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  • Making Up the Audience:Spectatorship in Historical Context
  • Susan Bennett (bio)

The first edition of my book Theatre Audiences (now some twenty years old) was motivated, at least initially, by work in the more literary field of reader-response theory. I had explored how that might be expanded and modified to capture reception practices that were both individual and collective and, significantly, public rather than private. But it was also very much part of my project to draw on a range of theatrical practices that extended far beyond the more usual terrain of theatre studies scholarship. So much academic discussion of theatre was grounded then in analysis of published play texts, of conventional dramas that had been, for the most part, originated on the main stages of New York and London, the premier theatre cities of the English-speaking world. Sometimes that scholarship showed little interest in what performance might actually bring to the words on the printed page. While Theatre Audiences drew on and developed from an existing body of criticism, as well as on the canon of dramatic literature as it was then taught in the university curriculum, the book also evolved from my own theatergoing experiences in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada—emphasizing the challenges, practices, and ideology of what we then called "alternative" theatres so as to promote my own idea of what Jacques Rancière would later call the "emancipated spectator."1 My concern was with an audience that was at least as productive as the complex sign system comprising the onstage action.

The second edition of Theatre Audiences, published in 1997, extended that emphasis with the addition of a chapter on "intercultural" theatre, to account for an emergent interest in dramatic productions from outside the English-speaking world, particularly when they were imported for the [End Page 8] pleasure of English-speaking audiences. This is an appetite that I would argue has since become even more voracious, so that audiences are now accustomed to performances of the familiar (say, a Shakespeare play) delivered in a non-Western performance tradition (say, Chinese opera) or in a language other than English. Often this is an equation that provides a production with a global market, appealing to audiences in many locations in the world: a recent example would be Roman Tragedies (a composite of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Anthony and Cleopatra) by Toneelgroep of the Netherlands that has been seen in several European countries as well as in North America. Roman Tragedies is performed in Dutch but with surtitles in the language of its local audience. Exposure to the conventions, styles, and assumptions of theatrical practices beyond an audience's usual horizon of expectations required a revision and expansion of the range of criteria for reception promoted in the first edition of the book. This is the scope that has, for the most part, characterized much of the scholarly work about audiences that has followed, my own included, so that the focus has been almost always on the contemporary, or at least very recent, moment. It is more than fair, then, that Ayanna Thompson, outlining her interest in spectatorship in the public theatres of Renaissance England, notes: "Like performance theory, reception theory aims to be universal but is actually tied to a modern historical and cultural moment."2

Even within that context of "a modern historical and cultural moment," there have been particular blind spots. So, when I was asked to revisit my theorization of the audience for a "state of the field" issue of Theatre Survey (November 2006), I wrote: "We have come a long way from imagining the universalized theatergoer watching a three-act play at a proscenium-arch mainstream theatre in London or New York, but we may not yet be expansive enough."3 To this end, I referenced Claire Cochrane's critique of twentieth-century theatre history-making as over-determined by scholars "whose highly selective narratives of the past derive from their own cultural and critical preferences. The experience of the past has effectively been filtered through the perspective of the critic-historian sitting as audience in her own favored performance environment."4 Certainly, Cochrane's argument...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2166-9937
Print ISSN
1065-4917
Pages
pp. 8-22
Launched on MUSE
2012-10-21
Open Access
No
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