Friday, January 18, 2013

Later Life Learning Interest Courses

In our continued quest to find more ways to entertain ourselves after retirement, we were delighted to come across Later Life Learning.  This is a non-profit educational program for retirees, that is affiliated with University of Toronto's Innis College.  Each year, there are two sessions of lectures, held in autumn (September-November) and winter (January-March). Each session offers three different series of topics, each comprising of 10 weeks of lectures.  The topics usually include some focus on music, film, theatre or other arts.  The cost of enrolling for a session is $50.

Past topics have included American Movies and the Politics of Idealism, Baroque Art, St. Petersburg - Portrait of a City, Film Noir, One Hundred Years of Jazz, Galileo's Legacy, The Realm of Dance, Ten Classical Pieces That Changed Music.  The classes are so popular that there is usually a wait list for the overflow of demand.  

We are currently enrolled in the 2013 winter session which runs from January 11 through March 22 with classes once a week, lasting 1 hour and 45 minutes.  The three series choices were:
  • Myths and Legends in Opera - Mondays 10am-11:45am
  • Frontiers of Medicine - Fridays 10am-11:45am
  • Plays that Shook the World - Fridays 1pm-2:45pm
Since we have always loved live theatre, we picked the last topic which covers the history of plays.  Each week, we explore a different era, starting from the Greeks and Romans,  moving through Medieval Drama, the Golden Age when Shakespeare and Marlow reigned, continuing on until we reach modern and post-modern drama, including surrealism, and finally contemporary plays.  It is such a joy to be able to learn for the pure fun of it, without worries about tests or assignments.

The lectures for our play series are given by Dr. Philippa Sheppard, who teaches English Literature at U of T and has a PhD in English Renaissance Drama from the University of Oxford.  We first encountered Dr. Sheppard when we attended a talk she gave at the Toronto Reference Library about Macbeth.  It is obvious that this instructor is an expert in her field, and each week we are inundated with fascinating information, images and even video clips.

The first week concentrated on Greek plays, which dealt with religion, human values and stresses and featured interaction with Gods and external forces.  We learned that the actors were untrained citizen volunteers and risked being stoned to death for an unfavourable performance!  Roman plays were less serious and became the forefront for comedies and musicals, often including acrobatics, juggling, Gladiatorial events, singing and dancing.

We discussed three plays in detail and then watched film clips of performances or movie adaptations of them. The first two were Greek tragedies while the third was a Roman comedy. As prophesized, Oedipus Rex (of the Oedipus complex fame) tragically and unwittingly killed his father and married his mother, while Medea killed her two children in a rage to spite her cheating husband who was leaving her for a younger woman.  The modern play A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is directly based on the form, stock characters and plotlines of classic Roman comedies.  A wily slave plots to be freed from servitude, causing mayhem along the way.  Not too much seems to have changed in human nature in all these years!

There was a long period of the Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire, so the following week, we jumped all the way to 1300AD to discuss Medieval plays.  Christianity was now in full force and so the plays were all religious in nature.  Mystery Cycle plays acted out stories from the bible, such as Adam and Eve or Noah's Ark.  They were performed in traveling pageant wagons that moved from station to station throughout a town. Morality plays portrayed the interactions between humanity, symbolized by the generic "everyman", and allegorical personifications of Vices and Virtues. These lessons in morality seem to be a likely precursor to latter stories like Aesop's Fables.

Once again, the video clips were the best part of the lecture, since watching them really clarified the points being discussed.  We viewed short excerpts from mystery play performances of Noah's Ark and The Second Shepherds' Play.  Humour was added to the story of Noah by portraying him as a henpecked husband whose wife did not want to leave her friends to go on the ark.  The latter play was about three shepherds who confront a fourth after he steals one of their sheep. The thief and his wife try to disguise the sheep as a baby but their ruse is detected.  Later, the three shepherds witness the birth of Baby Jesus, made all the more profound when compared to the "fake baby".

In the morality play Everyman, the titled character is told by Death that he is to die and must tally his good and evil deeds in life.  Everyman seeks a companion to accompany him to his afterlife.  He comes to learn that Goods (worldly possessions), Beauty, Strength, Discretion and Five Wits (senses) have no true value and abandon him.  Only Good Deeds will "accompany him beyond the grave", but Good Deeds needs to be nurtured during life to have the power to make the journey at death.  It all becomes really clear if you watch the Lego version of this story on YouTube.

We have already learned so much after only two weeks of classes and cannot wait to attend the rest of them.  The town hall auditorium in Innis College is a 45 minute brisk walk from our home, so we exercise our bodies and our brains all in one afternoon.

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