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Reviews DON B. WILMETH AND CHRISTOPHER BIGSBY, eds. The Cambridge History 0/ American Theatre, Vol. 1/: 1870-1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Pp. xviii + 590, illustrated. $95ยท00 (Hb). Reviewed by Barry B. Witham, University o/Washington Midway through the second volume of this ambitious and excellent history of the American theatre, I was struck by Mark Fearnow's comparison of the iJIfated New Theatre and the Titanic. Both were taking shape at the same time, and both embodied the desire for the modem and lavish, for quality and comfort . Unfortunately, "the New Theatre lasted only slightly longer than did the Titanic," observes Fearnow, U both meeting disaster in their inaugural voyages " (348). It's a wonderful metaphor, capturing an historical moment and enfolding the world of the theatre into the fabric of America, circa 191 I. Of course, it can't stand too much scrutiny - the people who lost at the New Theatre were hardly from steerage - but metaphor is one of the strengths of this volume, particularly in Tom Postlewait's "smoke and mirrors" essay, which introduces the book and frames much ofthe discussion. Faced with characterizing a period of time from the Civil War to the atomic bomb, from the death of Lincoln to the death of Roosevelt, Postlewait embraces the challenge in imaginative ways. His goal is not to deny the legitimacy of old narratives (from romance to realism) but to suggest additional ones and, in the process, to help us to see theatre differently. The history that he traces is one of "flash" and magic, of showmanship and wizardry. His benchmarks are the Kiralfy brothers, P.T. Barnum, and Orson Welles, and his ultimate metaphor is spectators consuming an ever more luxurious visual feast. It's a fascinating tale, and, as Postlewait constructs his "arbitrating eye" (188), he brings a variety of players into view. Jews, African-Americans, and Modem Drama, 43 (Fall 2000) 496 Reviews 497 women all figure in his hieroglyphic revolution. He does not foreground plays, however, and, in spite of references to dozens of productions, there are only two (Native Son [19411 and Julius Caesar [1 937]) that merit extended discussion. Where is drama, then, in this history of the theatre? The editors are clear at the outset that "theatre" is "to include all aspects of the dramatic experience, including major popular and paratheatrical fonns" (xv), and that contributors were given considerable leeway in which aspect they stressed. Thus, Tice Miller concentrates chiefly on plots and playwrights in his skillful narrative of the romance and myth of melodrama at the end of the nineteenth century, and Ron Wainscott quite ably continues that narrative into the second decade of the next century. What is intriguing is that they are writing not only alongside Postlewait but in the same volume in which Brooks McNamara observes, "the avant-garde of the last half of the twentieth century has largely rejected conventional theatre, especially the kind of Broadway theatre that has emphasized well-made playmaking and the views of the middle-class audience" (406). If the "theatre" is everything perfonnative, as I suspect many of the scholars represented here would argue, then the dilemma of what constitutes history may depend on additional criteria. Can we make aesthetic judgements about tilOse productions that no one now living has seen? What standards do we apply to carnival shysters? If there is one motif that runs through this volume , it is the notion that theatre is a cultural institution: "The history of the American stage and the making of America have been cotenninous" (xvi). This criterion, however worthy, does have the potential to problematize as well as illuminate. There Shall Be No Night (1940), in spite of its Pulitzer Prize, is not (as Postlewait remarks) a very good play. And should we reclaim Rachel Crothers with quite so much enthusiasm because, as Brenda Murphy states, "[hler plays are significant cultural documents that provide an extensive commentary on three generations of American life" (317)? In this light, portions of the book that both locate and evaluate stand out. Brenda Murphy on Eugene O'Neill is particularly effective because she places him squarely in the middle of the Modernist...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5286
Print ISSN
0026-7694
Pages
pp. 496-498
Launched on MUSE
2013-07-03
Open Access
No
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