- Querying Difference in Theatre History
Querying Difference in Theatre History, edited by Scott Magelssen and Ann Haugo, is a relatively [End Page 660] slim volume that is likely to have a major impact on the discipline of theatre history. The sixteen essays, largely the work of emerging scholars, were initially presented as part of the Theatre History Symposium of the Mid-America Theatre Conference in March 2006. This common origin gives the collection a strong and consistent thematic focus despite the remarkable breadth of performances addressed by the authors. It also lends the volume a conversational tone that is both readable and rigorous, presenting complex issues of identity and performance in a thoroughly enjoyable manner.
The essays presented here examine constructions and contestations of difference in the history of theatre and performance and offer new modes of inquiry and critical vocabulary for contemporary students and scholars of theatre history. Collectively, the essays ask about ways of seeing and interpreting difference across geographic regions, theoretical approaches, and periods of theatrical history. “Difference” is defined broadly, including not only the usual suspects of gender, race, and sexuality, but also issues of class and nationality. Rather than group the essays by “kind of difference,” which they feel would reinscribe historical categories of identity and possibly “ghettoize” papers into traditional disciplines, Magelssen and Haugo organize the essays by similarities in methodological approach, modes of inquiry, or discursive lines of connection. This fresh line of attack allows the authors to discuss sensitive and politically charged issues with unusual subtlety and power.
The first section of the book, “Historiography,” presents four essays that examine and interrogate historiographical practices. The strongest essay in the section, Alan Sikes’s insightful and witty “The Trouble with Tribades: Struggles of Sex and Class in French Revolutionary Performance,” convincingly argues that simultaneous considerations of class and sexuality can create a rich discursive terrain for theatre historians. To demonstrate his point, he turns to the popular satirical plays composed after the French Revolution of 1789. By analyzing the satirical presentation of Marie Antoinette, the despised queen of Louis XVI, and Mademoiselle Raucourt, the famous actress who was a favorite of the queen, Sikes develops a complex analysis of how theatre is a powerful site for destabilizing notions of identity, especially in times of historical flux. He also suggests productive ways for other scholars to expand on his exciting work.
The second section of the book, “Performance and Cultural Exchange,” presents five essays that challenge and complicate prevailing notions of nationalism and multiculturalism. The case studies focus on a diverse range of theatrical practices that force audiences and historians to rethink conventional notions of race, gender, class, genre, and nation. For example, Shauna Vey’s “The Master and the Mademoiselle,” which won the Robert A. Schanke Research Award at the conference, contrasts two very different cross-dressing performers in antebellum America. Mademoiselle Zoyara was a circus equestrienne whose feats of physical daring challenged both traditional constructions of femininity and generic expectations of female circus performers. Master Eugene, on the other hand, expertly portrayed traditional blackface wenches in minstrel shows. As Vey notes, “not only was his impersonation of the female gender flawless, but the female he impersonated was flawless as well” (59). Eugene’s singular performances reinforced both gender and generic conformity, and for this he was rewarded with adulation from both the press and audience, while Zoyara (and her many imitators) sold tickets but never won the popular acclaim of her contemporaries. Expanding on Eric Lott’s and Robert Toll’s writing on blackface minstrelsy, Vey’s fascinating essay queries period-specific performances of gender and race and offers a fresh lens for contemporary theatre historians attempting to unpack multiple constructions of difference.
The third and final section of the book offers seven essays looking at “Imagined Communities and the Performance of Cultural Identity.” The topics range from black courtesans in American brothel dramas to the representation of Native Americans in Peter Pan as well as in two productions by the Red Earth...