understanding complex moral debates through drama

This post is written by Lexi Earl. 

During my visit to Sacred Heart School in Newcastle, I observed part of a Year 8 drama class. The class were studying a scheme of work based on Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The play the girls were studying revolves around a boy who is left abandoned by his mother, the queen, as she flees a country following the death of her husband, the king. He is raised by a servant for 10 years. The focus of the class was for the girls to decide whether the servant should return Michael (the boy) to the Queen or whether she should keep him.

In order to help the girls come to a decision about this tough choice, their teacher Rachel Burgess, led them through a series of challenging statements that they had to respond to. The hall space where the class took place was divided into three categories: agree to the far left, disagree to the far right and unsure, in the centre of the hall.

To start off, Rachel asks the class, “the king and queen were right to charge taxes”. The girls move into various positions around the hall. Rachel asks the girls to justify their choices. Then she asks, “were the king and queen morally okay to spend the money and not give it to those in need?” Now the girls’ justification and reasoning becomes more complex. The class is now much more divided across the spectrum and they debate about how public money should be spent and who should be able to spend this money. They bring up some interesting ideas about the money young people have to spend, and how they should be able to spend their parents’ money. The class also talk about how you need money to keep yourself afloat – you cannot give everything you have away.

Rachel then says, “people who are incredibly rich should pay higher taxes”. This is also controversial. One of the students says, “if they worked hard to earn that, they shouldn’t but if they’re born into it, they should. Like they didn’t do anything to get it”. “They don’t need all that money themselves. You should get taxed a percentage of what you earn”, another girl argues. “If you’re not being totally honest about how you’re earning your money, then you should pay more tax. If you give loads away then you shouldn’t,” another student argues. The girls’ positions change as they debate their initial responses. Some move from agree to disagree, others become more or less ‘on the fence’.

Rachel tells the class to think about the context of the play. The king died and the queen fled following an uprising and conflict. She says that the story is still relevant today. The class discuss the use of violence to change a government. They agree that the people of the town should have rebelled, but they should’ve tried peaceful methods first. Violence isn’t the way to voice your opinion. Rachel tells them, “there is a cost to rebellion.” One of the girls responds, “it depends on the type of rebellion. If it is against a government, if the government is unjust, I can understand why they would do that. If it was a chemical attack on a place, that’s just cruel. I don’t understand that”. [This lesson takes place in the same week as Donald Trump’s airstrikes on Syria, following the use of chemical weapons on civilians].

Rachel uses the example of Malala to talk about rebellion. She asks if she was right to rebel. She highlights that there are always two sides to every story or situation – it is about perspective.

The last statement that Rachel poses to her class is, “was the servant right to take the baby Michael?” One of the girls answers, “if she left the baby, he would’ve died” and Rachel offers, “she would’ve had that on her conscious”. Another student contemplates this dilemma: “I’m in the middle. It is hard work to look after a baby. She doesn’t have the money but he would’ve died otherwise”.

After these contemplations finish, the class work on performances that explain the missing years – those years when the servant was raising the baby. They can choose to explain them in whichever way they like – so perhaps the servant girl married and the family is well set-up, or perhaps the boy was treated harshly, or perhaps his real identity is a secret and the servant has never told him the truth of his own story.

A lot of students I talk to say that drama is often perceived as a subject where you pretend to be a tree, or where you just play games. In this class it is possible to see how complex moral questions can be debated and understood within the context of a drama lesson. The girls’ performances of the missing years were influenced by this discussion, and it furthered their understandings of the complex choices we sometimes have to make in our lives.