Training and Makeup Go a Long Way

When comparing performance styles, it is difficult to find similarities between them without diminishing the cultural and unique qualities that each country brings. Years of historical and socio-economic change have shaped these styles into the art of today’s landscape and so, it is essential to realize that each performance aesthetic merits its own exploration. Nonetheless, there are themes that tie these styles together when discussing international performance.

For example, in the Sacred Dances of Balinese performances, referred to as Wali, the dancers must use their bodies to display certain hand gestures while balancing headdresses atop their heads. This movement takes hours of practice to build the dexterity and posture required and in all honesty, a regular person off the street would not be able to perform this. The dancers need their bodies to be perfectly aligned, and therefore, they require a level of physical capability. This concept of well-defined performers is equally shown in Kathakali training throughout India. Learning exercises for the hands and face, sometimes starting at the age of ten years old, and developing an intense scale of athleticism ultimately leads these kinds of performers to mold their bodies to fit the demands of the training. They must work hard to reach this level of performance quality, often getting up early, and that is very admirable.

On the other hand, there is a common thread among entertainment performance, particularly the Balih-Balihan of Bali and the Jingju in Chinese Opera. Due to the requirement of exaggeration, the onstage performers must use makeup to shade and contour the outlines of their faces. The audience is so far away, and therefore, will not be able to view the interesting facial expressions or changes in emotion if the performers do not involve the use of excessive makeup. From up close, this artistic choice may seem hyperbolic and “clown-ish”, but it is crucial in guiding the audience towards understanding the piece of art. Balih-Balihan performers use makeup to express a more charming quality of movement, but it is still very important for the overall picture they are trying to present. Likewise, the Beijing Opera incorporates a character named “Painted Face” wherein the performer presents elaborate face make-up covering everything but his eyeballs. Each colour represents important characteristics for the narrative, and without this added feature, the character’s heroic attitude would just fade into the backdrop.

In terms of parallels to the Western notion of theatre, there are many traditions that have been translated overseas to North America. In the Sacred Dances of Bali, specific hand gestures and wrist movements are akin to the gestural forms of Western contemporary dance. Many contemporary dances will display dancers standing relatively still while they use their forearms, fingers, wrists, elbows, and shoulders to create movement. This concentrates the rhythm to only a few body parts rather than the entire body and helps the audience know where to put their focus. Wali dancers exhibit their hands to show musical interpretation to the audience, and this kind of performance reminds me that simple gestures can engage an audience just as much as a complicated piece of choreography. As well, in Balih-Balihan, the Balinese dancers are trained at a young age to be double-jointed and flexible in their hands, back, and legs. In a like manner, young ballet dancers are taught to have lean, agile bodies to meet the technical and physical requirements of ballet. Considering this, Balih-Balihan introduces the young dancers to maintaining a strong disciplined attitude towards their training due to the detailing of the choreography.

Throughout these past weeks, I have been immensely inspired to create my own work with this amount of care and dedication that has been shown. My piece that is being presented in Choreographic Works this coming March is about telling a narrative. I choreographed this piece by pulling from the Broadway musical “You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown”, but making sure to personalize the story of four kids trying to write a book report. I was inspired by the Indian performance style of Ramayana to allow theatricality to be displayed onstage from the primitive source of text and literature. My dancers and I have been researching the various fables of the Peanuts characters to try and find ways that movement and acting can evoke moments of comedy and relatability for the audience. I plan to dive more into this concept of narrative, and I am excited to learn about other cultural and aesthetic performance styles as we continue on in this class.

On the Importance of a Greek Chorus

As a performance begins, the audience rests quietly while a group of people in front of them hold up a mirror. The performer strives to grab the audience by the heartstrings, and builds a strong connection between the stage and the seating area. Throughout history, the world of theatre has helped humans make elaborate changes to social and political issues, including certain decisions that pertain to morality and religion. This impact is the reason humans seek the cathartic experience of theatre, specifically the classic Greek plays that have lasted for so long. What is it about Aeschylus’ ​Agamemnon​ or Euripides’ ​Medea​ that still rings true to an audience of modern humans? The text and music are certainly crucial to the telling of a story; however, without physical movement there is not enough context for the audience to relate to. Especially if the performance is set in a different language, the audience can only hold onto the visual picture for guidance. This is where the chorus, primarily meaning “the dance” in Greek language, comes in handy (Hamilton 144). The group of performers who comment on the action of the play and usually move in unison is the essential element for a performance to be successful. Without the chorus and their body language, the audience loses touch with the humanity of a performance, especially during a play written many centuries ago.

In terms of the history of Greek movement, there was a time when chorus work was limited to singing and text-work. Although this was still a valid opportunity for objective narration and commentary, it was not effective enough to aid the audience in understanding the play (Wiles 110). It was not until 467 B.C. when a legendary dancer by the name of Telestes was performing in Aeschylus’s ​Seven against Thebes​ and decided to break off from the chorus group. Telestes was the first recorded pantomime actor in Greece to use gestures and fancy footwork as a way to interpret the text of the chorus (Lust 20). This sudden change led to expand the way the audience hears a phrase of words, and it shaped the harmony of choreography and text. As a word is being recited, the movement correlated with it defines the rhythm of pitch and volume so as to widen the understanding of the definition (David 93). The marriage of text and movement creates more depth to a play, causing the audience to feel more deeply. The famous author Homer states that the Greek mime’s art is “noble and divine”, while Seneca, the Roman philosopher, describes it as a mute language well “spoken” (Lust 23). While words and music have so much to give, the articulation of movement has the ability to take over in the most fruitful way. Another example of how movement explores the human condition is shown in the complicated play ​Medea​ by Euripides. During one scene, Medea announces that she will murder her children, and the chorus distances themselves from her into a tight circle to demonstrate the effects of exclusion (Wiles 107). Visually, the audience can label Medea as an outcast, who is making a self-assertive decision by herself. If the chorus orients themselves closer to her, the effect of her choice to kill her offspring would be illustrated in a tame manner. Working with the strengths of the chorus can heighten the stakes for the main character and bring more emotional complexity to the play.

Indeed, when a performer chooses a movement to display on a stage, the audience finds relatable qualities in the performer’s vulnerabilities. The everyday human walks, claps, shakes, and freezes without realizing how much movement is created. Many theatre-goers are uneducated in the study of movement, but use the experience of live performance to assess emotional situations. Bryan Doerries writes in his book, ​The Theater of War​, that “certain plays seemed as if they might have something important to say to people working in professions that brought them into close, daily contact with suffering and death, but who had no outlet for acknowledging the moral and emotional stress of their jobs” (Doerries 153). Considering this, it is clear why performance continues to be so impactful in the life of the working human. Going to a stressful job that requires many relentless tasks can take a toll on the emotional response of a human and can cause the creative soul to deteriorate. This terrible consequence must be met with means of outward expression, and by attending a live performance with other people looking to release their own stress, the working human can return to their most instinctual self. Furthermore, the audience members form a natural community with each other during a performance due to the simple fact that they all decided to sit down, and face the same direction for a period of time. Being a part of a group sends a feeling of belonging to each audience member, and this experience is unique to the magic of live theatre: “Sometimes during powerful moments, when actors are able to convey the truth of an experience, audience members begin breathing together, inhaling and exhaling at once. Whenever this happens, the quality of the silence in the theater deepens, and the audience listens with a level of attention that is rarely achieved in today’s fast-paced world” (Doerries 209). Here, Doerries describes the atmosphere through the involuntary movements of theatre-goers. Even as the audience sits still, there is a ceaseless physicality in their position, causing the audience to feel united. In some ways, the audience assembles into its own choral group, staying put for the duration of the performance (Wiles 110). If the main characters of a play function to solve the problem of the plot, then the chorus represents the through-line between performer and audience member. Just as the chorus comments on the action of the play (Hamilton 144), the audience watches in a state of intense pensivity and emphasizes for the main characters. Thus, the working human, who spends many hours moving around to accomplish tasks for the sake of their job, finds solace in the profound experience of being an audience member of live performance.

Not only is a Greek chorus important for the use of movement, but it can also help reach audience members sitting at the back rows of an enormous Greek theatre. The elaborate structure of ancient Greek theatres forces performers to project their voice outwards. When discussing movement, the human eye is better equipped to focus on a group of performers in unison, predominantly if an audience member is sitting far from the stage (Wiles 110). The scaling of movement in regards to a large theatre can only be executed when the members of the chorus are being used properly. Consequently, this created a division between the actor and the chorus when ancient Greek companies were touring:

“The surviving theatres of the Greek world have stages on which the ‘actors’ performed, whilst the chorus danced in the orchestra below… It was not feasible for a team of fifteen dancers to tour the world, and if the local community was able to provide choral dancers, those dancers would not have a chance to rehearse with the actors, so the physical separation of actors and chorus became an inevitability” (Wiles 104).

Moreover, when an actor stands alone on the stage, they can use their singular voice to express the character’s pain and suffering, aiding in the display of vulnerability. On the other hand, when a chorus erupts into using voice and movement as a group, the audience hears and sees more clearly into where the plot is going and why the main character is troubled. Trying to broaden the storytelling to a theatre of over 700 people is quite difficult with one performer. In the example of Aeschylus’ ​Agamemnon,​ the character Clytemnestra positions herself upstage for most of the play, making small movements on the spot. Although this blocking decision causes her to dominate as the magnificent element of the play (Hamilton 154), she pales in comparison to the choral work of the men spread out in front of the stage who, as a group, move with grace and speak with gusto. The eye falls towards the chorus who fill up the theatre “as the extension of a particular character with whom it expresses solidarity” (Wiles 110). For this reason, Clytemnestra would seem too small in front of such a large audience if it were not for the juxtaposition of the chorus members. An audience member that views the performance from a substantial distance must be able to experience the show in a similar way to another spectator, sitting in the front row. Therefore, the relationship between actor and chorus has a significant role in the effectiveness of a play that is staged in an ancient Greek theatre.

In conclusion, the members of the chorus have a remarkably important job to do in order for a play to successfully attain the attention of the audience. Within its movement and spatial patterning, the chorus is crucial in guiding the audience towards the most touching elements of a live performance. Dance gestures that speak to the text and the song of a play enhance the way an audience connects to the main characters and the problems that they work through. Simply put, if the chorus is not involved enough in a performance, the audience would feel left out to a certain extent. Ancient Greek theatres, and the ones that are still active to this day, challenge the performer to cast out their expressiveness to the theatre-goers sitting in the back row, and this can only be done well with the extraordinary role of the chorus.


Works Cited

David, A. P. ​The Dance of the Muses: Choral Theory and Ancient Greek Poetics. O​ xford University Press, 2006.

Doerries, Bryan. ​The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies can Teach Us Today. Alfred

A. Knopf, 2015.

Hamilton, Edith. ​Three Greek Plays. ​Norton, 1965.

Lust, Annette. ​From the Greek Mimes to Marcel Marceau and Beyond: Mimes, Actors, Pierrots, and Clowns : A Chronicle of the Many Visages of Mime in the Theatre. ​Scarecrow Press, 2000.

Wiles, David. ​Greek Theatre Performance: An Introduction. C​ ambridge University Press, 2000.

How do we approach a master class? (A 3-Part Exposition)

Part 1: The teacher

For Part 2, click here. For Part 3, click here.

For a class to be considered “masterful”, there must be an element that furthers the learning for the students. A teacher must be experienced in the certain subject they are teaching and are able to offer information unique to their career path. For example, a juggling coach would be perfect to teach a juggling class because they are able to demonstrate the action and work with the students to achieve the goal of 3 balls in the air. A juggling coach would not be perfect to teach a class on Thermodynamics because it is not in their field. It makes logical sense.

So then, why are there teachers, that are currently working right now, who show up unprepared and uneducated in their respective skills? If they are not a master of their craft, then they cannot offer a master class. They are free to explain to the students that possibly they are still in training or almost finished a degree of some kind, but it is vital that that information is being communicated to the students. Afterall, most teachers nowadays balance teaching jobs as they continue to study their respective subjects. Whether or not that is the case, a teacher cannot stand in front of a class of eager students and pretend to carry the appropriate education on their back. It will show very quickly if a teacher is under-qualified. In addition, the students are most likely paying for this service, making it immorally wrong.

Now, there are instances where a teacher may be asked a question by their student that the teacher cannot answer. This is maybe due to the fact that a student has taken the information they learned from their teacher and expanded upon it. This is a teacher’s ideal goal for a master class because it shows that the student is at a point in their learning process where they feel comfortable and able to create their own hypotheses. The old saying of “The student becomes the teacher” is, in all forms of pedagogy, exactly what a teacher wants for their students. While it might frighten the teacher, the students are supposed to transition out of being beginners. That is why a master class is a great opportunity.

Let’s gravitate to a more specific example: a dance teacher who offers a class in popping and locking. Whether or not the students are starting from scratch or are already well-versed in this style, the teacher should choose to promote this as a master class. This style is a strand of hip-hop that requires profound coordinating of usual body parts. Some teachers would even say that it is more difficult to learn than ballet. So, there must be some way that the teacher is setting the students up for being interested in the style. If the teacher is qualified, they are welcome to market themselves as a master of popping and locking and the students will then be able to have a better respect for their teacher.

It begs the question if all dance classes should be labelled with “master” in the marketing. Shouldn’t all dance teachers be masters if they are old enough to teach? Sadly, this is not a sound argument because there are instances where a dancer thinks they have automatically graduated to the status of teacher. It is agreeable to say that all dance teachers can dance, but it is inaccurate to say that all dancers can teach. Whether or not, a dancer has had impressive training in a countless number of styles, there is a different perspective when teaching dance. Ultimately, the dancer must switch their brain into a less egotistical frame of mind. This is not to say that dancers are selfish. Dance is a very community-based genre of art. However, dancers must be able to let go of trying to show off their capabilities so that the students are actually learning rather than just watching. A master class is not for a teacher to dance their own choreography or exercises and abandon the proper values of teaching. It is for students to take their skill level to new heights. If a dancer wants to choreograph a combination and have another person provide the teaching of it, that is perfectly fine too.

So, to aptly call a dance class “master”, the teacher must be educated in the style they are teaching as well as focused solely on the students’ growth throughout the class.

To conclude this section, a teacher’s role in a master class rests on their history of training and their ability to communicate how a student will get to be at that skill-level. Any wavering of this perspective will send the students down a reverse path of development. Similarly, if a teacher wants to sleep at night and feel like they are a great teacher, they must remember to put the students first. Teaching is not an easy task to do, but when done correctly, it has the potential to be very significant in a student’s life.

How do we approach a master class? (A 3-Part Exposition)

Part 2: The students

For Part 1, click here. For Part 3, click here.

Now, to move onto the other humans in the room. It is crucial to understand that there will be an immense variety of students in a master class, whatever the subject. Due to the natural developments of the human brain, every student learns differently and at a different pace. Therefore, if the student is having trouble understanding the teacher or the concepts at play, then it may not be their fault. Students should use this obstacle as a way to further understand what helps them to learn. Here’s an example: a student is taking a course on Data Management and the teacher asks them to read the next chapter out of their textbook. For some students, this technique caters towards independent learning which can be beneficial for shy students. According to this website, this is referred to as Solitary or Intrapersonal Learning. However, for other students, they would rather learn with the teacher’s voice as the whole group of students participate in discussion because it offers a sense of communal trust. This is called Social or Interpersonal Learning. Of course, there are many more ways to learn and these are what make humans special. Thus, blaming the student for their difficulties is absurd because it may be a simple change of trying a different teaching method.

Let’s switch gears here. Not to be negative, but what if the student really is the problem? It is an appropriate question to consider because when a teacher outputs all the information they can in a manner that is helpful for the specific student, it is up to the student to take it and run with it. Unfortunately, there can be students (mostly young) who take the opportunity of a master class for granted. They might see it as a normal thing that they get ever week or so and might never see the great privilege they are getting. They might pretend they are bored and try to mess around with the teacher in hopes of getting a laugh out of the other students. Even still, a teacher cannot be directly blamed if a student is acting out in class or disrespecting the environment. The goal for the teacher is that the students are mastering their skills, but this cannot proceed if the student has no discipline or curiosity for learning. Indeed, this may come as they mature. If the students really take into consideration how powerful class time really is, maybe they will stop wasting it with silliness. After all, they are probably not the ones paying the high fees for a master class.

It is evident how a student approaches a master class when they make a blunt mistake. For example, if a dance student falls while executing a pirouette turn, they may laugh about it, cry about it, brush it off, slap themselves for it, ask the teacher for more guidance, hide from the teacher… the list goes on. Mistakes are the most natural thing to happen in a master class, yet they are often seen as failure or weakness. Due to pressure from the others, the student may feel they cannot make a mistake because their peers would look down on them. This student dynamic will ruin the opportunity for growth, and make the students feel like they have to be perfect. So, whether it comes from the teacher, a parent, or the student themselves, making a mistake should be expected in a master class. Then the student can let go of any anxiety that’s stopping their development and strive to be better with each day. Nobody wants to feel like they are incapable of something great.

So, for a student to really “master” their skills and perform to the best of their abilities, they must honour the gift of class and set free any worry that they are going to look bad. This is easier said than done for some students, but if each and every student in the group is supporting one another, everyone can learn in the style that suits them best.

To conclude this section, here is a video of a young Brianna taking her first Stomp The Yard class with Dahlia Caro at Leeming Danceworks in 2012. Notice the fear in my face. I was the youngest of the group and definitely the least experienced with the style, but I remember feeling safe enough to try. Dahlia was always a very comforting teacher who wanted to see the best out of her students. Go check her out on Instagram here. This video documents an extremely scary moment in my life, however, I like to look back on it as a successful one too.

 

How do we approach a master class? (A 3-Part Exposition)

Part 3: Social media

For Part 1, click here. For Part 2, click here.

Another huge part of how we approach a master class that has taken off in recent years is social media. It has mostly taken off in the dance world, so this section will be geared towards the society of dance in North America.

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Whether or not a teacher or student uses it in a class, social media has changed the way we approach a master class. There are now countless videos online that display a combination of moves from the end of a dance class. If you are unaware, go check out Tricia Miranda’s YouTube channel here, and you’ll see exactly how popular these videos can be for viewers. It’s as accessible as ever to watch what the teacher and dancers worked on. So, it begs the question if it is changing the dance world for the better or for the worst.

Starting off with the pros, social media allows dancers/teachers to share their experience within a master class for the purposes of archival material. The teacher may want to develop a portfolio for future work or to reference for a later project. This is an admirable desire because it shows that the teacher is proud of their work and thinks that others can be inspired by it. Likewise, the dancer may want to show off (in an un-diva way) the movements and concepts they worked on because they were satisfied with their improvement during the class. This is also an admirable desire because it shows that a dancer is not afraid to expose their mistakes and achievements. The dancer is putting themselves up for critique and again, building a portfolio for future jobs/opportunities. Posting a video for everyone to see not only helps promote the teacher/dancer, but also the space they are dancing in. Millennium Dance Complex in Los Angeles has built a reputation upon posting dance videos, and it has grown as a popular studio ever since. More people gravitate toward it because they know it will provide a platform for pursuing a career in dance. Wonderful! Everyone can grow!

Another benefit to social media is that audiences can decide if they would like to try a certain master class and what dance styles appeal to them from viewing a video posted on a teacher’s/dancer’s account. This creates a community of openness for dancers who feel they are new to a certain style, as well as an opportunity for advanced dancers to try other styles/teachers. Again, another wonderful situation for growth!

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However, when looking at the cons of social media’s role in the dance world, there are many destructive habits that are constantly being used. One of these being the idea that if you do not post about a master class, it is considered that you were not there. There is a certain amount of pressure that comes with posting because the audience may forget about you if you do not show them what exactly what you do with your time. This pressure can be so toxic and negative for everyone. It can turn us into self-centered people whose only ambition is to get attention from others. In addition, we may feel like we missed out on a master class if a certain post gets tons of likes or comments, even though the class is completely separate from the video that is posted. FOMO is real.

Not only does social media create more pressure to post about every class, it also can ruin the incredible experience of a master class for a dancer/teacher. A dancer might end up spending the whole class worried about getting picked for the video that they will lose all sight of what a master class if for: learning. Let’s say a teacher has a high following on social media and the master class they are teaching gathers a crowd of over 100 students. It is almost certain that this teacher will end out the class by finding a group(s) of dancers that they feel did the best and video taping the combo/routine for posting. That is so much extra pressure on the students!! They may end up feeling like they cannot actually attempt new concepts because then the video may not be “post-worthy”. In my own experience, I have taken many classes where the teacher does not even seem interested in how the students are progressing because they are more fixated on how good their video will look. What a waste of time!!

If a teacher is spending the whole hour and a half thinking about which dancers look good together and which dancers do not deserve to be in the video, they are putting up a wall between them and the students. A class cannot be deemed “master” if the teacher prioritizes the end result of a class rather than the journey it takes to get there.

So, it is a bit of a mixed bag when looking at social media and master classes. Do we continue to share what we did in hopes that others will be inspired? Do we continue to share what we did in hopes that others will like us? It’s up to us to use our knowledge as dancers and teachers to make a decision about social media. Or else, it could lead us to spoil the great blessing that is a master class.

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WW1: A War that was Out to Get Women

A woman of today’s time could easily be labelled as an independent force, due to the advancing freedom of expression and changing workplace conditions. However, a century ago, this was definitely not the case. In the early 20th century, a woman was not yet able to vote and had only just begun working alongside her male companions (Dodd 330). These modifications created a complicated divide between the sexes and put women at risk for being viewed as second place to the men fighting on the front line. As well, it is worth mentioning the extreme pressure women faced to withhold the demands of their respective countries while armies marched elsewhere. The major inequalities women faced while the First World War was in bloom caused historians to reflect differently on the development of feminism. In comparison to the modern day woman, the governments’ regulations around the world manipulated how women were to feel and be treated as to cater to the intensities of the First World War. Women felt helpless in secret services, felt lonely due to the diminishing population of men, and were likely unaware that the government was using them as puppets for war propaganda.

When looking at the historiography of how women are portrayed during the First World War, there is a distinct contrast when the 1970 revolution became a place for American and British women to speak out about the issues surrounding sexual harassment and the objectification of women. Writings published from then until now, have brought about critical discussions on the subject of women being mistreated in the First World War, helping to initiate feminism as a significant social movement (Metinsoy 19). For example, an article written in 1975 by Oxford University openly argues that although women were finally allowed to work in occupations other than a mother, their positions as munition workers, typists, janitors, or railway employees were simple, low-level jobs at the bottom of the economic hierarchy (Greenwald 156). As stated in a more recent publication by Canadian author Diane Dodd, wartime meant that men would be away from these duties and thus, women had to step up, although paid less than what men would have earned (Dodd 328). Therefore, it was only until the last quarter of the 20th century that sexist workplace conditions were brought into the light of the public eye. Before then, as the Second World War and Vietnam War finished, women were still depicted, by the United States and United Kingdom governments’ standards, as less than men (Redmond and Farrell 331). The portrayal of women has transformed over the past century in historians’ eyes, helping more women to speak out about the inequalities between men and women.

In Britain, espionage was a useful tactic so that secrecy could remain a part of their offensive strategy. Considering this, it is vital to delve into the remarkable imbalances between male and female spies. In Tammy M. Proctor’s book, she examines the way British women in espionage were seen as too emotional to be taken seriously for the job, adding in that the government thought women would fall in love with the enemy due to their “romantic natures” (Proctor 43). Indeed, this speculation that women are more emotional than men has been floating around society for many years, and continues to be an issue in current political situations (Ladkin 402). On the other hand, it is unintelligent to diagnose all women with this problem. This stereotype classified women as unfit for the secretive role and caused women to face disadvantages against the idolism of men in espionage (Proctor 50). When a woman missioned to double-cross an enemy line, she could use her sexuality to pre-maturely gather information for the government, but was then pushed aside (Proctor 149). It seems, that men were actually the more emotionally-driven workers due to the fact that they could be persuaded by a woman merely based on her sex appeal. Thus, women were wrongfully judged as too sentimental for an occupation as perilous as espionage because they were the most successful at the tasks they were given. Emotion should not be historicized as a weakness that kept women from performing their duties as intelligence workers. As mentioned above, female sexuality was used in British spying as a tool for targeting a man’s pleasure for having sex. Not only is this an extreme case of the objectification of women, but female spies agreed to pose as prostitutes because it was the only way women could exercise their patriotism. According to Proctor, the British media’s portrayal of women caused their secret service work to be demoralized and ineffective to their constant battle for equality: “Media portraits of women as virtuous, martyred heroines or avaricious spy-prostitutes made it difficult for real women to assert patriotism… without suspicion. Official secret service work for allied governments was one route to validation as “true” patriots, but even then, women’s work was suspect and their loyalty to their nations questioned” (Proctor 125-126). Further, these women who worked so desperately to be treated in a serious manner wanted their government to succeed in the war, and that meant accepting the profound sexism in this domain of military forces. British women everywhere, but particularly in espionage, were deemed similar to prostitutes with diseased reproductive organs leading to a strong regulation of women as a marginalized group (Kiere 250). This included curfews, and police officers were given the freedom to conduct strip-searches whenever they pleased (Proctor 31). All in all, female spies were unfairly treated as over-emotional prostitutes, causing their accomplishments as secret service workers to be viewed as invaluable.

Another example of how the First World War made the government act differently towards women stems from the population on the home front. Moreover, the women in the United States of America had to make do with the diminishing population of men who left for the battlefield. This is clearly stated in a book titled Singled Out, written by Virginia Nicholson: “The anguish of the surplus two million was exacerbated by the sense that they were unwanted by men not only as wives, but also as competitors in the workplace and social stakeholders” (Nicholson 24). It was standard, at this time in society, that the woman performed house work and motherly tasks, so that the man could provide for the family and greet his wife when he arrived home (Dodd 331). As men started to leave their families to fight for their respective countries, women began to feel a sad solitude because the normal household needed a mother and a father. American women became the majority in their communities, and that meant single women were not as likely to find a husband who could raise a family with them (Nicholson 83). Due to an extensive divide of the sexes, women were solely educated in areas such as needlework and languages rather than trades or economics (Nicholson 28). So it was not the woman’s fault that she could not handle a family by herself, but the control that the government had over their female civilians. This societal belief is to blame for why women on the home front had such a difficult experience living without a partner (Kiere 248). Equally, marriage as a whole became an implausible choice for women because they would just be left alone anyways. Nicholson exclaims that the mental health of women, as a whole, started to decline because they were stuck between choosing a life of poverty or a miserable marriage (Nicholson 147). The thought of marrying out of a loving relationship disappeared during the war, and depression arose throughout the minds of the surplus woman. Some women tried to use their allurement skills as a way to make money, leading to men in local nightclubs to treat them like prostitutes (Kiere 260). Consequently, this led to more oppression of women wanting to be open about their sexuality. In sum, there was not enough men to go around for the amount of women that stayed home to take care of the family, making the home front a very depressing place for American women.

On the other hand, maybe it was the case that, at the time, women were unaware of the lack of fairness. The legacy of British women, as well as Ottoman and American, has been studied and analyzed by historians in a variety of ways (Jensen 198; Metinsoy 20). Many believe that propaganda was a defining feature in the empowerment of women, in lieu of it being shameful for women (White 52). If it is true that women could not imagine their lives being any better, then it is possible that the government was brain-washing them. For instance, the White Feather Campaign, explored by Susan Grayzel, had an oxymoron kind of effect for women who participated in it because, in actuality, they were not given any real power at all (Grayzel 20). When a British woman gave a white feather to a man who had not enlisted in the army, she was just aiding the government in their twisted way of recruiting more soldiers. Rather than exercising her power as an influential woman, she was being innocently abused by the government by means of propaganda. Likewise, if a woman gave a feather to a military man who happened to be out of uniform on a particular night, she was ridiculed for her mistake (Gullace 202). In addition, the British government meticulously planned that women would never achieve the same status as men, no matter what field of work they pursued. In her book Women and the First World War, Grayzel writes that “women could join the military’s auxiliary corps [to construct ammunitions] and be ‘the woman behind the man behind the gun’” (Grayzel 13). In regards to this, women were never the intended superheroines at all. Instead, they were tricked into being the government’s toys and were perpetually treated as second priority to men. If the White Feather Campaign intended to make women feel less included in the war, it succeeded in more ways than one. This is also exhibited when enlistment posters were filled with women as an excuse for a man to sign up (Gullace 184). Similar to the ways modern advertisers use the sexuality of women to sell their products, the government thought they could market from displaying women in the media so that men would feel more personally connected to the war (Grayzel 10). As a final point, there are many oxymora to be found in the governmental structure of the war, including the fake power that was given to British women in the form of a white feather or a recruitment advertisement.

In conclusion, the First World War took a lot out of the wishes and aspirations of women because the governments of many countries required women to live in a regulated way. Whether it was because of female espionage workers being treated like overly sensitive prostitutes, because of a wife feeling incapable without a husband, or because of the government providing inauthentic ways for women to succeed in social status, the years of 1914-1918 mainly pandered to the needs of the war and the men fighting in it. The historiography of how women were portrayed during this time has evolved over the last century, resulting in authors writing from a modern day perspective. When comparing the treatment of women during the time of the Great War to the progressive movement of the “Me Too” campaign, there has been an extreme shift. It would be foolish to look at the accomplishments of women in 1914 as a victorious milestone for feminism because there were still many issues surrounding sexism. This is similar to the way Christians sacredly follow a book that was written ages ago. More important milestones have come along and shaped how society treats women today. As history constantly evolves, it is imperative to evolve one’s judgment of the progression of society. The years of 1914-1918 are not on par with the forward thinking of today. Simply put, World War One was out to get women.


Works Cited

Dodd, Diane. “Canadian Military Nurse Deaths in the First World War.” Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, vol. 34, no. 2, 2017, pp. 329-363. https://muse-jhu-edu.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/article/671547.

Grayzel, Susan R. Women and the First World War. Pearson Education Limited, 2002.

Greenwald, Maurine Weiner. “Women Workers and World War I: The American Railroad Industry, a Case Study.” Journal of Social History, vol. 9, no. 2, 1975, pp. 154–177.          JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3786250.

Gullace, Nicoletta F. “White Feathers and Wounded Men: Female Patriotism and the Memory of the Great War.” Journal of British Studies, vol. 36, no. 2, 1997, pp. 178-206. JSTOR, https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/stable/176011?pqorigsite=summon&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents.

Jensen, Kimberly. “Women’s ‘Positive Patriotic Duty’ to Participate: The Practice of Female Citizenship in Oregon and the Expanding Surveillance State during the First World War and Its Aftermath.” Oregon Historical Quarterly, vol. 118, no. 2, Summer2017, pp. 198-EBSCOhost, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ahl&AN=124209916&site=ehost-live.

Keire, Mara L. “Swearing Allegiance: Street Language, US War Propaganda, and the Declining Status of Women in Northeastern Nightlife, 1900-1920.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 25, no. 2, May 2016, pp. 246-266. EBSCOhost, doi:10.7560/JHS25202.

Ladkin, Donna. “How Did That Happen? Making Sense of the 2016 US Presidential Election Result through the Lens of the ‘Leadership Moment’.” Leadership, vol. 13, no. 4, 12 July 2017, pp. 393-412. http://journals.sagepub.com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/doi/pdf/10.1177/1742715017714841.

Metinsoy, Elif Mahir. “Writing the history of ordinary Ottoman Women During World War 1”. Apasia, vol. 10, 2016, pp. 18–39. doi:10.3167/asp.2016.100103.

Nicholson, Virginia. Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men after the First World War. Penguin Books Limited, 2007.

Proctor, Tammy M. Female Intelligence: Women and Espionage in the First World War. New York University Press, 2003.

Redmond, Jennifer and Elaine Farrell. “War within and Without: Irish Women in the First World War Era.” Women’s History Review, vol. 27, no. 3, May 2018, pp. 329-342. EBSCOhost,doi:10.1080/09612025.2016.1223311.

White, Bonnie. The Women’s Land Army in First World War Britain. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Death Finds a Life (The Book Thief)

What is lost when one dies? Although it seems that his/her passionate soul disappears, the ones who mourn them still feel the person’s presence like a sweet fragrance in the air. The hair clip of a young girl holds the memories of her caring smile. The medals of a fallen soldier will still shine enough to remember his or her loyalty. During times of war, the smell of death lingers constantly, reminding citizens to focus towards bright love in the darkness that surrounds their country. Historic authors such as Markus Zusak incorporate the relationship between violence and compassion through the eyes of their narrators. Relayed by Death himself, The Book Thief shows how vulnerability brings Death closer to humans, yet he stays strictly passive, magnifying the reader’s sympathy for the characters in the novel. Set during the Holocaust, Death demonstrates no power of what unfolds, reveals his intrigue for the complicated minds of the characters, and becomes emotional and human.

Specifically, Death lacks the abilities to control the storyline, because his meticulous task is to steal all of the deceased bodies. He is on a tight schedule with no time to alter the destiny of the characters, as Claire Rosser writes about in her review of the novel. She discusses that, “[t]he narrator is a Being who is with humans at the moment of death, who carries their souls away. (…) It’s a busy time for the narrator, of course, in the middle of a world war, with bombing, the concentration camps, and all the death and destruction” (Rosser). While Death stands by, young children, like Liesel Meminger, are dealing with the scary events that rush so quickly in front of their inexperienced lives. He is not capable of saving dying Germans or killing harmful enemies. Therefore, everything that happens to the characters is their destiny, making the reader feel more sympathy for the atrocities of the Holocaust that Death does not initiate. Even though one would usually want to blame death for ruining lives and digging graves, this alternative Death is powerless. In addition, the soldiers suffering through the Second World War face ultimate decision making. During their travels by truck, Death silently watches them fight over a seat that they do not realize will be their doom: “One seat, two men, a short argument, and me. It kills me sometimes, how people die” (Zusak 464). As jobs are assigned, the other soldiers are risking the chance that their lives could end just based on where they sit in a truck. Death becomes the wallflower, tagging along for the ride. The characters control what they do and where they go, while the narrator sits on the side lines waiting to be assigned the job of carrying dead souls. Consequently, readers cannot accuse Death for the death of the characters. It is all up to the choices they make. Thus, Death is silent throughout the novel, designating his inevitable appearance solely for picking up dead spirits that chose the wrong path.

Not only does Death stay out of the way of the characters’ lives, Death discovers more about the humans he fears so much, as Liesel’s story is told. Her thievery of Germany’s books casts a haunting effect on Death, and while reading her adventurous journey, her reactions confuse him. The narrator monitors Liesel’s reactions to the deaths of her friends, and he comments particularly on her appearance. Though the aftermath of the bombing is traumatic enough, Death sees Liesel search for her family. He says:

“It amazes me what humans can do, even when streams are flowing down their faces and they stagger on, coughing and searching, and finding. (…) I realized at that moment that she was not wearing any shoes. What an odd thing to notice right then. Perhaps I was trying to avoid her face, for the book thief was truly an irretrievable mess” (Zusak 536-537).

Struggling to reunite with her family, Liesel uses her courage to find their bodies. Death notices her irregular qualities, showing that Liesel is his immediate target of interest. He never seems to get bored of the book thief, and her choices help him to conclude more about humans. Even as he is foreign to the humanist choices of the characters, Death is intoxicated by Liesel’s power. The story she writes gives him clues about the astonishing perseverance of the characters. Death is drawn to her, although her strong mind is void of the thought of giving up and dying. Also, in a review of the novel, Karen Breen describes Death’s attraction to Liesel. She writes: “In his many travels around the continent, Death becomes mesmerized by Liesel Meminger after her brother dies and she’s given over to a foster father (…) Death attempts to understand the dueling human compulsions toward great evil and great generosity” (Breen). That is to say, humans are complex characters; it would be quite difficult for Death to fully comprehend the motives of the characters he observes. With invisible eyes, Death’s attention stays glued to Liesel during her life. Liesel finds comfort in the words she reads, although she steals these books from other people. She chooses to solve her frustration with the war by making “her” books speak loudly for those who feel silent and hopeless. In the most perplexed manner, Death watches her riskiness and gradually becomes less afraid of Liesel. All in all, he is scared of the compelling characters he sees, yet Liesel becomes his muse as he starts understanding the human race.

In addition to Death’s confusion, Zusak utilizes the personification of his narrator to give him human-like qualities, shaping Death more like a human than Death thinks. Writer John Green explains in his review of The Book Thief how Death’s narration incorporates surprising fondness as he reads about Liesel’s life. He declares that, “[t]his is no Grim Reaper- we have here a kinder, gentler Death, who feels sympathy for his victims” (Green). Accordingly, the concept of death usually is described with themes of the Grim Reaper and hell. Instead, Zusak is able to oppose the conventional idea of death, injecting humanity in the narrator. The feelings of love and admiration for the dying characters infuse colour in Death. He participates in the mourning of passed loved ones. Although there is darkness and gloom during the war, Zusak focuses on the thought that Death just wants to bring the dead souls to a happier place. He knows his job is a crucial part of the journey out of life, but Death is considerate of the ones he picks up. Also, Death reveals his emotion towards the deaths of the characters. As Liesel’s friend Rudy is dying, Death reflects on his jovial personality, unveiling his tenderness for the young boy:

“On many counts, taking a boy like Rudy was robbery- so much life, so much to live for- yet somehow, I’m certain he would have loved to see the frightening rubble and the swelling of the sky on the night he passed away. He’d have cried and turned and smiled if only he could have seen the book thief on her hands and knees, next to his decimated body. He’d have been glad to witness her kissing his dusty, bomb-hit lips. Yes, I know it. In the darkness of my dark-beating heart, I know. He’d have loved it all right. You see? Even death has a heart” (Zusak 242).

With regards to the fact that Death is literally sucking the life out of Rudy, there is so much compassion for the boy. Death feels badly for the life Rudy will not be able to have, including playful risk-taking and moments of true love. Even though violence is striking citizens all over Germany, the concerned narrator realizes that the colours and atmosphere of the war would have been tolerable for Rudy, with Liesel beside him. Death knows the power of love, and he displays his vulnerable side. Contrary to stereotypes, Death’s role of the narrator forces his personal emotions and feelings towards the characters to be visible.

Above all, Death cannot puppeteer the characters in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, but he follows along, observing their lives and deaths like a bystanding human. He is curious of the choices that they make, and vulnerable to the fact that no matter how hard he tries, he can never choose for the characters. However strict his job is, Death always softens his heart for Liesel’s delinquency, and Rudy’s jovial distinction, even after they die. The impact of a person’s death is enough to reshape the way one views the cycle of life. Does the empty body of a corpse mean all emotion has seeped out of their bones? Saying that passion is slaughtered out of a deceased body is an ignorant concept because only by dying can one know what happens after death. However, dying people must be optimistic that as their breaths subside the true warmth and compassion that steered their lives, day by day, never gets destroyed. Thus, the ones who live on this cold-blooded earth can remember, even in times of hatred and violence, the powerful hearts of those who died. These hearts will continue to beat… unliving, forever.


Works Cited

Breen, Karen. “Best children’s books of 2006”. Rev. of The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. Kirkus Reviews 74.23 (1 December 2006): 16. Gale Database. Web. 20 March 2015.

Green, John. “Fighting For Their Lives.” Rev. of The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. The New York Times Book Review. (14 May 2006): 26. Gale Database. Web. 20 March 2015.

Rosser, Claire. “Kliatt.” Rev. of The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. Kliatt 41.3 (May2007): 30. Gale Database. Web. 20 March 2015.

Zusak, Markus. The Book Thief. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. Print.


2018 Update: I wanted to share this because “The Book Thief” is currently in the works for a musical adaptation!!! Check out this video from Playbill.com for a recently released song (with the charming Luca Padovan playing Rudy and the elegant Isabella Russo as Liesel!!!) 🙂