The representation of aging in drama has a long and not altogether flattering history. Classical and Renaissance playwrights invented some of the most resilient and emblematic representations of old age in any art form (we might think, for example, of Oedipus at Colonus or Lear on the heath). But as Michael Mangan and other scholars have pointed out, many of the most tenacious stereotypes of age also originated in the theatre – notably Pantalone, the caricature of a miserly, sex-starved old man that emerged from and became a staple of sixteenth-century commedia dell’arte and much of European theatre and opera for the next two centuries. As Mangan observes, theatrical performance might “[wear] its social constructivism most proudly on its sleeve” by making direct appeals to an audience to collaborate in the creation of a fictional world (21). But the public, communal circumstances of theatre are just as able to expose an audience’s complicity in reifying and collapsing the pluralism of age as they are to reinforce it.
In contrast to earlier theatre’s preference for types, late-nineteenth-century realist playwrights – the pioneers of dramatic modernity – worked to return social and psychological verisimilitude to the stage. These dramatists promised an escape from a typology of aging that mapped artificial distinctions between youth, middle age, and old age onto “lines of business” that became the standard roles in stock company repertoires (see, e.g., Booth 125). Characters like the eponymous greying protagonist in Henrik Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman (1896) and Anton Chekhov’s elderly butler Firs in The Cherry Orchard (1904) inhabit a middle ground between convention and individuation, between the stage types of the heavy father and the doddering old man and more complex, quicksilver representations of personhood.
Viewed from an age studies perspective, we might think of aging in modern drama less as a sequence of radical and punctuated reforms than as a series of negotiations about how best to “play” age onstage. In perhaps the foundational manual of realist acting, An Actor’s Work (1938), Konstantin Stanislavski stages one particularly resonant debate about whether an actor creates a role in the same way he or she recalls a life. Tortsov, Stanislavski’s director surrogate, instructs his actor-students to imagine their performance as the assembly of a “continuous line of fleeting images . . . like a film,” a sequence [End Page 135] of inner and outer stimuli that can be unspooled on “the screen of [the actor’s] mind’s eye, so that he now lives his own life entirely” (74). Kostya, a talented but captious student, objects at this point. “Create mental images at every moment in a long play!” he retorts. “That’s terribly complicated and difficult!” (75). As a mock punishment, Tortsov demands that Kostya recite the story of his life beginning with his first memory. Kostya complies, relaying a stream of images that begins with a garden swing and ends with his first years at school. “Can you see it?” asks Tortsov. “The unbroken line of phases and episodes which stretch right back through your past” (75). To which Kostya, ever querulous, replies, “I can see it but there are gaps” (76). As Stanislavski shows us, realist acting, from its inception, cannot be decoupled from models of remembering and figuring the shape of a life – a concern shared by dramaturgs and gerontologists alike.
To a great extent, the tension between Tortsov’s totalizing vision of the life review and Kostya’s emphasis on gaps mirrors the subsequent debate between age studies scholars Robert Butler and Kathleen Woodward. In the 1960s, Butler championed “the life review,” a naturally occurring practice of guided and active reminiscence that he felt enabled older adults to recognize and dignify their experiences. As Woodward explains, however, Butler’s conception of the life review conveys “a sense of totalization” (2). Like Kostya, Woodward delineates a process of “memory-work” based on discrete “reminiscence[s]” that is “more fragmentary and partial” (2). She argues further that reminiscence has “a function that is less analytical and cognitive than the life review” (3). Ultimately, in her view, “reminiscence is about the creation of a certain kind of mood, one...