- Considering Calamity: Methods for Performance Research
Considering Calamity is the product of a 2005 Symposium at Northwestern University. The volume’s nine essays address the title’s two defining terms, performance and calamity, in multiple ways. On performance, the articles span the breadth of theatre and performance studies. Calamity is treated equally expansively to include everything from personal loss and societal conflict to natural disasters and war. The broad scope of the volume’s organizing project—to research calamity through performance—challenges editors Linda Ben-Zvi and Tracy Davis to establish the book’s focus. Interestingly, the editors make no comment on this process, since they include no introduction of their own; rather, they hand the task over to David Krasner, who confesses from the outset that the project is unapologetically wide-ranging and “synthetically” organized. Although the collected essays are arranged under three separate section headings (“Aesthetics of Calamity,” “Performance of Calamity,” and “Memorialization of Calamity”), Krasner suggests that some essays are “construed broadly enough to be situated in another category,” and so the groupings more or less represent themes that run throughout the entire volume (2). Krasner makes a convincing case for the importance of these three separate themes in the context of the collection and works valiantly to present an inclusive sense of what a critical method based in calamity might entail, but the book would benefit from a more thorough consideration of its goals. As it stands, we are offered only three short opening paragraphs to bring together these diverse arguments.
The articles in “Aesthetics of Calamity” are contributed by Patrice Pavis, Harry Elam Jr., and Thomas King. According to Krasner, aesthetics attend to the artistic representation of calamity as a means to counter the “impulse to recoil” through “a desire to observe” (2). Although other sections take up issues of aesthetic representation, these three essays distinguish themselves by aligning their arguments with the perspective of a spectator or reader. Part 2, “Performance of Calamity,” features articles by Sonja Arsham Kuftinec, Tracy Davis, and Linda Ben-Zvi; performance in this context is construed as “performativity as a social device” (6). These authors ponder how performance can be put to instrumental use by individuals and governments, and reflect on performance as preparation or reparation for calamities both real and imagined. Finally, “Memorialization of Calamity” includes essays from Susan Leigh Foster, Sandra Richards, and Harvey Young. These authors investigate methods by which groups and societies remember calamity, examining the benefits and potential harms of remembrance through performance. The volume’s essays vary considerably in content, tone, and method, but they are consistently well written and engaging; they suggest the wealth of opportunities that exist for performance-based methods within the realm of calamity research.
In one of the most interesting essays, Patrice Pavis provides an overview of eight performances from the 2005 Avignon Festival, connecting them through what he perceives to be their collective focus on calamity. Each analysis teases out the visual and aural elements of the performance in order to suggest its impact on the spectator. In his discussion of L’histoire des larmes, for example, Pavis considers how the play’s “verbal utterances” become like “foreign bodies” in the context of a work in which the choreographed movement, musical composition, and visual motifs seem to operate independently of the text.
Harry Elam Jr. offers the collection’s only essay based in dramatic text, with a comparative analysis of Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs and Suzan-Lori Parks’s Topdog/Underdog. Through a close reading of the characters’ circumstances, Elam suggests that [End Page 505] personal calamity can reflect a broader social context. Initially framing his argument with Derrida’s theory of absence and presence, Elam seamlessly weaves theories of representation, gender, and melancholy and mourning into his argument. He situates calamity in a gendered context by arguing that the trace left behind by absent women in the lives of the plays’ male characters “animates” escalating conflicts among them.
Tracy Davis’s essay presents a glimpse...