"Pandemic and Performance: Ibsen and the Outbreak of Modernism": The case of Henrik Ibsen demonstrates that, in late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century London, the theatre acted as a central circulatory system for the ideas, practices, and aesthetic innovations that would later be described as modernist. The staging and reception of Ibsen's dramas was stormy. Both the playwright and his critics used the language of disease to describe one other: for critics, Ibsen's art encouraged degeneracy; for the playwright, late nineteenth-century middle-class life was sick and in need of a cure. As Ibsenism took hold, influential members of counterpublics took a direct hand in introducing, translating, parodying, performing, and reviewing his plays. Feminists, socialists, sexologists, and suffragists, among others, used Ibsen's writing to perform a break with tradition and clear a space for their vision of the future. Later artists, such as James Joyce, Ezra Pound, H.D., and Virginia Woolf, would also be drawn to Ibsen as the inspiration for their aesthetic and political experiments. Not only in the West but also in China and Japan, the plays of Ibsen have appeared at moments of progressive upheaval to signal a rejection of the past and a suspicion of official culture. Ibsen's work and its uses demonstrate the full range of lived experience that defined modern rebellion, and it reminds us that theatre and drama played a central role in making that rebellion visible and available to a wide public.
"Feminism, Theatre Criticism, and the Modern Drama": The paper examines theatre criticism in the Edwardian feminist press to reveal the connections feminist reviewers were making between the plays of the period and the wider social and political reforms they were campaigning for. Examples are drawn from suffrage newspapers and feminist reviews and include commentaries on leading modern male dramatists such as Ibsen and Shaw, coverage of lesser-known women playwrights, as well as reflections on general issues related to dramatic literature and theatrical production in the period. As contributors to feminist periodicals, journalists, writers/playwrights, actresses, and activists were conscious of themselves as "modern" and "advanced" women implicated in and benefiting from the changes taking place in all spheres of life. Their concerns, in relation to the arts, were more often with innovation at the level of ideas and attitudes, rather than with formal experiments. As part of a larger exploration of the issues related to staging modernism, this paper calls into question the relevance of modernism as a critical paradigm in relation to both feminism and theatre/drama in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By elaborating the problems with what Rita Felski terms the "symptomatic confusion of a historical period (modernity) with an artistic movement (modernism)" the paper argues that these attempts to mediate culture from a feminist perspective are better understood in the context of the relationship between feminism and modernity (women's experience of the social and political changes associated with the early twentieth century) than in the context of high modernism as an avant-garde aesthetic movement. In the process, the paper outlines the limits of modernist studies as a field of enquiry and of modernist definitions of what was considered new, innovative, and relevant at the time.
"Theatrical Ethnography and Modernist Primitivism in Eugene O'Neill and Zora Neale Hurston": The aesthetic of primitivism in the modernist era coincides with the emergence of other discourses that sought to uncover truths that lay beneath the veneer of modern culture. The science of anthropology and specifically the practice of ethnography led, in James Clifford's phrase, to an "ethnographic modernism" that would reveal "the universal in the local, the whole in the part." In American drama, Eugene O'Neill's plays typify the modernist primitive aesthetic, and like the work of such ethnographers as Franz Boas and Bronislaw Malinowski, his plays The Emperor Jones and All God's Chillun Got Wings deployed the motifs of Africanist primitivism in order to convey to their predominantly white audiences a primal reality that confirmed the "depth" of their individual psyches by figuring the primitive as a metaphorical mask of the modern self and modern culture. By contrast, the plays of Zora Neale Hurston, much better known today for her novels and ethnographic studies of the American South and Caribbean cultures, developed a vision of a "Negro art theatre" that would be based directly on her fieldwork, combining cultures and current dramatic practices into a heterogeneous, "angular" construction animated by the notion of "mimicry," which she defined as the expressive transformation of Euro-American cultural forms, language, objects, and everyday practices. Though she had been writing plays before her anthropological training with Boas at Columbia in the mid-1920s, it was "the spy-glass of Anthropology," in Hurston's phrase, that gave her a perspective on African American cultures that she would express in her plays. For Hurston, the act of mimicry is a metonymic art (in Homi Bhabha's formulation) that depends on reinvention of the contiguous and local, whereas O'Neill's idea of modern drama as "an exercise in unmasking" (to cite his own phrase from "Memoranda on Masks") depends on the notion of the mask as a metaphor of a universal condition. Examining two of Hurston's unproduced plays, Meet the Mamma and Cold Keener, along with relevant passages from her 1934 essay "Characteristics of Negro Expression" will help show how her vision of drama was changed by her ethnographic work, and how her drama exemplifies, in another of Clifford's useful phrases, "ethnographic surrealism," an inventive amalgam of scientific fact and expressive art. Above all, the dramatic power of Hurston's mimicry lay in its ability to convey not the universalized voice of the tragic individual but the collective voice of the community, insisting on its specific metonymic representation and affirming the contiguity and connectedness of both rural and urban African American life.
"Man as Beast: Nijinsky's Faun": Nijinsky's choreography of and performance in the modernist ballet Afternoon of a Faun (1912) caused an uproar when, with piebald leotard, pointy ears, and an erect tail that seemed to stand in for what the fig leaves covering his genitals at once signaled and concealed, Nijinsky as the mythical half-human/half-animal Faun seemed to engage sexually with a scarf left behind by a fleeing nymph. In his previous work with the Ballets Russes, Nijinsky had been crucial to the revitalization of the role of the male dancer in early-twentieth-century ballet, but the controversy that his first choreographic work generated suggests that Afternoon of a Faun constituted a transformational moment in the representation of male sexuality. This essay will consider how the narrative structure of Afternoon of a Faun intersected with its innovative choreographic style to stage, through the human/non-human figure of the Faun, a male sexual animal that was at once non-masculine yet non-effeminate. This queerly ambiguous figure constituted a modernist challenge to hegemonic ideologies of sex and gender and thus contributed to the early twentieth-century formation of alternative sexual identities, but the challenge that the ballet originally posed has since been obscured as Nijinsky and the Faun have become pathologically fused in popular cultural and critical discourse. This analysis of the choreography, performance, and reception of Afternoon of a Faun thus serves as a case study of how modernist performance practice disrupted normative sex and gender roles and, in doing so, participated in the development of, and fueled the circulation of discourse about, emergent sexual identities.
"Performing ‘Stormy Weather': Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, and Katherine Dunham": This essay demonstrates how an African-American modernist impulse and racial critique could be posed and circulated through the sounds, movements, and mises-en-scène of popular and mass performance. Examining the dramaturgical dimensions of the song "Stormy Weather" in key performances in the first half of the twentieth century reveals expressions of African-American modernism in some unlikely places: Tin Pan Alley standards, Cotton Club Parades, and Hollywood all-black movie musicals. Performances by Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, and Katherine Dunham help us to see how popular song might have stood in excess of—even as it was embedded within—the standardizing and rationalizing impulse of corporate musical production and the universalizing abstractions of the mass public sphere. As a case study, "Stormy Weather" provides an example of how a fugitive black modernism transported itself on the byways of popular musical thoroughfares, remapping the cartography of American culture in the process. Seen in the context of performance, this otherwise sentimental popular standard stands instead as a highly self-reflexive engagement with and critique of the course of black American performance history.
"Art Deco Worlds in a Tomb: Reanimating Egypt in Modern(ist) Visual Culture": This article explores a particular strand of artistic modernism by considering a range of decoratively ornate Egyptian revival works of art and architecture. Fuelled by Howard Carter's discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb, the field of modern archaeology was able to bring back the ancient past in ways that created an uncanny telescoping of time. Inspired by this event, many Egyptian revival art deco artifacts seemed highly performative in ways that at once revived late nineteenth-century decadent tendencies and participated in some of the more fantastic aspects of the early twentieth-century mass media and entertainment industries. The objects considered include: Egyptian costumes designed by Sonia Delaunay, the "Nile Nights Idea" of Fanchon and Marco, a Cartier vanity case, a Huntley and Palmer biscuit tin, and Grauman's Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles. Such art deco Egyptian objects appear to have functioned much like stage props, conjuring up imaginary mises-en-scène that enabled their users to indulge in temporal and spatial flights of fancy, including some limited forms of role-playing. While leading modernist ideologues such as Le Corbusier and Michael Fried have dismissed historical revival styles and theatrical tendencies as retrogressive, this article argues that they generated a heterotopian spatial and temporal compression and a visual mobility that have more recently been recognized as key components of western cultural modernity. Seen in this light, the paradigm of "the world in a tomb" seems to have at least as much cultural resonance as Le Corbusier's "white ripolin walls".
Mohan Rakesh, Modernism, and the Postcolonial Present": The fin-de-siécle critical project of redefining the spatio-temporal boundaries of modernism has lately gathered new momentum by taking up the question of modernism's relation to colonialism and postcolonialism. Appearing at the intersection of modernist studies and postcolonial studies, important recent essays by Simon Gikandi, Susan Stanford Friedman, Ariela Freedman, and others argue for a recovery of the global networks of twentieth-century modernism that is predicated on cultural interflows rather than a unidirectional and hierarchical relation between the Western center and its non-Western peripheries. Linked by the emerging concept of "geomodernism," the new approaches, however, continue to privilege Western locations and the European languages, especially English, as the primary sites of modernity, often relegating non-Western spaces and non-Europhone works to the status of "vernacular" art.
This essay extends the reach of geomodernism through a discussion of Mohan Rakesh (1925-1972), the iconic post-independence playwright in India's majority language, Hindi, and one of India's leading twentieth-century authors, irrespective of genre and language. As a member of the first generation of Indian-language writers whose careers unfolded after political independence in 1947, Rakesh exemplifies many of the larger literary, political, and cultural relations (and ruptures) that are seminal to any discussion of Indian modernism—those between colonial and postcolonial modernities, indigenous traditions and Western influences, the Indian languages and English, bourgeois-romantic nationalism and ironic individualism, Left ideology and a skeptical humanism, nationalism, and cosmopolitanism, center and periphery, village and city. Approaching him as a paradigmatic figure, the essay first considers the concepts of modernity and modernism as they emerge at the levels of taxonomy, theory, and practice in Indian literature and culture after the mid-nineteenth century, providing a conceptual framework for successive generations of pre- and post-independence writers. It then examines the modernist positions that appear in Rakesh's theory and criticism over the course of his career, especially in his arguments about creativity, authorship, form, content, and language. Finally, the essay offers a reading of Rakesh's last full-length play, Adhe adhure (The Unfinished, 1969), as a drama of urban dysfunction which combines realism with several structural innovations to accommodate the psychodrama of home and family—the privileged narrative of realism in modern Western theatre—to the Indian metropolis. The playwright becomes visible in these sequential analyses as a cosmopolitan modernist fully cognizant of Western movements but also fully committed to an indigenized aesthetic, his cosmopolitanism inhering precisely in the cultural ambidexterity of his vision. If Rakesh's linguistic medium is not that of the Western imperial metropolis, it is a medium with its own thousand-year imperial and metropolitan history; and if his modernism is furthest from the Anglo-European center in terms of geography, language, and cultural codes, it is proximate enough in theoretical, aesthetic, and political terms to constitute an important formation within geomodernism.