Pittsburgh
1960: Dropped out of high school and spent his days educating himself in a public library.
1968: Co-founded the Black Horizon Theatre and wrote his first play.
1982: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
1985: Fences (Pulitzer Prize and Tony)
1990: The Piano Lesson (Pulitzer Prize)
Moves to Seattle
2005: His last play, Radio Golf. He dies, age 60, in Seattle.


Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” or the “Century Cycle

1900s: Gem of the Ocean (2003)
1910s: Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1986)

*1920s: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984)
1930s: The Piano Lesson (1987)
1940s: Seven Guitars (1995)
1950s: Fences (1985)
1960s: Two Trains Running (1990)
1970s: Jitney (1982)
1980s: King Hedley II (1999)
1990s: Radio Golf (2005)


More Historical Contextualization for Fences: The First Great Migration: 1915-1930

6 Million African Americans migrate from the U.S. South between 1915-1970:

“They came from places called the Carolinas and the Virginias, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. They came strong and eager, searching…”
—August Wilson, setting the scene for Fences.


The Encoding of Trauma?

The science of epigenetics (Greek for “above the gene”) hypothesizes that we can pass on more than DNA in our genes; suggesting that genes can carry memories of trauma experienced by our ancestors and can influence our reaction to trauma and stress. 

Other geneticists have found flaws in the original study, and the science is far from settled.


Fences gives us three exact dates: 1918—1957—1965

1918: The End of WWI

1919: The Red Summer of Lynching

1919: Reestablished in 1915 with the aid of D.W. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation, the Ku Klux Klan is openly operating in 27 states.

1920: Boll weevil decimates cotton.


White Terrorism: Lynching

“From 1882-1968, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States.  Of these people that were lynched 3,446 were black.  The blacks lynched accounted for 72.7% of the people lynched”
—from the NAACP’s website.


Miller’s “Tragedy and the Common Man”:

“There is a misconception of tragedy…It is the idea that tragedy is of necessity allied to pessimism…This impression is so firmly fixed that I almost hesitate to claim that in truth tragedy implies more optimism in its author than does comedy, and that its final result ought to be the reinforcement of the onlooker's brightest opinions of the human animal”
—Arthur Miller, “Tragedy and the Common Man”


Words that appear in the Vocabulary Lists. These will usually be reiterated in bold throughout the lectures:
What is the Skēnē?
What is Hamartia?

The Timelines you do not need to memorize; however, you should know any dates that are significant for a play’s action:
What significance does 1965 have for August Wilson in Fences?

Skene- scene



Noh- : From Middle Chinese, nong 能, “Skill,”“Talent”








Origins of Noh:

Similar roots to Greek Theatre:
1. gigaku (music and masked dance)
2. bugaku (epic storytelling)

Begins at Shinto Festivals

The Innovators:
1. Kanami Kiyotsuga
2. Zeami, his son

Noh is established as the aristocratic theatre by the young Shōgun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, who becomes Zeami’s lover and promoter.


Genres of Noh Plays:

Deity Plays (waki noh)

Women Plays (sometimes referred to as “wig” plays)(kazura mono)

Miscellaneous Plays, occasionally dealing with madness (kyōran mono)

“Living” Characters (genzai mono)

Demon Plays (kiri noh)

*Ghost Warrior Plays (shura mono)


The Codification of Noh:

At the death of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, Zeami falls from favor and is exiled to the island of Sado.

Begins writing his famous treatises on Noh (work comparable to Aristotle’s Poetics or Bharata’s Nātyaśāstra).

During the Tokugawa Shōgunate, it is forbidden to deviate from the set forms of Noh. Modern Japanese audiences often need translations for Zeami’s Japanese.


Kyōgen: Noh as Comedy

A Comedy that developed in tandem with Noh. While there are kyōgen plays, they are mostly performed as comic interludes or intermezzos.

Not to push Greek comparisons too far, but they bear some comparison in function to the Satyr Play, although far less bawdy.

They are comic relief from the tragedy. Something similar exists in Shakespeare’s theatre: The Jig.


Kabuki: The Popular Theatre, Noh’s Rival

Founded in 1603 by Izumo no Okuni (c. 1572-1613).

A Musical Theatre founded by a woman and performed by women, who also played male parts. A distorting mirror to the aristocratic Noh.

Rival troupes of women form.

Women are banned from performing in 1629. Actresses go underground.


Bunraku: The Puppet Style That Conquered the West

Develops in Osaka, circa 1680, and is made into an important art form through the playwright Chikamatsu (1653-1725).

Unlike Kabuki, which is primarily a performer’s theatre, Bunraku, like Noh, is primarily a writer’s theatre.

A theatre of “exposed” puppeteers.

Women could be puppeteers.


Ukiyo-e: Pictures of the Floating World:

“Ukiyo” in this sense means “floating world,” though it has a homonym ghost: “ukiyo” can mean “sorrowful world.”

An urban existence: the demimonde.

The world of pleasure: the Theatre; music; parties; sumo-wrestling; sex; the landscape, particularly at cherry blossom time—and cats. Before cat memes and Hello, Kitty, there was ukiyo-e.


Zeami’s Aesthetic: the concept of Yūgen:

A sad, elegant, profound beauty:

"To watch the sun sink behind a flower clad hill.
To wander on in a huge forest without thought of return. To stand upon the shore and gaze after a boat that disappears behind distant islands. To contemplate the flight of wild geese seen and lost among the clouds.
And, subtle shadows of bamboo on bamboo”—Zeami


Shingeki (“New Theatre”): Japan adopts Western Theatrical Practices…

1886: The Society for Theatre Reform is established in Tokyo, advocating for a more western (European) approach to Drama.

The development of Shinpa theatre, which used Shakespeare as one of their weapons for modernization.

1899: Sada Yakko (1871-1946) tours the world to great acclaim, and forces the end of the 1629 law against women on stage back home.

1906: Founding of the Shingeki, which goes on to produce Luigi Pirandello, Henrik Ibsen, and Anton Chekhov. The development of Japanese Realism.
**The Shinpa and Shingeki movements have an
impact on Japanese, Korean, and Chinese cinema.


Japanese Aesthetics: Terms:Mono-no-aware:

An awareness of impermanence; an empathy for things.—”Awake to Awareness...” Atsumori



The appreciation of incompleteness, imperfections, impermanence.



Human transience; “The Sad Beauty of Human Suffering.” A fitting understanding of Tragedy, and how it functions. We might find elements of it in how Aristotelian Catharsis operates.


Yūgen and Aristotle’s Idea of Tragedy

“Yūgenis the beauty of seeing....an ideal person go through an intense suffering as a result of being human”—Makato Ueda, Literary


Noh: The Art of Walking and Stillness:

Troupes made of families (The Kanze School and Troupe is the most prestigious, and was founded by Zeami’s father, Kanami).
•Reflection over Reaction. Meditative: “In the space of a dream”
•Highly stylized performance forms.
•Highly controlled style of movement.
•Suri-ashi: Mastering control of feet and legs—a


An Outline of Atsumori: Memory and Prayer

Act One: The story is inferred, referenced.•Interlude: The Kyōgen tells the story.
•Act Two: The story is relived by Atsumori and Kumagae.
“Zeami established a powerful counterpoint between the past as a site of heroic action and the dramatic present as a site of recollection, transcendent awareness, and reconciliation”—Karen Brazell, The Norton Anthology of Drama