Critical Thinking from a Theater Critic

By: 
Ben Miles

Critical thinking is a cognitive tool that ought to be emphasized in education at all levels; that is, students should be taught how to think not what to think. One simple dictionary definition of critical thinking is “an appraisal based on careful analytical evaluation.” As the theater critic for this newspaper, the skills of critical thinking that I apply to my reviews of theater consist of three components: 1. Observation 2. Analysis 3. Evaluation. Observation is the diligent acquisition of information derived from a primary source (such as viewing — reviewing — a stage play). Analysis is the process of dividing a complex topic into smaller components in order to acquire a more comprehensive understanding of it. Evaluation is the systematic assessment of an issue or subject’s worth or significance using criterion established by a set of standards.

In theater, the criteria of the art form (as outlined by eons ago by Aristotle) are: 1. Plot 2. Character 3. Thought 4. Diction 5. Spectacle 6. Song. Plot is the “what,” or main action, which can be described via the characters’ objectives. Character is the “who,” that is the protagonist (or main character or characters )and their relationship to the world in which they exist. Thought is the “why,” or the psychology beneath the characters’ action. Diction is the “how” or the strategies and tactics characters use to accomplish their often conflicting objectives. Spectacle is the “where,” which is the setting of the plot. Song is the rhythm of speech or actual music, employed to charge the plot forward, while delineating and defining character and emotion.

“A Streetcar Named Desire” provides a straightforward example of complex dramatic relationships. Written by an American master of playwriting, Tennessee Williams, the play, features a twenty-something Marlon Brando as the antagonist, Stanley Kowalsaki. “Streetcar” was a breakthrough play and star-making performance for Brando; “Streetcar” later became a feature film. The plot involves a down and out middle-age sister, Blanche DuBois, who was once a propertied school teacher in succession to a small family fortune. But now her future looks bleak and her financial misfortunes force her to move in with her younger sister, Stella, and her brutish husband Stanley.

The characters are Blanche, the protagonist. Stanley, the antagonist. Stella, the conflicted sibling, and Mitch, an army buddy of Stanley’s who initially falls for Blanche until her philandering past is revealed. There’s also an array of minor characters to add mood and colorful conflict to the circumstances.

The thought or psychology involved in “Streetcar” has to do with Blanche’s need to be rescued from poverty and impeding homelessness; as contrasted with Stanley’s need to be Ruler of the Roost and “king” of his household. This is the main dramatic point of conflict and conflict is the essence of drama.

Diction or the “how” of “Streetcar” is Blanche’s use of flirtatious falsehoods and desperate dissembling and Stanley’s brutish and threatening need to control his life and marriage in the face of Blanche’s intrusion.

Spectacle in “Streetcar” amounts to the unique ambiance of New Orleans and the cramped inner city apartment that serves as the home of the Kowalski’s.

Song in “Streetcar” is the lyrical cadence of Blanche’s dialogue in juxtaposition to Stanley’s passive/aggressive utterances and howling cries.

In applying critical thinking to reviewing theater one keeps the Aristotelian elements of drama in mind. Do they measure up to a coherent display and interplay? But on more a subjective point, is the show engaging and does it entertain? This equates to an experiential review. Take comfort in that. We know what we like when we experience it. Reviewing a stage play is simply a matter of discovering why we like it or why we dislike it. Moreover, what could be done to improve it, if improvement be needed?

In addition to being this newspaper’s theater writer, Ben Miles teaches critical thinking courses at West Coast University in Orange County.

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