- A Queer Sort of Materialism: Recontextualizing American Theater
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In the introduction to his new book A Queer Sort of Materialism: Recontextualizing American Theater, David Savran suggests that his collection of essays ought to be understood not simply as an exercise in contextualizing different periods and products of American theatre, but also, and perhaps more importantly, as a reminder of the politics of (intellectual) pleasure. He therefore asks us to think of his book as a "buffet" that both indulges the tastes of the scholar of American drama as well as testifies to its author's skills in "cook[ing] up many different kinds of dishes" (ix). Indeed, the variety and scope of topics offered for intellectual delectation is impressive. The three entrées consist of an overview of the evolution of middlebrow anxiety on Broadway, a compelling draft of a queer ontology of theatre, and the incisive reminder of the haunting of the modern stage by its repressed Other, history. In addition we find a variety of intriguing appetizers, light sides, and rich desserts: essays on Tony Kushner, Sam Shepard, Jane Bowles, Tennessee Williams, Paula Vogel, and gay Hollywood drama. And yet, Savran's fare does not allow for the hasty sampling of the smorgasbord. His is a cuisine for the gourmet, requiring careful savoring and, above all, a taste for Marxist analysis. For whether Savran examines the high or the low, Kushner's Angels or Paul Rudnick's In and Out, Rent or South Pacific, he remains committed "to defamiliarizing a play, to analyzing its historical location, and to map[ping] the different cultural fields in which it takes positions" (ix). This way, his is also a very Brechtian method: while he cooks up a menu representative of six decades of American theatre, he deliberately recontextualizes the familiar in such a way that we are forced to slow down, to judiciously lean back (perhaps take out our cigars), and curiously examine what exactly it is that is served up. Materialist analysis, so the chef wisely warns us in advance, is "a very queer thing," queer in the literal (OED) sense: "strange, odd, peculiar, eccentric, in appearance or character" (xi).
A Queer Sort of Materialism is divided into two parts. The first section consists of three "Historical Pageants": broad historical assessments of the evolution, function, and potential of American drama. "Middlebrow Anxiety" is the collection's most recent, longest, and most challenging piece. In it, Savran attempts to theorize the American theatre as an exemplary middlebrow art, and moreover, as one that is profoundly riddled by anxiety. Ever since its inception in the 1920s, the cultural category of the middlebrow has been marked by a variety of tensions indicative of the anxieties triggered by the profound cultural and social transformations that accompanied the emergence of consumer culture in the U.S. As a "virulent form of miscegenation," Savran states, the middlebrow "brings together those things (and presumably those persons) that should be kept separate" (8). Consolidated and kept in place by America's postwar arbiters of taste, it articulates [End Page 187] and contains their Cold War fears "of communism, fascism, standardization, 'mass man,' unrestrained sexuality, miscegenation, loose women, 'artistic' men, sexual perverts" (9). Savran then shows how the American theatre has been gradually and persistently established and secured as the quintessential midcult. Beginning with the Little Theatre movement of the teens and '20s, and followed by the artistic and political commitment of the New Deal Theatre, theatre makers have continually attempted to raise the brow level of the American stage. The attainment of middlebrow status was rapidly confirmed in the postwar era by the Pulitzer Prize-winning plays of Williams, Inge, and Rodgers and Hammerstein. In the '60s and '70s, theatre was eventually pushed further and further into the upper middlebrow, prompting the final exodus of working-class audiences to movie houses, TV, and other "more accessible, cheap and exciting forms of entertainment" (22). By now theatre audiences in the U...