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Playing novels: some thoughts about Ivanhoe

Katharina asked the very useful question last week, after I suggested that one or both groups might choose a substitute for the planned Billy Budd: what makes for a good text to play via Ivanhoe? Here are some thoughts on that score:

  • you can “play” virtually any fictional narrative (or even historical event, legal debate, etc.): as long as there are an array of different personae to inhabit, the play will work.
  • shorter is better: in my experience, the game works best in groups of 4-7, to allow for a range of different personae and to give a sense of the text as a whole. As I joked in class, Russian “doorstop” novels have too many characters and too much plot complexity to work well. Novella-length is great, given the time constraints.
  • public-domain is always nice but less necessary here: we are transforming these texts and thus can “publish” our work in the open under “fair use.” So the only downside is the expense, potentially, of getting your hands on an in-copyright text.
  • interesting publication history: if you dig deeply enough, almost any text has a rich publication history on some level, but it’s nice to think about texts that occasioned some kind of vivid debate, or had unusual itineraries through the publication process, or otherwise teach us something about the production/consumption/distribution of texts.
  • As I mentioned in class, the Bedford Cultural Edition series has a few 19thC texts that have rich publication histories, are of manageable length, and are chock-full of the kinds of cultural materials that would enhance your play.

For an example, check out the site in which my honors course at Hunter played Charles Chesnutt’s The Conjure Tales last term. As you can see, both teams played the same text but with different emphases and different “paratextual” characters. The fun of the game emerges through the interactions, in which players, much as in improvised music or theater or dance, have to listen to one another in order for their expressions to mesh with the whole. Of course your play will look very different, but I think these students did great things with the project.

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