Sunday, January 22, 2012

Text, Lies and the Theater

“After all, what is the function of art but to preserve in permanent and beautiful form those emotions and solaces which cheer life and make it kindlier, more heroic and easier to comprehend; which lift the mind of the worker from the harshness and loneliness of his task, and, by connecting him with what has gone before, free him from a sense of isolation and hardship” (p.29).

Jane Addams’ “The House of Dreams” tackles communication as entertainment—specifically in terms of the theater. Referencing it as a “veritable house of dreams” (p. 26), Addams seemingly chastises the venue for being a fantastical place of escape from the harsh realities of life, and suggests that it gives false hope to younger generations about the certain disappointment that is to result in their futures.
In listing theatre’s contributions, though, Addams’ second characteristic, in my opinion, was notable: that it has the “strange power to forecast life for the youth” by drawing on one’s ancestral past to encourage “valors and vengences” (p.26) and giving man the “thrilling conviction that he may yet be master of his fate” (p.26). This idea can, obviously, only lead to one conclusion.  

Jane Addams, in all her unimaginative glory, would have hated Harry Potter.

…and would have deprived the young adult generation of today the story that so often defines many of us. Harry Potter is everything that she stood so firmly against—teaching children that they are more heroic than humanly possible, that violent duels can always be won, that spells exist at the end of a wooden stick, and most importantly that, at a train station in England, hidden between two platforms, a better and more magical world awaits us. “Is it not astounding that a city allows thousands of its youth to fill their impressionable minds with these absurdities which certainly will become the foundation for their working moral codes and the data from which they will judge the properties of life?” (p. 27).

What Jane Addams would have missed about Harry Potter, and what she misses in the theatre shows she critiques, is the sort unifying communication that is facilitated around them. She says that people go to the theatre “hoping to find a clue to life’s perplexities” (p. 27), but that the only way they can truly find “companionship and solidarity” (p. 28) is by participating in “real” recreation—sports, dancing, etc. She fails to notice the theatrical dialogue that took place among children and the families and friends of her time, which then trickled through the community as a form of shared knowledge. Jane Addams doesn’t see the myriad of people who monitored the launch of last year’s website, or those who are bonded because they have “liked” Harry Potter on Facebook. She doesn’t see @EmWatson’s 2 million Twitter followers, nor does she track the conversations that fall under the #HarryPotter umbrella.

Yes, some of this is attributed to the progression of media, but I find it interesting that skepticism is what she argues to be a byproduct of the messages communicated by the theatre. Could she have forseen the sellout crowds that met in-person and online for the opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter? No. But for being a member of the progressive era, Addams’ suggesting that communication’s only use was for that of concrete, “real” information does produce skepticism—in that she severely underestimated the power of the rapidly evolving state of common ground within the media.   


  1. Although I do agree that Addams would not agree that Harry Potter is true communication. The fact remains that Harry Potter has invoked many conversations from children to adults that both want to believe in the fantasy that witches and warlocks exist. Even though, many conversations have developed on-line in various Harry Potter fan clubs and chat rooms conversations. Harry Potter’s adventures were also discussed as people stood in line to watch the midnight showings of the various Harry Potter movies. Even though, standing in line is not a sport or recreational activity like dancing watching Harry Potter movies and reading the books have brought people together.

  2. I too agree that Addams would not agree with Harry Potter, but I also believe it is so interesting how Harry Potter has influenced even changed the way that we communicate. We may not directly communicate with theater or harry potter. There may be a sense of false hope given to children through the messages that our portrayed in the movies, but they bring about so many new interactions and ways that both children and adults can communicate.

    I find it incredible that so many people come together to see one movie. They do not get to experience/communicate about the event with the actual characters, but they are able to experience such a phenomenon together. It is bringing our world together, and with the end Harry Potter came great sadness with fans. Fans also are able to role play and create new fan fiction around this central Harry Potter theme, which I think is incredible. I wonder if Addams had been able to see this if she would perhaps see things such as theatre in a different light then she once did.

  3. I think that you present a really great analysis, but here are a few additional things that I took away from her piece (that I know will be addressed in later readings, particularly those discussing our current media environment):
    1. She discusses the first demand on theater as being "a search for solace and distraction", and later in that paragraph says that "a child whose imagination has been cultivated is able to do this for himself through reading and reverie" (p. 26): I think she's alluding to the fact that movies (and now other media) replace using imagination, which I mostly agree with. That's not to say that there aren't obvious benefits, but I do consider that a negative. I can't tell if she does though, because she follow that speculation with the idea that for "the overworked city youth of meager education, perhaps nothing but the theater is able to perform this important office".
    2. Along with your point, she says "the theater is not only a place of amusement, it is a place of culture, a place where people learn how to think, act and feel": as you described, movies like Harry Potter can very easily translate from screen to culture, but I think the question is whether that's always a good thing. While some things (like Harry Potter) can teach respectable vales/morals/etc, others do not. And I think she might be pointing out that we can't take everything we see in a movie at face value... we can't always expect to be able to apply what we "learn" from theater/entertainment to our lives, because we are then assuming 1.) that they are "true" or "right" and 2.) that they apply to us and our lives.

    I don't think I'm verbalizing this very well... so I'm interested to discuss it in class:)