At the very end of her life, Gertrude Stein is rumored to have asked, “What is the answer?” Receiving no response, she continued, “But what is the question?” Stein’s query (whether accurately reported or not) can be read in two distinct ways. The first, and most salient in a death-bed scene, is as retrospective reflection. One may think of her pondering the answer to life, a version of the often-asked, “What was it all for?” This very question, in fact, constituted the climax of Stein’s final dramatic writing, the opera The Mother of Us All (1945-46) in which the titular character Susan [End Page 40] B. Anthony returns from the dead to consider the consequences of her “long long life” and her impact on American history.
Less evident, perhaps, is that Stein’s question also points forward even as it simultaneously thwarts this progression. All questions—even questions about questions—look to the future as the temporal space of a possible answer. Stein’s question, however, suggests a future in which even knowing what to ask is uncertain and must therefore return back to the site of the original query. She locks the seemingly linear act of questioning and answering into a space where the question turns back in on itself perpetually. (That Stein stages her final words as a continuous present will surprise few.)
This circular questioning process is essential to the criticism of contemporary performance. The unique temporal properties of performance—whether mediated, live, or on the spectrum between the two—simultaneously invoke the past, the present, and the future. Formulating a critical question about performance is therefore imbricated within peculiar notions of time and action. The salient questions about any given work—What happened before? What is happening now? What happens next?—must be suspended within a current moment that considers all of these simultaneously. Critical questions in performance are therefore intrusions into a process. One has to artificially freeze an event already in motion and interject a framework for analysis. Considering contemporary performance, then, the question is an interruption and a temporal suspension of what is also acknowledged as an ongoing event. This suspension allows both critic and audience to examine a particular moment as a synecdoche of a larger performance work, while also acknowledging that any one moment is inadequate even if it is the only thing available.
In his stunning collection, Clockfire, poet Jonathan Ball captures this essential reality of performance criticism rather well: “The play is over. Applaud or jeer. Step out into the street and pick a path. Meanwhile, the play begins again, in your absence. Without you.”1 [End Page 41]
SARAH BAY-CHENG is Professor and Chair of Theater and Dance at Bowdoin College. Her research interests include avant-garde literature, theater, and cinema, technology and performance, digital humanities, and contemporary performance. Her publications include Performance and Media: Taxonomies for a Changing Field (2015) and Mama Dada: Gertrude Stein’s Avant-Garde Theater (2004); she also has served as editor for several publications including Mapping Intermediality in Performance (2010) and Poets at Play: An Anthology of Modernist Drama (2010). Other publications include book chapters and articles regarding theater, performance, and digital culture. Her recent research focuses on digital historiography and performance with a book on this topic currently in progress.
1. Jonathan Ball, Clockfire (Toronto, CA: Coach House Books, 2006), 70.