Act V

Greek theatre ignored the division into acts. Greek representations consisted of several distinct parts, called protasis (introduction), epitasis (main action), catastasis (climax), and catastrophe (final resolution), but actually no interlude separated the individual parts. When the main actors left the scene, they were replaced by the choir, who sang or spoke their lines in unison, a collective, universal voice which commented on the dramatic action. Acts are, actually, never mentioned by ancient authors, not even Aristotle, in his Poetics, refers to such a division.

It was Roman drama critic Horace, three hundred years after Aristotle, who advocated a 5-act structure in his Ars Poetica: “A play should not be shorter or longer than five acts” and by the beginning of the first century it had become conventional in Rome. All Seneca’s plays, for example, were structured in five separate acts with musical interludes between them. The German critic, Guystav Freytach (1816-1895), attempted to rationalise the five act structure. In his model the first act is the exposition, where characters, character’s backstories, setting are introduced and it usually ends with the play’s significant piece of action.The second act takes that action and complicates it: that’s the rising action. In the third act there is a climax, the turning point, where the fortunes of the character or characters are reversed – either good to bad or bad to worse. In the fourth act the results of the reversal are played out and the hostility of the counter-party affects the hero in many ways. This is the falling action. In the fifth act the hero meets his logical destruction and that is the catastrophe. These ups and downs seem to follow the sequence of breathing: inhale/exhale. In a way we may say that drama is modelled on human nature.

Shakespeare’s plays do not exactly fit any pattern described above. They do not conform to the Aristotelian one and even if they may somehow resemble Freytach’s scheme, they do not completely fit into it. Shakespeare did not even divide the plays into acts and scenes, as it was done for the first time by the playwright Nicholas Rowe (1674-1718), in his six volume edition of Shakespeare’s plays he edited in 1709. Shakespeare put on stage the dynamic of the world he knew with the sensibility of the genius he was, regardless of defined rules and patterns. His stories were based on the alternation of order and chaos. At the beginning of any Shakespearian play there is an order which is usually broken by the evil action of a villain, fate or  a war, till eventually another order is achieved. In this alternation we keep moving forward, as the order attained at the end of the final act after the catastrophe is completely different from the previous one. This consideration should “give us pause“.

Hence, what we learn is that once, for any reason, a situation of stability is undermined, it is foolish to dream to restore it as it was. At the end of Act five, we can only expect to tackle the first act of another play. Every time we wonder about when we can ” go back to normal” after this pandemic, I fear we have to be ready to figure an entirely new “normality” . A normality made of masks, social distance, unemployment, disputes among countries and who knows what else to the next catastrophe.This is life and this proves that after all, the bard was right,”all world is a stage“.

The Online Teacher

I know that it is common belief that in these desperate times of pandemic outbreak, teachers are those lucky ones who stay at home – it has been almost 5 weeks – paid to do nothing, but redecorating the house, baking soft bread, delicious cakes and biscuits all day, with the only concern about what to make for dinner, soon after lunch is over. Long days passed watching all the series Netflix, Prime, Sky can offer and, of course, reading, surfing the net here and there and, it cannot be forgotten, a few necessary gym sessions, as I suspect all those calories will deposit somewhere I don’t wish to very soon. In short: a paradise. Well, if you are one of them, I feel like reassuring you, as nothing of the kind has happened since March 5th: there is no paradise, but rather, a hell.

At first it was like a whisper: “online learning“. The effect was that a breeze, which, however, being that soft leaves you unperturbed.  So, it was easy to pretend to ignore the meaning of that gentle hint for a while; after all, how long were we supposed to stay at home ? Two weeks, top. But two weeks have become a month soon, one month two and now the most likely perspective is that we will go back to school in September, maybe, according to safety protocols. Back to normal won’t be soon; back to school, in a real classroom with walls and 25/30 students in plus the teacher won’t be soon.  Hence, in one fell swoop, that delicate whisper quickly turned into a nightmarish trumpet blast: “ON-LINE LEARNING”!!!!

Just like in any sudden reawakening, fears and anguish overwhelm you, before you can  focus and get in control of the situation. So, having soon discovered that online learning didn’t actually mean sending a few links, homework and a “I hope you are fine” note, we found ourselves facing the inevitable: the screen. Our presence in the life of our students was required either on air or with recorded lessons, and this was really an undiscovered country for us all. The unknown may thrill or frighten, depends on our dispositions, however, it was clear that that foreign land could not be avoided forever.

So, we all began to move our timid steps in “online learning land” watching tutorials about learning platforms, video platforms like  Zoom, Cisco WebEx, Meet, Google classroom, Edmodo, just to mention the most popular here, till we picked the most performing ones. Then, it was the time to plan when and what to do, scheduling the timing of our video lessons with colleagues and students. Hence, to be more efficient and quick, I found myself having 6 WhatsApp groups with my collegues and six with my students. I know, I wrote several times against sharing whatsApp groups with students, but I couldn’t do otherwise and trust me, in these emergency moments, they are extremely useful. Of course, I have no more privacy. You may imagine any time our principal sends a new directive, what hell that happens in my phone.

When everything is set, what remains is one big question: what kind of lesson could I give? And when you start to figure the possible choices at hand, it becomes clear that the old learning material is no longer useful and has to be transformed into something new and more effective on a screen, as powerpoints, for example. Could anybody watch only my face and keep following me, while I am talking about “the Waste Land”  without the help of images or patterns? Impossible. Therefore, before going on air, lessons have to be carefully planned, and I’ll leave to your imagination the amount of work and hours that this job has required and will require.

Was I a little uneasy my first time on the video? Yes. Was I a kind of clumsy ? A lot. Was it a memorable lesson? Nope ( not even the lessons which followed). Do I enjoy my online classes? Very much. And do you know why? Because, I actually feel a certain thrill, just like an explorer who sees new interesting scenarios opening day after day. I believe that these months’ forced experience will eventually project education to another dimension: the future. Of course, online learning cannot fully replace the original model of school, but it can become complementary and make schooling more dynamic. There is always some good even in the worst moments.