Supernatural Figures in Theatre, Film and the Brain

Mark Pizzato, Theatre, UNC Charlotte

This seminar explores connections between our physical brain, the internal theatres it stages, and specific spirit characters in drama and film—through theories and evidence from psychoanalysis and neuroscience. After considering those theories, we will apply them to prehistoric cave paintings, Aeschylus’ Oresteia (an ancient Greek trilogy), Zeami’s Matsukaze (a medieval Japanese Noh play), Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and various films of these Shakespeare and Wilder plays, plus another recent film, The Others, by Alejandro Amenabar. Along the way, we’ll investigate how the idea of Self can be illusory, how we’re often performing for a ghostly Other, and how young people (in the plays listed above) are haunted by parental and peer influences, as their own identities take shape.

Depending on the interests of seminar Fellows, there might be more of a focus on inner/outer theatres regarding neuroscience discoveries, or on the plays, or on various films (selected by Fellows from the ghost, god, angel, devil, vampire, werewolf, or lab-created beast-people genres). Alternative plays to those listed above might be: Euripides’ The Bacchae (with a devilish theatre god), short medieval mystery plays (with God, angels and devils), Shakespeare’s The Tempest (with spirits and beastly people), Ionesco’s Rhinoceros (with people turning into such animals), Shaffer’s Equus (with a modern boy worshiping a horse god), or Journey to the West (based on an ancient Chinese story of a Buddhist pilgrimage involving a monkey king, pig-man and fish monster).

The developmental (and evolutionary) stages of the brain’s inner theatre might be a key to our explorations, regarding the various ages of students that we teach, along with the cultural reflections in the plays and films. How do our basic brain structures, which we share with humans in earlier (pre)historical periods, set up certain conflicts within and between us, involving order and freedom, language and movement, masculine and feminine, rational and emotional elements? How does knowing about the brain’s inner theatre and our culture’s outer theatres increase our awareness of unconscious, impulsive tendencies toward conflicts, fantasies and projections, through “catharsis” in the classroom?

Explore curriculum units developed by Fellows in this seminar here.