Impressions of a Moderator: Great Books Summer Drama Retreat of June 17th, 2016 in Tampa Palms
As one of three moderators for the annual Tampa Bay Great Books Council’s “Summer Drama Retreat,” I must say that I was pleased overall with the two two-hour discussions of the Edward Albee plays that I facilitated. Although the logistics and configuration of the venue—the Compton Park community clubhouse—required that one of the two “breakout” groups be larger than the other (mine had 21 discussants while the other had 13), I think the format worked successfully. Ideally, I would like to see three discussion groups of roughly the same size and of no more than fifteen in number, but that is an ideal to be strived for in the future!
The morning discussion focused on the play, “A Delicate Balance,” that concerned the peeling away of family tensions and secrets as a neighbor couple, Harry and Edna, come to visit. The discussion was spirited, enthusiastic, humorous at times, but always civil in the interaction of participants. Only one or two of the discussants did not participate (for whatever reason), and it was pleasing to me that everybody seemed to follow the principles of “Shared Inquiry” that they were asked to peruse prior to the meeting.
Two things in particular struck me about the morning session. First of all, there was a reflection of the continuing debate regarding how much, if any, of an author’s life should be introduced into a Great Books discussion. The group had both its “purists” (don’t introduce the author’s life at all, stick to the text alone!) and its “modernists” (keep the primary focus on the text but it’s all right to introduce outside sources of information whenever relevant to advancing the discussion). In our discussion, this debate did not reach anything resembling an obstacle or rancor since the author himself, in the Preface, clearly stated that the play was his recollection about his mother, so that fact allowed both sides in the debate to proceed with complete justification! I couldn’t help but think of the irony (or was it just a coincidence) of how a Great Books moderator must always try to keep “a delicate balance” in leading a productive discussion!
Secondly, I was struck (once again, even after 30 years of leading Great Books groups) at how often people will allude and adhere to modern psychological jargon (“bi-polar,” “dysfunctional,” “clinically depressed,” etc. , in describing issues of human conflict and interaction. I secretly wished in my heart that new terms could be found to use in the discussion process but I noticed that I couldn’t object too much since participants did refer to the text to try and support their terminology and opinions, some better than others.
The afternoon discussion was centered on the other Albee play, “Three Tall Women.” During my preparations for this discussion, I was somewhat apprehensive about the chances for a good discussion based on two factors: 1) people tend to get a little sluggish after a heavy meal and 2) the author’s technique of naming the three characters (who later merge into one woman, ostensibly) “A,” “B,” and “C,” might be rather confusing to readers. Surprisingly, while some participants grappled with who or what these three figures were meant to represent, the concept of “shared inquiry” took over, as participants engaged in “fleshing out” the text to discover what Albee was trying to accomplish. I felt in my own mind that the message of the play (the multidimensionality of human beings as we age) was more relevant to the age of the discussants than perhaps the first play was.