Italy Reads: Keynote Address by Professor Sarah Churchwell

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Sarah Churchwell

Professor Sarah Churchwell

On Wednesday, October 26, 2016, John Cabot University presented the Italy Reads Keynote Address by Professor Sarah Churchwell. Professor Churchwell is Chair of Public Understanding of the Humanities and a professorial fellow in American literature at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She is the author of many books, scholarly and journalistic articles, and is a regular commentator on arts, culture and politics on British TV.

Professor Churchwell spoke to the many attendees, mainly high school students and teachers who are participating in this year’s Italy Reads, about The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams (and Williams himself), the subject of this year’s program. Williams’ theatre, according to Churchwell, is extremely important in that it introduces the concept of “plastic” (as in pliable) theatre, an attempt to write plays that envisions theatre as a whole unified system that put words, sound, sets, lighting all under the control of the playwright. Williams was the first playwright to take a “cinematic” approach to theatre: for instance, by controlling the lighting, he was able to create the impression of a long shot, or a close-up, effectively guiding the audience’s gaze.

Sarah Churchwell

Professor Sarah Churchwell

Williams, Churchwell continued, was an expressionist in his theatre, preferring to convey mood and the inner workings of his character’s minds rather than accurately representing reality. However, he was not only revolutionary because of his technical approach to theatre, but also for his themes. In fact, “Williams explored darker, less “legitimate” forms of sexuality for his day, and was the first American playwright to grant women erotic desire and not punish them for these feelings. He was also the first one to eroticize men or to portray sex in a play at all,” Churchwell said.

Professor Churchwell concluded by talking about the importance of The Glass Menagerie, a story of lost innocence that was defined “nothing less than a revolution” by Arthur Miller, one of the three great American playwrights of the 20th century (the other two being Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams himself).