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  • Theatre History's "View of the World"
  • Steve Tillis (bio)

Saul Steinberg's famous New Yorker cover, "View of the World from Ninth Avenue" (29 March 1976), foregrounds New York's Ninth Avenue, replete with fully drawn buildings and pedestrians hurrying to and fro. The Hudson River flows across the middle of the illustration, on its far shore a strip of land labeled "Jersey." Farther west lays a mostly barren plain, set off with some comic-book mountains and the names of a few stray states and cities. The Pacific Ocean is only a bit broader than the Hudson, with the barest hints of China, Japan, and Russia visible on the distant horizon. The top third of the illustration is a bland and untroubled sky.

Steinberg's illustration is an affectionate (if pointed) comment on the parochialism of his hometown. American scholars of theatre history are no better than Steinberg's New Yorkers, though our "View of the World" foregrounds Europe and marginalizes to a Steinbergian degree all theatre not construed as part of the Western tradition.

I recently analyzed a representative sample of theatre history textbooks, drama anthologies, and required courses in college theatre and drama departments. I found that the content of American theatre studies is extremely parochial. Of the 12 theatre history textbooks I examined (none of which limits itself by title to the West), the amount of text devoted to the world beyond Euro-America very rarely exceeds 10 percent, and often falls to as little as 4 percent. Of the 21 drama anthologies I examined (again, none limited by title to the West), only four include any Asian plays, while only half a dozen include any work from Africa. Of the 80 theatre/drama departments I surveyed, 55 require scholarly courses for their majors. Of those 55, only 10 have course descriptions that indicate any non-Western content. That content ranges from a single play to an entire course on non-Western theatre. Mid-range is a course description that reads: "Emphasis will be on Western culture, but the course will also include non-Western drama." (Another four departments label one or more courses "World Theatre," but do not explicitly indicate what the content is, so it remains unclear whether or not anything non-Western is actually taught.) Granted that what actually happens in a classroom can differ from what appears in a course description, the survey indicates that the great majority of departments require their majors to take courses that are thoroughly [End Page 6] Eurocentric (by which I include Euro-America). Most of the remaining departments do little more than pay lip service to the world beyond the West.

Parochialism is sometimes explained as the product of ignorance. The parochialism of theatre history studies in America, however, is not occasioned by a lack of available information on non-Western traditions. Over the last generation, excellent full-scale histories, analyses, theoretical works, and translations of plays have been published for many traditions in India, China, Japan, Southeast Asia, Africa, and the indigenous Americas.

Parochialism persists because many college teachers willfully ignore the excellent materials available. I am convinced that people choose parochialism, for the most part, not out of disdain or dislike for any particular portion of the world, but because they don't know how to treat non-European theatre within the historiographic approach in which they have been trained and to which they have become accustomed.

This approach began to take shape during the Enlightenment, when it was first argued that human history is the story of the progress of freedom. According to historian Lawrence W. Levine, the historiographic approach associated with this thesis "pictured 'Western Civilization' as the end product of all world history, or at least of the world history that mattered, since entire continents, whole peoples, and complete historical epochs were ignored as if they had not existed" (Levine 2000:21; italics in the original).

Adapting the progressivist thesis to theatre history was easy. The crucial move was to replace the story of "freedom's progress" with its theatrical equivalent, progress toward realism and the spoken word. These variants pointed toward the same kind of modernWestern theatre, thus rendering...


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