Tableaux Vivants — an old way of making complex literature new

We tried an ancient technique in English class today, and it worked pretty well. I believe it helped students closely analyze their complex literature (in today’s case, Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).


You may know about Tableaux Vivants (“living paintings”)  from European History. These entertainments go back at least as far as Valois France, when they were put up to honor royalty and more recently, they can be seen in the “Mannequin Challenge” viral Internet videos. Although it hasn’t spread yet, there are mannequin challenges that have political messages, of which this one for #Blacklivesmatters is a good example.


In the days before electronic media, educated people who wanted to recreate with their friends after dinner would literally “re-create”-– embody with their bodies specific scenes they saw in actual tableaux or read poetry or novels. It was a way to manifest their understanding and appreciation of the source material for an audience, something literacy instructors strive to do.


Here’s a contemporary example of the former type of tableau (tableau of a tableau), which recreates Gericault’s “The Raft of the Medusa”:
And here’s a 19th century example of the latter type, a tableau based on a scene from literature: tableau fool in forest.jpg
If you want an idea of what educated people in the US might be doing in parlors before the Civil War, J.H. Head’s Home Pastimes: Tableaux Vivants is a meticulous instruction manual from 1859 for staging your own elaborate tableaux.


The idea for our English class was for the small groups (no less than two, nor more than four) to first decide on what the scene is saying, literally and figuratively. The group reads and discusses to do this.


The small group then makes a plan that includes:
  • who’s in the scene,
  • what each person should do with his/her body,
  • what each person should do with his/her facial expressions,
  • whether they should have props, and which, and
  • whether there should be a background (drawn on board or projected on screen behind them)


At show time, the group arranges itself in the frame and someone takes a photograph. The picture is then projected on the screen for the small group to read key passages over and explain their choices.  A question-answer session follows.


What follow are some examples of small group’s tableaux of Part Two scenes in Cuckoo’s.

For the scene in which the Big Nurse starts to “stab” Chief (scrubbing the floor) with her suspicious eyes:
blurred table.jpg
For the scene in which Chief describes what happens to him when he starts to see beyond the fog (the boys cleverly broke up the scene to include three instances of heightened perception–for the first time Chief notices the floor he’s mopped thousands of times, the smell of his garments, and the world outside the mental institution’s windows:
Then here’s an image of a small group discussing their choices post-tableau. The scene is on the screen behind them and they explain how they interpreted the complex text, and which were the key quotations (the lines that shine, the words that should be heard, or the phrase that pays):
It was a new way for small groups to get into the literature, find meaning, and then communicate out the group understandings, and it seemed pretty engaging: no groups failed to perform! I will add it to our students’ repertoire of close analysis group methods that also includes posters, info graphics, podcasts, collaborative videos, and panel discussion.


Have you tried tableaux vivants in your English (or other) class? I’d love to hear about it and learn more.

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